Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 8

Ursula of Rooselaare

“Say I have done well for you — it seems that I must ask your thanks.”

The Pope sat at a little table near the window of his private room in the Vatican and rested his face on his hand.

Leaning against the scarlet tapestries that covered the opposite wall was Theirry, clothed in chain mail and heavily armed.

“You think I should be grateful?” he asked in a low voice, his beautiful eyes fixed in a half-frightened, wholly fascinated way on the slim figure of the other.

Michael II wore a straight robe of gold-coloured silk and a skull-cap of crimson and blue; no jewels nor any suggestion of pomp concealed the youthfulness, almost frailty of his appearance; the red hair made his face the paler by contrast; his full lips were highly coloured under the darkened upper lip.

“Grateful?” he repeated, and his voice was mournful. “I think you do not know what I have done — I have dared to cast the Emperor from his throne — lies he not even now without the walls, defying me with a handful of Frankish knights? Is not the excommunication on him?”

“Yea,” answered Theirry. “And is it for my sake ye have done this?”

“Must you question it?” returned Michael, with a quick breath. “Yea, for your sake, to make you, as I promised, Emperor of the West — my vengeance had else been more quietly satisfied —” He laughed. “I have not forgot all my magic.”

Theirry winced.

“The vision in the Basilica was proof of that — what are you who can bring back the hallowed dead to aid your schemes?”

Michael II answered softly.

“And who are you who take my aid and my friendship, and all the while fear and loathe me?”

He moved his hand from his face and leant forward, showing a deep red mark on his cheek where the palm had pressed.

“Do you think I am not human, Theirry?” He gave a sigh. “If you would believe in me, trust me, be faithful to me — why, our friendship would be the lever to move the universe, and you and I would rule the world between us.”

Theirry fingered the arras beside him.

“In what way can I be false to you?”

“You betrayed me once. You are the only man in Rome who knows my secret. But this is truth, if again you forsake me, you bring about your own downfall — stand by me, and I will share with you the dominion of the earth — this, I say, is truth.”

Theirry laughed unhappily.

“Sweet devil, there is no God, and I have no soul! — there, do not fear — I shall be very faithful to you — since what is there for man save to glut his desires of pomp and wealth and power?” He moved from the wall and took a quick turn about the room.

“And yet I know not!” he cried. “Can all your magic, all your learning, all your riches, keep you where you are? The clouds hang angrily over Rome, nor have they lifted since Orsini announced you Pope — the people riot in the streets — all beautiful things are dead, many see ghosts and devils walking at twilight across the Maremma . . . Oh, horror! — they say Pan has left his ruined temple to enter Christian churches and laugh in the face of the marble Christ —— can these things be?”

The Pope swept back the hair from his damp brow. “The powers that put me here can keep me here — be you but true to me!”

“Ay, I will be Emperor”— Theirry grasped his sword hilt fiercely — “though the world I rule rot about me, though ghouls and fiends make my Imperial train — I will join hands with Antichrist and see if there be a God or no!”

The Pope rose.

“You must go against Balthasar. You must defeat his hosts and bring to me his Empress, then will I crown you in St. Peter’s.”

Theirry pressed his hand to his forehead.

“We start tomorrow with the dawn — beneath the banner of God His Church; I, in this mail ye gave me, tempered and forged in Hell!”

“Ye need have no fear of failure; you shall go forth triumphantly and return victoriously. You shall make your dwelling the Golden Palace on the Aventine, and neither Heliogabalus nor Basil, nor Charlemagne shall be more magnificently housed than you . . . ”

Michael seemed to check his words suddenly; he turned his face away and looked across the city which lay beneath the heavy pall of clouds.

“Be but true to me,” he added in a low voice.

Theirry smiled wildly.

“A curious love have you for me, and but little faith in my strength or constancy — well, you shall see, I go forth tomorrow, with many men and banners, to rout the Emperor utterly.”

“Until then, stay in the Vatican,” said Michael II suddenly. “My prelates and my nobles know you for their leader now.”

“Nay,”— Theirry flushed as he answered —“I must go to my own abode in the city.” “Jacobea of Martzburg is still in Rome,” said the other. “Do you leave me to go to her?” “Nay — I know not even where she lodges,” replied Theirry hastily.

Michael smiled bitterly and was silent.

“What is Jacobea to me?” demanded Theirry desperately.

The other gave him a sinister glance.

“Why did you approach her after her devotions in San Giovanni in Laterano — speak to her and recall yourself to her mind?”

