Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 4

The Dancer in Orange

Theirry walked slowly through the gorgeous ruins of Imperial Rome; it was something after noon and glowingly hot; the Tiber curled in and about the stone houses and broken palaces like a bronze and golden serpent, so smooth and glittering it was.

He followed the river until it wound round the base of Mount Aventine; and there he paused and looked up at the Emperor’s palace, set splendidly on the hill.

Above the dazzling marble floated the German standard, vivid against the vivid sky, and Frankish guards were gathered thick about the magnificent portals.

The noble summit of Soracté dominated the distance and the city; over the far-off Campagna quivered a dancing vapour of heat; the little boats on the Tiber rested lazily in their clear reflections, and their coloured sails drooped languidly.

Theirry marked with a vacant gaze the few passersby; the mongrel crowd of Rome — Slav, Frank, Jew or Greek, with here and there a Roman noble in a chariot, or a German knight on horseback.

He was not considering them, but Cardinal Caprarola.

Several days now he had been in the city, but there had come no message from the Cardinal; a dozen times he had gone over every word, every little incident of his strange interview in the palace on the Palatine with a wild desire to assure himself of its truth; had he not been promised the Imperial crown? — impossible that seemed, yet no more impossible than that Dirk Renswoude should have become a Prince of the Church and the greatest man in Rome.

He could not think of those two as the same; different forms of the same devil, but not actually the same man, the same flesh and blood . . . black magic! . . . it was a terrible thing and a wonderful; if he had served the fiend better what might it not have done for him, what might not it still do? Neither could he understand Dirk’s affection or tenderness; even after the betrayal his one-time comrade was faithful to those long-ago vows..

He looked at the Golden Palace on the Aventine — Emperor of the West!

Balthasar reigned there now . . . well, why not he? . . . with the Devil as an ally . . . and there was no God.

His beautiful face grew sombre with thought; he walked thoughtfully round the base of the hill, remarked by those coming and going from the palace for his splendid appearance and rich Eastern dress.

A little Byzantine chariot, gilt, with azure curtains and drawn by a white horse, came towards him; the occupant was a lady in a green dress; the grooms ran either side the horse’s head to assist it up the hill; the chariot passed Theirry at a walking pace.

The lady was unveiled, and the sun was full on her face.

It was Jacobea of Martzburg.

She did not see him; her car continued its slow way towards the palace, and Theirry stood staring after it.

He had last seen her ten years, and more, ago, in her steward’s arms in the courtyard of Castle Martzburg; beyond them Sebastian’s wife . . .

He wondered if she had married the steward, and smiled to think that he had once considered her a saint; ten years ago, and he had not yet learnt his lesson; many men had he met and none holy, many women and none saintly, and yet he had been fool enough to come to Rome because he believed God was triumphant in the person of Luigi Caprarola . . .

A fool’s reward had been his; Heaven’s envoy had proved the Devil incarnate, and he had been mocked with the sight of the woman for whose sake he had made pitiful attempts to be cleansouled; the woman who had, for another man’s love, defied the angels and taken her fate into her own hands.

For another man’s sake! — this the bitterest thought of all bitter thoughts yet — and yet — he did not know if he had ever loved her, or only the sweet purity she was a false symbol of — he was sure of nothing. This way and that his mind went, ever hesitating, ever restless — his heart was ready as water to take the colour of what passed it, and his soul was as a straw before the breath of good and evil.

The sound of cymbals and laughter roused him from his agitated thoughts.

He looked along the road that wound by the Tiber and saw a little crowd approaching, evidently following a troupe of jugglers or mountebanks.

As they came nearer to where he loitered, Theirry, ever easily attracted by any passing excitement or attraction, could not choose but give them a half-sullen attention.

The centre of the group was a girl in an orange gown, they who followed her the mere usual citizens of Rome, some courtiers of the Emperor’s, soldiers, merchants’ clerks, and the rabble of children, lazy mongrel foreigners and Franks.

The dancer stopped and spread a scarlet carpet on the roadway; the crowd gathered about it in a circle, and Theirry drew up with the rest, interested by what interested them — the two facts, namely, that marked the girl as different from her kind.

Firstly, she affected the unusual modesty or coquetry of a black mask that completely covered her face, and, secondly, she was attended only by an enormous and hideous ape.

She wore a short robe in the antique style, girdled under her bosom, and fastened on her shoulders with clasps of gold; gilt sandals, closely laced, concealed her feet and ankles; round her bust and arms was twisted a gauze scarf of the same hue as her gown, a deep, bright orange, and her hair, which was a dark red gold, was gathered on the top of her head in a cluster of curls, and bound with a violet fillet.

