Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 3

The Experiment

“I guessed it,” said Theirry under his breath, “when I entered the house.”

“And you?” came Dirk’s voice.

“I— I also.”

There was silence; then Dirk groped his way to the door.

“Come after me,” he whispered. “There is a light downstairs.”

Theirry had no words to answer; his throat was hot, his lips dry with excitement, he felt his temples pulsating and his brow damp.

Cautiously they crept down the stairs and into the workroom, where the lantern cast long pale rays of light across the hot dark.

Dirk set the window as wide as it would go and crouched into the chair under it; his face was flushed, his hair tumbled, his brown clothes dishevelled.

“Tell me about yourself,” he said.

Theirry leant against the wall, for he felt his limbs trembling.

“What do you want to know?” he asked, half desperately; “I can do very little.”

Dirk set his elbows on the table and his chin in his hand; his half-veiled gleaming eyes held Theirry’s fascinated, reluctant gaze.

“I have had no chance to learn,” he whispered. “Master Lukas had some books — not enough —— but what one might do —!”

“I came upon old writings,” said Theirry slowly. “I thought one might be great — that way, so I fled from Courtrai.”

Dirk rose and beckoned.

“I will work a spell to-night. You shall see.”

He took up the lantern and Theirry followed him; they traversed the chamber and entered another; in the centre of that Dirk stopped, and gave the light into the cold hand of his companion.

“Here we shall be secret,” he murmured, and raised, with some difficulty, a trap-door in the floor. Theirry peered into the blackness revealed below.

“Have you done this before?” he asked fearfully.

“This spell? No.”

Dirk was descending the stairs into the dark.

“God will never forgive,” muttered Theirry, hanging back.

“Are you afraid?” asked Dirk wildly.

Theirry set his lips.

“No. No.”

He stepped on to the ladder, and holding the light above his head, followed.

They found themselves in a large vault entirely below the surface of the ground, so that air was attained only from the trap-door that they had left open behind them.

Floor and walls were paved with smooth stones, the air was thick and intolerably hot; the roof only a few inches above Theirry’s head.

In one corner stood a tall dark mirror, resting against the wall; beside it were a pile of books and an iron brazier full of ashes.

Dirk took the lantern from Theirry and hung it to a nail on the wall.

“I have been studying,” he whispered, “how to raise spirits and see into the future — I think I begin to feel my way;” his great eyes suddenly unclosed and flashed over his companion. “Have you the courage?”

“Yes,” said Theirry hoarsely. “For what else have I left my home if not for this?” “It is strange we should have met,” shuddered Dirk.

Their guilty eyes glanced away from each other; Dirk took a piece of white chalk from his pocket and began drawing circles, one within the other on the centre of the floor.

He marked them with strange signs and figures that he drew carefully and exactly.

Theirry stayed by the lantern, his handsome face drawn and pale, his eyes intent on the other’s movements.

The upper part of the vault was in darkness; shadows like a bat’s wings swept either side of the lantern that cast a sickly yellow light on the floor, and the slender figure of Dirk on one knee amid his chalk circles.

When he had completed them he rose, took one of the books from the corner and opened it. “Do you know this?” With a delicate forefinger he beckoned Theirry, who came and read over his shoulder.

“I have tried it. It has never succeeded.”

“To-night it may,” whispered Dirk.

He shook the ashes out of the brazier and filled it with charcoal that he took from a pile near. This he lit and placed before the mirror.

“The future — we must know the future,” he said, as if to himself.

“They will not come,” said Theirry, wiping his damp forehead. “I— heard them once — but they never came.”

“Did you tempt them enough?” breathed Dirk. “If you have Mandrake they will do anything.” “I had none.”

“Nor I— still one can force them against their will — though it is — terrible.”

The thin blue smoke from the charcoal was filling the vault; they felt their heads throbbing, their nostrils dry.

Dirk stepped into the chalk circles holding the book.

In a slow, unsteady voice he commenced to read.

As Theirry caught the words of the blasphemous and horrible invocation he shook and shuddered, biting his tongue to keep back the instinctive prayer that rose to his lips.

But Dirk gained courage as he read; he drew himself erect; his eyes flashed, his cheeks burnt crimson; the smoke had cleared from the brazier, the charcoal glowed red and clear; the air grew hotter; it seemed as if a cloak of lead had been flung over their heads.

At last Dirk stopped.

“Put out the lantern,” he muttered.

Theirry opened it and stifled the flame.

There was now only the light of the burning charcoal that threw a ghastly hue over the dark surface of the mirror.

Theirry drew a long sighing breath; Dirk, swaying on his feet, began speaking again in a strange and heavy tongue.

Then he was silent.

Faint muttering noises grew out of the darkness, indistinct sounds of howling, sobbing. “They come,” breathed Theirry.

Dirk repeated the invocation.

The air shuddered with moanings.

“A— ah!” cried Dirk.

Into the dim glow of the brazier a creature was crawling, the size of a dog, the shape of a man, of a hideous colour of mottled black; it made a wretched crying noise, and moved slowly as if in pain.

Theirry gave a great sob, and pressed his face against the wall.

But Dirk snarled at it across the dark.

