Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 22

Blaise

Ambrose of Menthon and his meek and humble follower rested at Châlons, on their way to Paris.

For many weeks they had begged from door to door, sleeping in some hermit’s cell or by the roadside when the severity of the bitter nights permitted, occasionally finding shelter in a wayside convent.

So patient, so courageous before hardship, so truly sad and remorseful, so grateful for the distant chance of ultimate pardon was Dirk, that the saint grew to love the penitent vagabond.

No one eager to look for it could have found any fault with his behaviour; he was gentle as a girl, obedient as a servant, rigid in his prayers (and he had a strangely complete knowledge of the offices and penances of the Church), silent and sorrowful often, taking no pleasure in anything save the saint’s talk of Paradise and holy things.

Particularly he loved to hear of the dead youth Blaise, of his saintly life, of his desire to join the stern Brotherhood of the Sacred Heart, in Paris, of his fame as one beloved of God, of the convent’s wish to receive him, of his great learning, of his beautiful death in the snowy evening.

To all this Dirk listened with still attention, and from Saint Ambrose’s rapt and loving recital he gathered little earthly details of the subject of their speech.

Such as that he was from Flanders, of a noble family, that his immediate relatives were dead, that his years were no more than twenty, and that he was dark and pale.

For himself Dirk had little to say; he described simply his shame and remorse after he had stolen the holy gold, his gradual sickening of his companions, the long torture of his awakening soul, his attempts to find the saint, and how, finally, after he had resolved to flee his evil life and enter a convent, he had run out of Frankfort, found a boat waiting — and so drifted to Saint Ambrose’s feet.

The saint, rejoicing in his penitence, suggested that he should enter the convent whither they journeyed with the tidings of the holy youth’s death, and Dirk consented with humble gratitude. And so they passed through Châlons, and rested in a deserted hut overlooking the waters of the Maine.

Having finished their scanty meal they were seated together under the rough shelter; the luxury of a fire was denied their austerity; a cold wind blew in and out of the ill-built doors, and a colourless light filled the mean bare place. Dirk sat on a broken stool, reading aloud the writings of Saint Jerome.

He wore a coarse brown robe, very different from his usual attire, fastened round the waist with a rope into which was twisted a wooden rosary; his feet were encased in rude leather boots, his hands reddened with the cold, his face hollow and of a bluish pallor in which his eyes shone feverishly large and dark.

His smooth hair hung on to his shoulders; he stooped, in contrast with his usual erect carriage. Pausing on his low and gentle reading he looked across at the saint.

Ambrose of Menthon sat on a rough-hewn bench against the rougher wall; weariness, exposure, and sheer weakness of body had done their work at last; Dirk knew that for three nights he had not slept . . . he was asleep now or had swooned; his fair head fell forward on his breast, his hands hung by his side.

As Dunk became assured that his companion was unconscious, he slowly rose and set down the holy volume. He was himself half starved, cold to the heart and shuddering; he looked round the plaster walls and the meek expression of his face changed to one of scorn, derision and wicked disdain; he darted a bitter glance at the wan man, and crept towards the door.

Opening it softly, he gazed out; the scene was fair and lonely — the distant tourelles of Châlons rose clear and pointed against the winter clouds; near by the grey river flowed between its high banks, where the bare willows grew and the snow-wreaths still lay.

Dunk took shivering steps into the open and turned towards the Maine; the keen wind penetrated his poor garments and lifted the heavy hair from his thin cheeks; he beat his breast, chafed his hands and walked rapidly.

Reaching the bank he looked up and down the river; there was no one in sight, neither boat nor animal nor house to break the monotony of land, sky and water, only those distant towers of the town.

Dirk walked among the twisted willows, then came to a pause.

A little ahead of him were a black man and a black dog, both seated on the bank and gazing towards Chálons.

The youth came a little nearer.

“Good even,” he said. “It is very cold.”

The Blackamoor looked round.

“Are you pleased with the way you travel?” he asked, nodding his head. “And your companion?”

Dunk’s face lowered.

“How much longer am I to endure it?”

“You must have patience,” said the black man, “and endurance.”

“I have both,” answered Dirk. “Look at my hands — they are no longer soft, but red and hard; my feet are galled and wounded in rough boots — I must walk till I am sick, then pray instead of sleeping; I see no fire, and scarcely do I touch food.”

The hell-hound stirred and whined among the osiers, the jewels in the Blackamoor’s collar flashed richly, though there was no light to strike them.

“You will be rewarded,” he said, “and revenged too — o — ho — o! it is very cold, as you say, very cold.”

“What must I do?” asked Dirk.

The black man rubbed his hands together.

“You know — you know.”

Dirk’s pinched wan face grew intent, and eager.

“Am I to use . . . this?” He touched the breast of his rough habit.

“Yea.”

“Then shall I be left defenceless.” Dirk’s voice shook a little. “If anything should happen — I would not, I could not — oh, Sathanas! — I could not be revealed!”

The Blackamoor rose from among the willows.

“Do you trust yourself and me?” he asked.

Dirk put his thin hand over his eyes.

“Yea, master.”

“Then you know what to do. You will not see me for many years — when you have triumphed I shall come.”

He turned swiftly and ran down the bank, the hound at his heels; one after another they leaped into the waters of the Maine and disappeared with an inner sound.

Dunk straightened himself and set his lips. He reentered the hut to find Ambrose of Menthon still against the wall, now indeed wearily asleep; Dirk came softly forward; slowly and cautiously he put his hand into his bosom and drew out a small green-coloured phial.