Although the mask concealed her charms of face, it was obvious that she was young, and probably Greek; her figure was tall, full, and splendidly graceful; she held a pair of brass cymbals and struck them with a stormy joyousness above her proud head.

The ape, wearing a collar of bright red stones and a long blue jacket trimmed with spangles, curled himself on the corner of the carpet and went to sleep.

The girl began dancing; she had no music save her cymbals, and needed none.

Her movements were quick, passionate, triumphant; she clashed the brass high in the air and leapt to meet the fierce sound; her gold-shod feet twinkled like jewels, the clinging skirt showed the beautiful lines of her limbs, and the gauze floating back revealed her fair white arms and shoulders. Suddenly she lowered the cymbals, struck them together before her breast, and looked from right to left. Theirry caught the gleam of her dark eyes through the holes in her mask.

For a while she crouched together, panting, then drew herself erect, and let her hands fall apart. The burning sun shone in her hair, in the metal hems of her robe, in her sandals, and changed the cymbals into discs of fire.

She began to sing; her voice was deep and glorious, though muffled by the mask.

Slowly she moved round the red carpet, and the words of her song fell clearly on the hot air.

“If Love were all!

His perfect servant I would be.

Kissing where his foot might fall, Doing him homage on a lowly knee.

If Love were all!

If Love were all!

And no such thing as Pride nor Empery, Nor, God, nor sins or great or small, If Love were all!

She passed Theirry, so close, her fluttering robe touched his slack hand; he looked at her curiously, for he thought he knew her voice; he had heard many women sing, in streets and in palaces, and, somewhere, this one.

“If Love were all!

But Love is weak.

And Hate oft giveth him a fall.

And Wisdom smites him on the cheek, If Love were all!

If Love were all!

I had lived glad and meek, Nor heard Ambition call And Valour speak.

If Love were all!

The song ended as it had begun on a clash of cymbals; the dancer swung round, stamped her foot and called fiercely to the ape, who leapt up and began running round the crowd, offering a shell and making an ugly jabbering noise.

Theirry flung the hideous thing a silver bezant and moved away; he was thinking, not of the dancer with the unknown memory in her voice, but of the lady in the gilt chariot behind the azure curtains how little she had changed!

A burst of laughter made him look round; he saw a quick picture: the girl’s orange dress flashing in the strong sunlight, the ape on her shoulder hurling the contents of the shell in the air, which glittered for a second with silver pieces, and the jesting crowd closing round both.

He passed on moodily into the centre of the town; in the unrest and agitation of his thoughts he had determined to seek Cardinal Caprarola, since the Cardinal gave no sign of sending for him.

even of remembering him; but today it was useless to journey to the Palace on the Palatine, for the Conclave sat in the Vatican, and the Cardinal would be of their number.

The streets, the wine shops, the public squares were full of a mixed and excited mob; the adherents of the Emperor, who wished to see a German pontiff, and they who were ardent Romans or Churchmen came, here and there, to open brawls; the endless processions that crossed and recrossed from the various monasteries and churches were interrupted by the lawless jeers of the Frankish inhabitants, who, under a strong Emperor and a weak Pope, had begun to assume the bearing of conquerors.

Theirry left them all, too concerned, as always, in his own small affairs to have any interest in larger issues; he turned into the Via Sacra, and there, under the splendid but broken arch of Constantine, he saw again the dancing girl and her ape.

She looked at him intently; of that he could have no doubt, despite her mask, and, as he turned his hesitating steps towards the Palatine, she rose and followed him.

As he ascended the narrow grey road that wound above the city, he kept looking over his shoulder, and she was always there, following, with the ape on her shoulder.

They passed scattered huts, monasteries, decaying temples and villas, and came out on to the deserted stretches of the upper Palatine, where the fragmentary glories of another world lay under the cypress and olive trees.

Here Theirry paused, and again looked, half fearfully, for the bright figure of the dancer.

She stood not far from him, leaning against a slender shaft of marble, the sole remaining column of a temple to some heathen god; behind it a blue-green grove of cypress arose, and behind them the city lay wrapt in the sparkling mist of noonday, through which, at intervals, gleamed the dusky waters of the Tiber.

The mighty walls showed brown and dark against the houses they enclosed, and the dusty vineyards scorched in the sun that blazed on the lantern of St. Peter and the angel on Castel del’ Angelo.