Theirry went swiftly pale.

“You know that! — Ah, it was the dancer, your accomplice . . . What mystery is this?” he asked in a distracted way. “Why does not Ursula of Rooselaare come forth under her true name and confound the Emperor? — why does she follow me, and in such a guise?”

Without looking at him Michael answered.

“Maybe because she is very wise — maybe because she is a very fool — let her pass, she has served her turn. You say you do not go to palter with Jacobea, then farewell until tomorrow; I have much to do . . . farewell, Theirry.”

He held out his hand with a stately gesture, and, as Theirry took it in his, the curious thought came to him how seldom he had touched so much as Dirk’s fingers, even in the old days, so proud a reserve had always encompassed the youth, and, now, the man.

Theirry left the rich-scented chamber and the vast halls of the Vatican and passed into the riotous and lawless streets of Rome.

The storm that had hung so unnaturally long over the city had affected the people; bravoes and assassins crept from their hiding-places in the Catacombs, or the Palatine, and flaunted in the streets; the wine shops were filled with mongrel soldiers of all nations, attracted by the declaration of war from the surrounding towns; blasphemers mocked openly at the processions of monks and pilgrims that traversed the streets chanting the penitential psalms, or scourging themselves in an attempt to avert the wrath of Heaven.

There was no law; crime went unpunished; virtue became a jest; many of the convents were closed and deserted, while their late occupants rejoined the world they suddenly longed for; the poor were despoiled, the rich robbed; ghastly and blasphemous processions nightly paraded the streets in honour of some heathen deity; the priests inspired no respect, the name of God no fear; the plague marched among the people, striking down hundreds; their bodies were flung into the Tiber, and their spirits went to join the devils that nightly danced on the Campagna to the accompaniment of rolling storms.

Witches gathered in the low marches of the Maremma and came at night into the city, trailing grey, fever-laden vapour after them.

The bell-ropes began to rot in the churches, and the bells clattered from the steeples; the gold rusted on the altars, and mice gnawed the garments on the holy images of the Saints.

The people lived with reckless laughter and died with hopeless curses; magicians, warlocks and vile things flourished exceedingly, and all manner of strange and hideous creatures left their caves to prowl the streets at nightfall.

And such under Pope Michael II was Rome, swiftly and in a moment.

Theirry, like all others, went heavily armed; his hand was constantly on his sword hilt as he made his way through the city that was forsaken by God.

With no faltering step or hesitating bearing he passed through the crowds that gathered more thickly as the night came on, and turned towards the Appian Gate.

Here it was gloomy, almost deserted; dark houses bordered the Appian Way, and a few strange figures crept along in their shadow; in the west a sullen glare of crimson showed that the sun was setting behind the thick clouds. Dark began to fall rapidly.

Theirry walked long beyond the Gate and stopped at a low convent building, above the portals of which hung a lamp, its gentle radiance like a star in the heavy, noisome twilight.

The gate, that led into a courtyard, stood half open. Theirry softly pushed it wider and entered. The pure perfume of flowers greeted him; a sense of peace and security, grown strange of late in Rome, filled the square grass court; in the centre was a fountain, almost hidden in white roses; behind their leaves the water dripped pleasantly.

There were no lights in the convent windows, but it was not yet too dark for Theirry to distinguish the slim figure of a lady seated on a wooden bench, her hands passive in her lap. He latched the gate and softly crossed the lawn.

“You said that I might come.”

Jacobea turned her head, unsmiling, unsurprised.

“Ay, sir; this place is open to all.”

He uncovered before her.

“I cannot hope ye are glad to see me.”

“Glad?” She echoed the word as if it sounded in a foreign tongue; then, after a pause, “Yes, I am glad that you have come.”

He seated himself beside her, his splendid mail touching her straight grey robe, his full, beautiful face turned towards her worn ‘and expressionless features.

“What do you do here?” he asked.

She answered in the same gentle tone; she had a white rose in her hands, and turned it about as she spoke.

“So little — there are two sisters here, and I help them; one can do nothing against the plague, but for the little forsaken children something, rend something for the miserable sick.”

“The wretched of Rome are not in your keeping,” he said eagerly. “It will mean your life —— why did you not go with the Empress?”

She shook her head.

“I was not needed. I suppose what they said of her was true. I cannot remember clearly, but I think that when Melchoir died I knew it was her doing.”

“We must not dwell on the past,” cried Theirry. “Have you heard that I lead the Pope’s army against Balthasar?”

