Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 1

Cardinal Luigi Caprarola

The evening service in the Basilica of St. Peter was over; pilgrims, peasants and monks had departed; the last chant of the officiating Cardinal’s train still trembled on the incense-filled air and the slim novices were putting out the lights, when a man, richly and fantastically dressed, entered the bronze doors and advanced a little way down the centre aisle.

He bent his head to the altar, then paused and looked about him with the air of a stranger. He was well used to magnificence, but this first sight of the chapel of the Vatican caused him to catch his breath. Surrounding him were near a hundred pillars, each of a different marble and carving; they supported a roof that glittered with the manifold colours of mosaic; the rich walls were broken by numerous chapels, from which issued soft gleams of purple and violet light; mysterious shrines of porphyry and cipolin, jasper and silver showed here and there be-hind red lamps. A steady glow of candles shone on a mosaic and silver arch, beyond which the high altar sparkled like one great jewel; the gold lamps on it were still alight, and it was heaped with white lilies, whose strong perfume was noticeable even through the incense.

To one side of the high altar stood a purple chair, and a purple footstool, the seat of the Cardinal, some-times of the Pontiff. This splendid and holy beauty abashed, yet inspired the stranger; he leant against one of the smooth columns and gazed at the altar.

The five aisles were crossed by various shafts of delicate trembling light that only half dispersed the lovely gloom; some of the columns were slender, some massive — the spoils from ancient palaces and temples, no two of them were alike; those in the distance took on a sea-green hue, luminous and exquisite; one or two were of deep rose red, others black or dark green, others again pure ghostly white, and all alike enveloped in soft shadows and quivering lights, violet, blue and red.

The novices were putting out the candles and preparing to close the church; their swift feet made no sound; silently the little stars about the high altar disappeared and deeper shadows fell over the aisles.

The stranger watched the white figures moving to and fro until no light remained, save the purple and scarlet lamps that cast rich rays over the gold and stained the pure lilies into colour, then he left his place and went slowly towards the door.

Already the bronze gates had been closed; only the entrance to the Vatican and one leading into a side street remained open.

Several monks issued from the chapels and left by this last; the stranger still lingered.

Down from the altar came the two novices, prostrated themselves, then proceeded along the body of the church.

They extinguished the candles in the candelabra set down the aisles, and a bejewelled darkness fell on the Basilica.

The stranger stood under a malachite and platinum shrine that blinded with the glimmer and sparkle of golden mosaic; before it burnt graduated tapers; one of the novices came towards it, and the man waiting there moved towards him.

“Sir,” he said in a low voice, “may I speak to you?”

He spoke in Latin, with the accent of a scholar, and his tone was deep and pleasant.

The novice paused and looked at him, gazed intently and beheld a very splendid person, a man in the prime of life, tall above the ordinary, and, above the ordinary, gorgeous to the eyes; his face was sunburnt to a hue nearly as dark as his light bronze hair, and his Western eyes showed clearly bright and pale in contrast; in his ears hung long pearl and gold ornaments that touched his shoulders: his dress was half Eastern, of fine violet silk and embroidered leather; he carried in his belt a curved scimitar inset with turkis, by his side a short gold sword, and against his hip he held a purple cap ornamented with a plume of peacocks’ feathers, and wore long gloves fretted in the palm with the use of rein and sword.

But more than these details did the stranger’s face strike the novice; a face almost as perfect as the masks of the gods found in the temples; the rounded and curved features were over-full for a man, and the expression was too indifferent, troubled, almost weak, to be attractive, but taken in itself the face was noticeably beautiful.

Noting the novice’s intent gaze, a flush crept into the man’s dark cheek.

“I am a stranger,” he said. “I want to ask you of Cardinal Caprarola. He officiated here to — day?”

“Yea,” answered the novice. “What can I tell you of him? He is the greatest man in Rome —— now his Holiness is dying,” he added.

“Why, I have heard of him — even in Constantinople. I think I saw him — many years ago, before I went to the East.”

The novice began to extinguish the candles round the shrine.

“It may be, sir,” he said. “His Eminence was a poor youth as I might be; he came from Flanders.”