With his eyes keenly on the saint he broke the seal, then crept close.

By Saint Ambrose’s side hung his rosary, every bead smooth with the constant pressure of his lips; Dunk raised the heavy crucifix attached, and poured on to it the precious drop contained in the phial.

Saint Ambrose did not wake nor move; Dunk drew away and crouched against the wall, cursing the bitter wind with fierce eyes . . .

When the saint awoke, Dirk was on the broken stool reading aloud the writings of Saint Jerome.

“Is it still light?” asked Ambrose of Menthon amazedly.

“It is the dawn,” answered Dunk.

“And I have slept the night through.” The saint dragged his stiff limbs from the seat and fell on his knees in a misery of prayer.

Dunk closed the book and watched him; watched his long fingers twining in the beads of his rosary, watched him kiss the crucifix, again and again; then he, too, knelt, his face hidden in his hands.

He was the first to rise.

“Master, shall we press on to Paris?” he asked humbly.

The saint lifted dazed eyes from his devotions.

“Yea,” he said. “Yea.”

Dunk began putting together in a bundle their few books, and the wooden platter in which they collected their broken food; this being their all.

“I dreamt last night of Paradise,” said Saint Ambrose faintly, “the floor was so thick-strewn with close little flowers, red, white, and purple . . . and it was warm as Italy in May . . . ” Dunk swung the bundle on to his shoulder and opened the door of the hut.

“There is no sun today,” he remarked.

“How long it is since we have seen the sun!” said Saint Ambrose wistfully.

They passed out into the dreary landscape and took their slow way along the banks of the Maine.

Until midday they did not pause, scarcely spoke; then they passed through a little village, and the charitable gave them food.

That night they slept in the open, under shelter of a hedge, and Ambrose of Menthon complained of weakness; Dunk, waking in the dark, heard him praying . . . heard, too, the rattle of the wooden rosary.

When the light came and they once more recommenced their journey the saint was so feeble he was fain to lean on Dunk’s shoulder.

“I think I am dying,” he said; his face was flushed, his eyes burning, he smiled continuously. “Let me reach Paris,” he added, “that I may tell the Brethren of Blaise . . . ”

The youth supporting him wept bitterly.

Towards noon they met a woodman’s cart that helped them on their way; that night they spent in the stable of an inn; the next day they descended into the valley of the Seine, and by the evening reached the gates of Paris.

As the bells over all the beautiful city were ringing to vespers they arrived at their destination, an old and magnificent convent surrounded with great gardens set near the river bank.

The winter sky had broken at last, and wreathed and motionless clouds curled back from a clear expanse of gold and scarlet, against which the houses, churches and palaces rose from out the blue mist of evening.

The straight roof of the convent, the little tower with its slow-moving bell, the bare bent fruit trees, the beds of herbs, sweet-smelling even now, the red lamp glowing in the dark doorway, showed themselves to Dirk as he entered the gate — he looked at them all intently, and bitter distant memories darkened his hollow face.

The monks were singing the Magnificat; their thin voices came clearly on the frosty air.

“Fecit potentiam in brachio suo: dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.”

Ambrose of Menthon took his feeble hand from Dunk’s arm and sank on his knees.

“Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.”

But Dirk’s pale lips curled, and as he gazed at the sunset flaming beyond the convent walls, there was a haughty challenge in his brooding eyes.

“Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit manes.

Suscepit Israel puerum suum, recordatus misercordiae suae.”

The saint murmured the chanted words and clasped his hands on his breast, while the sky brightened vividly above the wide waters of the Seine.

“Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.”

The chant faded away on the still evening, but the saint remained kneeling.

“Master,” whispered Dirk, “shall we not go in to them?”

Ambrose of Menthon raised his fair face.

“I am dying,” he smiled. “A keen flame licks up my blood and burns my heart to ashes —’ Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus. ‘” His voice failed, he sank forward and his head fell against the grey beds of rue and fennel.

“Alas! alas!” cried Dirk; he made no attempt to bring assistance nor called aloud, but stood still, gazing with intent eyes at the unconscious man.

But when the monks came out of the chapel and turned two by two towards the convent, Dirk pulled off his worn cap.

“Divinum auxilium maneat semper nobiscum.”

“Amen,” said Dirk, then he ran lightly forward and flung himself before the procession. “My father!” he cried, with a sob in his voice.

The priests stopped, the “amens” still trembling on their lips.

“Ambrose of Menthon lies within your gates a dying man,” said Dirk meekly and sadly.

With little exclamations of awe and grief the grey-clad figures followed him to where the saint lay.

“Ah me!” murmured Dirk. “The way has been so long, so rough, so cold.”

Reverently they raised Saint Ambrose.

“He has done with his body,” said an old monk, holding up the dying man.

The flushed sky faded behind them; the saint stirred and half opened his eyes.

“Blaise,” he whispered. “Blaise”— he tried to point to Dirk who knelt at his feet —“he will tell you.” His eyes closed again, he strove to pray; the “De profundis” trembled on his lips, he made a sudden upward gesture with his hands, smiled and died.

For a while there was silence among them, broken only by a short sob from Dunk, then the monks turned to the ragged, emaciated youth who crouched at the dead feet.

“Blaise, he said,” one murmured, “it is the holy youth.”

Dirk roused himself as from a silent prayer, made the sign of the cross and rose.

“Who art thou?” they asked reverently.

Dunk raised a tear-stained, weary face.

“The youth Blaise, my fathers,” he answered humbly.

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