“Nay;” her eyes were on the white rose.

“Jacobea, I shall be the Emperor.”

“The Emperor,” she repeated dreamily.

“I shall rule the Latin world — Emperor of the West!”

In the now complete dark they could scarcely see each other; there were no stars, and distant thunder rolled at intervals; Theirry timidly put out his hand and touched the fold of her dress where it lay along the seat.

“I wish you would not stay here — it is so lonely —”

“I think she would wish me to do this.”

“She?” he questioned.

Jacobea seemed surprised he did not take her meaning.

“Sybilla.”

“O Christus!” shuddered Theirry. “Ye still think of her?”

Jacobea smiled, as he felt rather than saw.

“Think of her? . . . is she not always with me?”

“She is dead.”

He saw the blurred outline of the lady’s figure stir.

“Yea, she died on a cold morning — it was so cold you could see your breath before you as you rode along, and the road was hard as glass — there was a yellow dawn that day, and the pine trees seemed frozen, they stood so motionless — you would not think it was ten years ago — I wonder how long it seems to her?”

A silence fell upon them for a while, then Theirry broke out desperately —

“Jacobea —— my heart is torn within me —— today I said there was no God — but when I sit by you . . . ”

“Yea, there is a God,” she answered quietly. “Be very sure of that.”

“Then I am past His forgiveness,” whispered Theirry.

Again he was mute; he saw before him the regal figure of Dirk — he heard his words —“Be but true to me”— then he thought of Jacobea and Paradise . . . agony ran through his veins.

“Oh, Jacobea!” he cried at last. “I am beyond all measure mean and vile . . . I know not what to do . . . I can be Emperor, yet as I sit here that seems to me as nothing.”

“The Pope favours you, you tell me,” she said. “He is a priest, and a holy man, and yet — it is strange, what is this talk of Ursula of Rooselaare? —— and yet it is no matter.”

His mail clinked in answer to his tremor.

“Tell me what I must do — see, I am in a great confusion; the world is very dark, this way and that show little lights, and I strive to follow hem — but they change and move and blind me — and if I grasp one it is extinguished into greater darkness; I hear whispers, murmurs, threats, I believe them, and believe them not, and all is confusion, confusion!”

Jacobea rose slowly from the bench.

“Why do you come to me?”

“Because ye seem to me nearer heaven than anything I know . . . ”

Jacobea pressed the white rose to her bosom. “It is dark now — the flowers smell so sweet —— come into the house.”

He followed her dim-seen figure across the grass; she lifted the latch of the convent door and went before him into the building.

For a while she left him in the passage, then returned with a pale lamp in her hand and conducted him into a small, bare chamber, which seemed mean in contrast with the glowing splendour of his appearance.

“The sisters are abroad,” said Jacobea. “And I stay here in case any ring the bell for succour.” She set the lamp on the wooden table and slowly turned her eyes on Theirry.

“Sir, I am very selfish.” She spoke with difficulty, as if she painfully forced expression. “I have thought of myself for so many years — and somehow”— she lightly touched her breast —“I cannot feel, for myself or for others; nothing seems real, save Sybilla; nothing matters save her —— sometimes I cry for little things I find dying alone, for poor unnoticed miseries of animals and children — but for the rest . . . you must not blame me if I do not sympathise; that has gone from me. Nor can I help you; God is far away beyond the stars. I do not think He can stoop to such as you and me — and — and — I do not feel as if I should wake until I die —”

Theirry covered his eyes and moaned.

Jacobea was not looking at him, but at the one bright thing in the room.

A samite cushion worked with a scarlet lily that rested on a chair by the window.

“Each our own way to death,” she said. “All we can do is so little compared with that —— death — see, I think of it as a great crystal light, very cold, that will slowly encompass us, revealing everything, making everything easy to understand — white lilies will not be more beautiful, nor breeze at summer-time more sweet . . . so, sir, must you wait patiently.”

She took her gaze from the red flower and turned her tired grey eyes on him.

The blood surged into his face; he clenched his hands and spoke passionately.

“I will renounce the world, I will become a monk . . . ”

The words choked in his throat; he looked fearfully round; the lamplight struck his armour into a hundred points of light and cast pale shadows over the whitewashed walls.

“What was that?” asked Jacobea.

One was singing without: Theirry’s strained eyes glistened.

“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!”

Theirry turned and went out into the dark, hot night.