“It was in Courtrai I thought I saw him.”

“I know not if he was ever there; he became a disciple of Saint Ambrose of Menthon when very young, and after the saint’s death he joined the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Paris — you have heard that, sir?”

The stranger lowered his magnificent eyes.

“I have heard nothing — I have been away — many years; this man, Cardinal Caprarola — he is a saint also — is he not? . . . tell me more of him.”

The youth paused in his task, leaving half the candles alight to cast a trembling glow over the man’s gold and purple splendour; he smiled.

“Born of Dendermonde he was, sir, Louis his name, in our tongue Luigi, Blaise the name he took in the convent — he came to Rome, seven, nay, it must be eight years ago. His Holiness created him Bishop of Ostia, then of Caprarola, which last name he retains now he is Cardinal —— he is the greatest man in Rome,” repeated the novice.

“And a saint?” asked the other with a wistful eagerness.

“Certes, when he was a youth he was famous for his holy austere life, now he lives in magnificence as befits a prince of the Church . . . he is very holy.”

The novice put out the remaining candles, leaving only the flickering red lamp.

“There was a great service here today?” the stranger asked.

“Yea, very many pilgrims were here.”

“I grieve that I was too late — think you Cardinal Caprarola would see one unknown to him?” “If the errand warranted it, sir.”

From the rich shadows came a sigh.

“I seek peace — if it be anywhere it is in the hands of this servant of God — my soul is sick, will he help me heal it?”

“Yea, I do think so.”

The youth turned, as he spoke, towards the little side door.

“I must close the Basilica, sir,” he added.

The stranger seemed to rouse himself from depths of unhappy thoughts, and followed through the quivering gloom.

“Where should I find the Cardinal?” he asked.

“His palace lies in the Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, any will tell you the way, sir.” The novice opened the door. “God be with you.”

“And with you;” the stranger stepped into the open and the church door was locked behind him.

The purple after-glow still lingered over Rome; it was May and sweetly warm; as the stranger crossed the Piazza of St. Peter the breeze was like the touch of silk on his face; he walked slowly and presently hesitated, looking round the ruined temples, broken palaces and walls; there were people about, not many, mostly monks; the man glanced back at the Vatican, where the lights had begun to sparkle in the windows, then made his way, as rapidly as his scant knowledge served, across the superb and despoiled city.

He reached the Via Sacra; it was filled with a gay and splendid crowd, in chariots, on foot, and on horse, that mingled unheeding with the long processions of penitents winding in and out the throng, both here and in the Appian Way. He turned towards the Arch of Titus; the ladies laughed and stared as he passed; one took a flower from her hair and threw it after him, at which he frowned, blushed, and hastened on; he had never been equal to the admiration he roused in women, though he disliked neither them nor their admiration; he carried still on his wrist the mark of a knife left there by a Byzantine Princess who had found his face fair and his wooing cold; the laughter of the Roman ladies gave him the same feeling of hot inadequacy as when he felt that angry stab.

Passing the fountain of Meta Sudans and the remains of the Flavian Amphitheatre, he gained the Via di San Giovanni in Laterano leading to the Cælimontana Gate.

Here he drew a little apart from the crowd and looked about him; in the distance the Vatican and Castel San Angelo showed faintly against the remote Apennines; he could distinguish the banner of the Emperor hanging slackly in the warm air, the little lights in St. Peter’s.

Behind him rose the Janiculum Hill set with magnificent palaces and immense gardens, beneath the city lay dark in the twilight, and the trees rising from the silent temples made a fair murmur as they shook in their tipper branches.

The stranger sighed and stepped again into the crowd, composed now of all ranks and all nationalities; he touched a young German on the shoulder.

“Which is Cardinal Caprarola’s palace?”

“Sir, the first.” He pointed to a gorgeous building on the slope of the hill.

The stranger caught a glimpse of marble porticoes half obscured by soft foliage.

With a “Thank you” he turned in the direction of the Palatine.

A few moments brought him to the magnificent gates of the Villa Caprarola; they stood open upon a garden of flowers just gleamingly visible in the dusk; the stranger hesitated in the entrance, fixing his gaze on the luminous white walls of the palace that showed between the boughs of citron and cypress.