“So you have come. Show us the future. I have the power over you. You know that.”

The thin flames leapt suddenly high, a sound of broken wailings came through the air; something ran round the brazier; the surface of the mirror was troubled as if dark water ran over it; then suddenly was flashed on it a faint yet bright image of a woman, crowned, and with yellow hair; as she faded, a semblance of one wearing a tiara appeared but blurred and faint. “More,” cried Dirk passionately. “Show us more —”

The mirror brightened, revealing depths of cloudy sky; against them rose the dark line of a gallows tree.

Theirry stepped forward.

“Ah, God!” he shrieked, and crossed himself. With a sharp sound the mirror cracked and fell asunder; a howl of terror arose, and dark shapes leapt into the air to be absorbed in it and disappear.

Dirk staggered out of the circle and caught hold of Theirry.

“You have broken the spell!” he gibbered. “You have broken the spell!”

An icy stillness had suddenly fallen; the brazier flickered rapidly out, and even the coals were soon black and dead; the two stood in absolute darkness.

“They have gone!” whispered Theirry; he wrenched himself free from Dirk’s clutch and fumbled his way to the ladder.

Finding this by reason of the faint patch of light overhead, he climbed up through the trapdoor, his body heaving with long-drawn breaths.

Dirk, light-footed and lithe, followed him, and dropped the flap.

“The charm was not strong enough,” he said through his teeth. “And you —”

Theirry broke in.

“I could not help myself — I— I— saw them.”

He sank on a chair by the open window and dropped his brow into his hand.

The room was full of a soft starlight, far away and infinitely sweet; the vines and grasses made a quivering sound in the night wind and tapped against the lattice.

Dirk moved into the workshop and came back with the candle and a great green glass of wine. He held up the light so that he could see the scholar’s beautiful agonised face, and with his other hand gave him the goblet.

Theirry looked up and drank silently.

When he had finished, the colour was back in his cheeks.

Dirk took the glass from him and set it beside the candle on the window-sill.

“What did you see — in the mirror?” he asked.

“I do not know,” answered Theirry wildly. “A woman’s face —”

“Ay,” broke in Dirk. “Now, what was she to us? And a figure like — the Pope?”

He smiled derisively.

“I saw that,” said Theirry. “But what should they do with holy things? — and then I saw —” Dirk swung round on him; each white despite the candle-light.

“Nay — there, was no more after that!”

“There was,” insisted Theirry. “A stormy sky and a gallows tree —” His voice fell hollowly. Dirk strode across the room into the trailing shadows.

“The foul little imps!” he said passionately. “They deceived us!”

Theirry rose in his place.

“Will you continue these studies?” he questioned.

The other gave him a quick look over his shoulder.

“Do you think of turning aside?”

“Nay, nay,” answered Theirry. “But one may keep knowledge this side of things blasphemous and unholy.”

Dirk laughed hoarsely.

“I have no fear of God!” he said in a thick voice. “But you — you are afraid of Sathanas. Well, go your way. Each man to his master. Mine will give me many things — look to it yours does the like by you —”

He opened the door, and was leaving, when Theirry came after him and caught him by the robe.

“Listen to me. I am not afraid. Nay, why did I leave Courtrai?”

With resolute starry eyes Dirk gazed up at Theirry (who was near a head taller), and his proud mouth curled a little.

“I may not disregard the fate that sent me here,” continued Theirry. “Will you come with me? I can be loyal.”

His words were earnest, his face eager; still Dirk vas mute.

“I have hated men, not loved them, all my life — most wonderfully am I drawn to thee —” “Oh!” cried Dirk, and gave a little quivering laugh.

“Together might we do much, and it is ill work studying alone.”

The younger man put out his hand.

“If I come, will you swear a pact with me of friendship?”

“We will be as brothers,” said Theirry gravely. “Sharing good and ill.”

“Keeping our secret?” whispered Dirk —“allowing none to come between us?”

“Yea.”

“You are a-tune to me,” said Dirk. “So be it. I will come with you to Basle.”

He raised his strange face; in the hollowed eyes, in the full colourless lips, were a resolution and a strength that held and commanded the other.

“We may be great,” he said.

Theirry took his hand; the red candle-light was being subdued and vanquished by a glimmering grey that overspread the stars; the dawn was peering in at the window.

“Can you sleep?” asked Theirry.

Dirk withdrew his hand.

“At least I can feign it — Balthasar must not guess — get you to bed — never forget to-night and what you swore.”

With a soft gliding step he gained the door, opened it noiselessly, and departed.

Theirry stood for a while, listening to the slight sound of the retreating footfall, then he pressed his hands to his forehead and turned to the window.

A pale pure flush of saffron stained the sky above the roof-line; there were no clouds, and the breeze had dropped again.

In the vast and awful stillness, Theirry, feeling marked, set apart and defiled with blasphemy, yet elated also, in a wild and wicked manner, tiptoed up to his chamber.

Each creaking board he stepped on, each shadow that seemed to change as he passed it, caused his blood to tingle guiltily; when he had gained his room he bolted the door and flung himself along his tumbled couch, holding his fingers to his lips, and with strained eyes gazing at the window. So he lay through long hours of sunshine in a half-swoon of sleep.

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