He could see neither roses, nor fountain, nor even the line of the convent wall against the sky; but the light above the gate revealed to him the dancer in orange, who leant against the stone arch of the entrance and sang to a strange long instrument that hung round her neck by a gleaming chain.

At her feet the ape crouched, nodding himself to sleep.

“If Love were all I

But Love is weak.

And Hate oft giveth him a fall.

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

Behind Theirry came Jacobea, with the lantern in her hand.

“Who is this?” she asked.

The dancer laughed; the sound of it muffled behind her mask.

Theirry made his way across the dark to her.

“What do you do here?” he demanded fiercely. “The Pope’s spy, you!”

“May I not come to worship here as well as another?” she answered.

“You know too much of me!” he cried distractedly. “But I also have some knowledge of you, Ursula of Rooselaare!”

“How does that help you?” she asked, drawing back a little before him.

“I would discover why you follow me — watch me.”

He caught her by the arms and held her against the stone gateway.

“Now tell me the meaning of your disguise,” he breathed —“and of your league with Michael II.”

She said a strange little word underneath her breath; the ape jumped up and tore away the man’s hands while the girl bent to a run and sped through the gate.

Theirry gave a cry of pain and rage, and glanced towards the convent; the door was closed; lady and lamp had disappeared in the darkness.

“Shut out!” whispered Theirry. “Shut out!” He turned into the street and saw, by the scattered lanterns along the Appian Way, the figure of the dancer slipping fast towards the city gates. But he gained on her, and at sound of his clattering step she looked round.

“Ah!” she said; “I thought you had stayed with the sweet-faced saint yonder —”

“She wants none of me,” he panted —“but I— I mean to see your face to-night . . . ” “I am not beautiful,” answered the dancer; “and you have seen my face —”

“Seen your face!”

“Certes! in the Basilica on the Fête.”

“I knew you not in the press.”

“Nevertheless I was there.”

“I looked for you.”

“I thought ye looked for Jacobea.”

“Also I sought you,” said Theirry. “Ye madden me.”

The ever-gathering tempest was drawing near, with fitful flashes of lightning playing over his jewel-like mail and her orange gown as they made their way through the ruins.

“Do you wander here alone at night?” asked Theirry. “It is a vile place; a man might be afraid.” “I have the ape,” she said.

“But the storm?”

“In Rome now-a-days we are well used to storms,” she answered in a low voice. “Yea.”

He did not know what to say to her, but he could not leave her; a strong, a supreme, fascination compelled him to walk beside her, a half-delightful excitement stirred his blood.

“Where are we going?” asked Theirry. The wayside lanterns had ceased; he could see her only by the lightning gleams.

“I know not — why do you follow me?”

“I am mad, I think — the earth rocks beneath me and heaven bends overhead — you lure me and I follow in sheer confusion — Ursula of Rooselaare, why have you lured me? What power is it that you have over me? Wherefore are you disguised?”

She touched his mail in the dark as she answered —

“I am Balthasar’s wife.”

“Ay,” he responded eagerly; “and I do hear ye loved another man —”

“What is that to you?” she asked.

“This — though I have not seen your face — perchance could I love you, Ursula!”

“Ursula!” She laughed on the word.

“Is it not your name?” he cried wildly.

“Yea — but it is long since any used it —”

The hot darkness seemed to twist and writhe about Theirry; he seemed to breathe a nameless and uncontrollable passion in with the storm-laden air.

“Witch or demon,” he said, “I have cast in my lot with the Devil and Michael II his servant — I follow the same master as you, Ursula.”

He put out his hand through the dark and grasped her arm.

“Who is the man for whose sake ye are silent?” he demanded.

There was no answer; he felt her arm quiver under his hand, and heard the hems of her tunic tinkle against her buskins, as if she trembled.

The air was chokingly hot; Theirry’s heart throbbed high.

At last she spoke, in a half-swooning voice.

“I have taken off my mask . . . bend your head and kiss me.”

Invisible and potent powers drew him towards her unseen face; his lips touched and kissed its softness . . .

The thunder sounded with such a terrific force and clash that Theirry sprang back; a cry of agony went up from the darkness. He ran blindly forward; her presence had gone from his side, nor could he see or feel her as he moved.

A thousand light shapes danced across the night; witches and warlocks carrying swinging lanterns, imps and fiends.

They gathered round Theirry, shrieking and howling to the accompaniment of the storm.

He ran sobbing down the Appian Way, and his pace was very swift, for all the mail he carried.

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