This Cardinal, this Prince, who was the greatest man in Rome, which was to say in Christendom, had strangely captured his imagination; he liked to think of him as an obscure and saintly youth devoting his life to the service of God, rising by no arts or intrigues but by the pure will of his Master solely until he dominated the great Empire of the West; the stranger now at his beautiful gates had been searching for peace for many years, in many lands, and always in vain.

In Constantinople he had heard of the holy Frankish priest who was already a greater power than the old and slowly dying Pope, and it had comforted his tired heart to think that there was one man in a high place set there by God alone — one, too, of a pure life and a noble soul; if any could give him promise of salvation, if any could help him to redeem his wasted, weak life, it would be he — this Cardinal who could not know evil save as a name.

With this object he came to Rome; he wished to lay his sins and penitence at the feet of him who had been a meek and poor novice, and now by his virtues was Luigi Caprarola as mighty as the Emperor and as innocent as the angels.

Shame and awe for a while held him irresolute, how could he dare relate his miserable and horrible story to this saint? . . . but God had bidden him, and the holy were always the merciful.

He walked slowly between the dim flowers and bushes to the stately columned portico; with a thickly beating heart and a humble carriage he mounted the low wide steps and stood at the Cardinal’s door, which stood open on a marble vestibule dimly lit with a soft roseate violet colour; the sound of a fountain came to his ears, and pungent aromas mingled with the perfume of the blossoms.

Two huge negroes, wearing silver collars and tiger-skins, were on guard at each column of the door, and as the new-comer set foot within the portals one of them struck the silver bell attached to his wrist.

Instantly appeared a slim and gorgeous youth, habited in black, a purple flower fastened at his throat.

The stranger took off his cap.

“This is the residence of his Eminence, Cardinal Caprarola?” he asked, and the hint of hesitation always in his manner was accentuated.

“Yea,” the youth bowed gracefully; “I am his Eminence’s secretary, Messer Paolo Orsini.” “I do desire to see the Cardinal.”

The young Roman’s dark eyes flashed over the person of the speaker.

“What is your purpose, sir?”

“One neither political nor worldly;” he paused, flushed, then added, “I would confess to his Eminence; I have come from Constantinople for that — for that alone.”

Paolo Orsini answered courteously.

“The Cardinal hears confession in the Basilica.”

“Certes, I know, yet I would crave to see him privately, I have matters relating to my soul to put before him, surely he will not refuse me.” The stranger’s voice was unequal, his bearing troubled, as the secretary curiously observed; penitents anxious for their souls did not often trouble the Cardinal, but Orsini’s aristocratic manner showed no surprise.

“His Eminence,” he said, “is ever loath to refuse himself to the faithful; I will ask him if he will give you audience; what, sir, is your quality and your name?”

“I am unknown here,” answered the other humbly; “lately have I come from Constantinople, where I held an office at the court of Basil, but by birth I am a Frank, of the Cardinal’s own country.”

“Sir, your name?” repeated the elegant secretary.

The stranger’s beautiful face clouded.

“I have been known by many . . . but let his Eminence have the truth — I am Theirry, born of Dendermonde.”

Paolo Orsini bowed again.

“I will acquaint the Cardinal,” he said. “Will you await me here?”

He was gone as swiftly and silently as he had come; Theirry put his hand to a hot brow and gazed about him.

The vestibule was composed of Numidian marble toned by time to a deep orange hue; the capitals of the Byzantine columns were encrusted with gold and supported a ceiling that glittered with violet glass mosaic; gilt lamps, screened with purple or crimson silk, cast a coloured glow down the sloping walls; a double staircase sprang from the serpentine and malachite floor, and where the gold hand-rails ended a silver lion stood on a cipolin pillar, holding between his paws a dish on which burnt aromatic incense; in the space between the staircases was an alabaster fountain — the basin, raised on the backs of other silver lions, and filled with iridescent sea shells, over which the water splashed and fell, changed by the lamplight to a glimmering rose purple.