The stillness of great heat was over city and ruins, noiseless butterflies fluttered over the shattered marble, and pale narcissi quivered in the deep grass; the sky, a bronze gold over the city and about the mountainous horizon, was overhead a deep and burning blue; a colour that seemed reflected in the clusters of violets that grew about the fallen masonry.

Theirry flung himself on a low marble seat that stood in the shade of a cypress, and his blood-red robe was vivid even in the shadow; he looked at the veiled city at his feet, and at the dancing girl resting against the time-stained, moss-grown column.

She loosened the cymbals from her hands and flung them on the ground; the ape jumped from her shoulder and caught them up.

Again she sang her passionate little song.

“If Love were all!

His faithful servant I would be.

Kissing where his foot might fall, Doing him homage on a lowly knee.

If Love were all!”

As she sang, another and very different scene was suddenly brought to Theirry’s mind; he remembered a night when he had slept on the edge of a pine forest, in Germany — many years ago — and had suddenly awoke — nay, he had dreamt he heard singing, and a woman’s singing . . . if it were not so mad a thought he would have said — this woman’s singing.

He turned bitter, dark eyes towards her — why had she followed him?

Swiftly and lightly she came across the grass, glittering from head to foot in the sunlight, and paused before him.

“Certes, you should be in Rome today,” she said. “The Conclave come to their decision this afternoon; do you wish to hear it announced from the Vatican?”

“Nay,” smiled Theirry. “I would rather see you dance.”

Her answer was mocking.

“You care nothing for my dancing — I would wager to stir any man in Rome sooner than you!” Theirry flushed.

“Why did you follow me?” he asked in a half-indifferent dislike.

She seated herself on the other end of his marble bench.

“My reasons are better than my dancing, and would, could I speak them, have more effect on you.”

The light hot wind ruffled back the gauze from her beautiful arms and shoulders; her bright hair and masked face were in shadow, but her gold-sandalled foot, which rested lightly on the wild, sweet violets, blazed in the sunshine.

Theirry looked at her foot as he answered —

“I am a stranger to Rome and know not its customs, but if you are what you seem you can have no serious reason in following me.”

The dancing girl laughed.

“A stranger! then that is why you are the only man in Rome not waiting eagerly to know who the new Pope will be.”

“It is curious for a wandering minstrel to have such interest in holy matters,” said Theirry.

She leant towards him across the length of the bench, and the perfume of her orange garments mingled with the odour of the violets.

“Take me for something other than I appear,” she replied, in a mournful and passionate voice. “In being here I risk an unthinkable fate — I stake the proudest hopes . . . the fairest fortune . . . ” “Who are you?” cried Theirry. “Why are you masked?”

She drew back instantly, and her tone changed to scorn again.

“When there are many pilgrims in Rome the monks bid us poor fools wear masks, lest, with our silly faces, we lure souls away from God.”

Theirry stared at the proud city beneath him. “Could I find God,” he said bitterly, “no fair face should beguile me away — but God is bound and helpless, I think, at the Devil’s chair.” The dancer crushed her bright foot down on the violets.

“I cannot imagine,” she said intensely, “how a man can spend his life looking for God and saving his own soul — is not the world beautiful enough to outweigh heaven?”

Theirry was silent.

The dancing girl laughed softly.

“Are you thinking of — her?” she asked.

He turned with a start.

“Thinking of whom?” he demanded.

“The lady in the Byzantine chariot — Jacobea of Martzburg.”

He sprang up.

“Who are you, and what do you know of me?”

“This, at least — that you have not forgotten her! —— Yet you would be Emperor, too, would you not?”

Theirry drew back from her stretched along the marble seat, until his crimson robe touched the dark trunks of the cypress trees.

“Ye are some witch,” he said.

“I come from Thessaly, where we have skill in magic,” she answered.

And now she sat erect, her yellow dress casting a glowing reflection into the marble.

“And I tell you this,” she added passionately. “If you would be Emperor, let that woman be-she will do nought for you — let her go! — this is a warning, Theirry of Dendermonde!” His face flushed, his eyes sparkled.

“Have I a chance of wearing the Imperial crown?” he cried. “May I— I, rule the West? — Tell me that, witch!”

She whistled the ape to her side.

“I am no witch — but I can warn you to think no more of Jacobea of Martzburg.” He answered hotly.

“I love not to hear her name on your tongue; she is nothing to me; I need not your warning.” The dancer rose.

“For your own sake forget her, Theirry of Dendermonde, and you may be indeed Emperor of the West and Cæsar of the Romans.”

The gold gleaming on her robe, her sandals, in her hair, confused and dazzled him, the hideous ape gave him a pang of terror.

“How came you by your knowledge?” he asked, and clutched the cypress trunk.

“I read your fortune in your eyes,” she answered. “We in Thessaly have skill in these things, as I have said . . . Look at the city beneath us — is it not worth much to reign in it?”

The gold vapour that lay about the distant hills seemed to be resolving into heavy, menacing clouds.

Theirry, following the direction of her slender pointing finger, gazed at the city and saw the clouds beyond.

“A storm gathers,” he said, and knew not why he shivered suddenly until his pearl earrings tinkled on the collar round his neck.

The dancer laughed, wildly and musically.

“Come with me to the Piazza of St. Peter,” she said, “and you shall hear strange words.” With that she caught hold of his blood-red garments and drew him towards the city.

The perfume from her dress and her hair stole into his nostrils; the hem of her tunic made a delicate sound as it struck her sandals, the violet ribbon in her fillet touched his face . . . he hated the black, expressionless mask; he had strange thoughts under her touch, but he came silently.

As they went down the road that wound through the glorious desolation Theirry heard the sound of pattering feet, and looked over his shoulder.

It was the ape who followed them; he walked on his hind legs . . . how tall he was! — Theirry had not thought him so large, nor of such a human semblance.

The dancer was silent, and Theirry could not speak; when they entered the city gates the dun-coloured clouds had swallowed up the gold vapour and half covered the sky; as they crossed the Tiber and neared the Vatican the last beams of the sun disappeared under the shadow of the oncoming storm.

Enormous crowds were gathered in the Piazza of St. Peter; it seemed as if all Rome had assembled there; many faces were turned towards the sky, and the sudden gloom that had overspread the city seemed to infect the people, for they were mostly silent, even sombre.

The enormous and terrible ape cleared an easy way for himself through the crowd, and Theirry and the dancing girl followed until they had pushed through the press of people and found themselves under the windows of the Vatican.

The heavy, ominous clouds gathered and deepened like a pall over the city; black, threatening shapes rolled up from behind the Janiculum Hill, and the air became fiery with the sense of impending tempest.

Suspense, excitement and the overawing aspect of the sky kept the crowd in a whispering stillness.

Theirry heard the dancing girl laugh; she was thrust up close against him in the press, and, although tall, was almost smothered by a number of Frankish soldiers pressing together in front of her.

“I cannot see,” she said —“not even the window —”

He, with an instinct to assist her, and an impulse to use his strength, caught her round the waist and lifted her up.

For a second her breast touched his; he felt her heart beating violently behind her thin robe, and an extraordinary sensation took possession of him.

Occasioned by the touch of her, the sense of her in his arms, there was communicated, as if from her heart to his, a high and rapturous passion; it was the most terrible and the most splendid feeling he had ever known, at once an agony and a delight such as he had never dreamed of before; unconsciously he gave an exclamation and loosened his hold. She slipped to the ground with a stifled and miserable cry.

“Let me alone,” he said wildly. “Let me alone

“Who are you?” he whispered excitedly, and tried to catch hold of her again; but the great ape came between them, and the seething crowd roughly pushed him.

Cardinal Maria Orsini had stepped out on to one of the balconies of the Vatican; he looked over the expectant crowd, then up at the black and angry sky, and seemed for a moment to hesitate.

When he spoke his words fell into a great stillness.

“The Sacred College has elected a successor to St. Peter in the person of Louis of Dendermonde, Abbot of the Brethren of the Sacred Heart in Paris, Bishop of Ostia and Cardinal Caprarola, who will ascend the Papal throne under the name of Michael II.”

He finished; the cries of triumph from the Romans, the yells of rage from the Franks were drowned in a sudden and awful peal of thunder; the lightning darted across the black heavens and fell on the Vatican and Castel San’ Angelo. The clouds were rent in two behind the temple of Mars the Avenger, and a thunderbolt fell with a hideous crash into the Forum of Augustus.

Theirry, whipped with terror, turned with the frightened crowd to flee . . . he heard the dancing girl laugh, and tried to snatch at her orange garments, but she swept by him and was lost in the surge.

Rome quivered under the onslaught of the thunder, and the lightning alone lit the murky, hot gloom.

“The reign of Antichrist has begun!” shrieked Theirry, and laughed insanely.

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