Either side the fountain were placed great bronze bowls of roses, pink and white, and their petals were scattered over the marble pavement. Against the walls ran low seats, cushioned with dark rich tapestries, and above them, at intervals, marvellous antique statues showed white in deep niches.

Theirry had seen nothing more lavishly splendid; Cardinal Caprarola was no ascetic whatever the youth Blaise may have been, and for a moment Theirry was bewildered and disappointed —— could a saint live thus?

Then he reflected; good it was to consider that God, and not the Devil, who so often used beauty and wealth for his lures, had given a man this.

He walked up and down, none to watch him but the four silent and motionless negroes; the exquisite lights, the melody of the fountain, the sweet odours that rose from the slow-curling blue vapours, the gorgeous surroundings, lulled and soothed; he felt that at last, after his changeful wanderings, his restless unhappiness, he had found his goal and his haven.

In this man’s hands was redemption, this man was housed as befitted an Ambassador of the Lord of Heaven.

Paolo Orsini, in person as rare and splendid as the palace, returned.

“The Cardinal will receive you, sir,” he said; if the message astonished him he did not show it; he bowed before Theirry, and preceded him up the magnificent stairs.

The first landing was entirely hung with scarlet embroidery worked with peacocks’ feathers, and lit by pendent crystal lamps; at either end a silver archway led into a chamber.

The secretary, slim and black against the vivid colours, turned to the left; Theirry followed him into a long hall illuminated by bronze statues placed at intervals and holding scented flambeaux; between them were set huge porphyry bowls containing orange trees and oleanders; the walls and ceiling were of rose-hued marble inlaid with basalt, the floor of a rich mosaic.

Theirry caught his breath; the Cardinal must possess the fabled wealth of India . . .

Paolo Orsini opened a gilt door and held it wide while Theirry entered, then he bowed himself away, saying —

“His Eminence will be with you presently.”

Theirry found himself in a fair-sized chamber, walls, floor and ceiling composed of ebony and mother-of-pearl.

Door and window were curtained by hangings of pale colours, on which were stitched in glittering silks stories from Ovid.

In the centre of the floor was a Persian carpet of a faint hue of mauve and pink; three jasper and silver lamps hung by silken cords from the ceiling and gave the pale glow of moonlight; an ivory chair and table raised on an ebony step stood in one corner; on the table was a sand clock, a blood-red glass filled with lilies and a gold book with lumps of turkis set in the covers; on the chair was a purple velvet cushion.

Opposite this hung a crucifix, a scarlet light burning beneath it; to this, the first holy thing Theirry had seen in the palace, he bent the knee.

Incense burnt in a gold brazier, the rich scent of it growing almost insupportable in the close confined space.

A silver footstool and a low ebony chair completed the furniture; against the wall facing the door was a gilt and painted shrine, of which the glittering wings were closed, but Theirry, turning from the crucifix, bent his head to that.

A great excitement crept into his blood, he could not feel that he was in a holy or sacred place, awaiting the coming of the saint who was to ease the burden of his sin, yet what but this feeling of relief, of righteous joy should be heating his blood now . . .

The dim blue light, the strong perfumes were confusing to the senses; his pulses throbbed, his heart leapt; it did not seem as if he could speak to the Cardinal . . . then it seemed as if he could tell him everything and leave — absolved.

Yet — and yet — what was there in the place reviving memories that had been thrust deep into his heart for years . . . a certain room in an old house in Antwerp with the August sunlight over the figure of a young man gilding a devil . . . a chamber in the college at Basle and two youths bending over a witch’s fire . . . a dark wet night, and the sound of a weak voice coming to him . . . Frankfort and a garden blazing with crimson roses, other scenes, crowded, horrible . . . why did he think of them here . . . in this remote land, among strangers . . . here where he had come to purge his soul?

He began to murmur a prayer; giddiness touched him, and the blue light seemed to ripple and dim before his eyes.

He walked up and down the soft carpet clasping his hands.

All at once he paused and turned.

There was a shiver of silks, and the Cardinal stepped into the chamber.

Theirry sank on his knees and bowed his throbbing head.

The Cardinal slowly closed the door; a low rumble of thunder sounded; a great storm was gathering over the Tyrrhenian Sea.

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