Dirk and the lady entered the room he had just quitted; he set a chair for her near the window and waited for her to speak, but kept his eyes the while on her shrouded figure.
She wore a mask such as he had often seen on ladies; fantastic Italian taste had fashioned them in the likeness of a plague-stricken countenance, flecked green and yellow, and more lively fancy had nicknamed them “melons” from their similarity to an unripe melon skin; these masks, oval-shaped, with a slit for the mouth and eyes, and extending from the brow to the chin, were an effective concealment of every feature, and high favourites among ladies.
For the rest, the stranger’s hood was pulled well forward so that not a lock of hair was visible, and her mantle was gathered close at her throat; it was of fine green cloth edged with miniver; she wore thick gauntlets so that not an inch of her skin was visible.
“You are well disguised,” said Dirk at last, as she made no sign of speaking. “What is your business with me?”
He began to think that she could not be Jacobea since she gave no indication of revealing herself; also, he fancied that she was too short.
“Is there any one to overhear us or interrupt?” the lady spoke at last, her voice muffled a little by the mask.
“None,” answered Dirk half impatiently. “I beg that you tell me who you are.”
“Certes, that can wait;” her eyes sparkled through their holes in contrast with the ghastly painted wood that made her face immovable. “But I will tell you who you are, sir.” “You know?” said Dirk coldly.
It seemed as if she smiled.
“The student named Dirk Renswoude who was driven forth from Basle University for practising the black arts.”
For the first time in his life Dirk was taken aback, and hopelessly disconcerted; he had not believed it possible for any to discover the past life of the learned doctor Constantine; he went red and white, and could say nothing in either defence or denial.
“It was only about three months ago,” continued the lady. “And both students and many other in the town of Basle would still know you, certes.”
A rush of anger against his unknown accuser nerved Dirk.
“By what means have you discovered this?” he demanded. “Basle is far enough from Frankfort, I wot . . . and how many know . . . and what is the price of your silence, dame?”
The lady lifted her head.
“I like you,” she said quietly. “You take it well. No one knows save I. I have made cautious inquiries about you, and pieced together your story with my own wit.”
“My story!” flashed Dirk. “Certes! Ye know nought of me beyond Basle.”
“No,” she assented. “But it is enough. Joris of Thuringia died.”
“Ah!” ejaculated Dirk.
The lady sat very still, observing him.
“So I hold your life, sir,” she said.
Dirk, goaded, turned on her impetuously.
“Ye are Jacobea of Martzburg —”
“No”— she started at the name. “But I know her —”
“She told you this tale —”
Again the lady answered —
“She is from Basle,” cried Dirk.
“Believe me,” replied the stranger earnestly, “she knows nothing of you — I alone in Frankfort hold your secret, and I can help you to keep it . . . it were easy to spread a report of Dirk Renswoude’s death.”
Dirk bit his finger, his lip, glared out at the profusion of roses, at the darkening sky, then at the quiet figure in the hideous speckled mask; if she chose to speak he would have, at the best of it, to fly Frankfort, and that did not suit his schemes.
“Another youth lives here,” said the lady. “I think he also fled from Basle.”
Dirk’s face grew pale and cunning; he was quick to see that she did not know Theirry was compromised.
“He was here — now he has gone to Court — he was at Basle, but innocent, he came with me out of friendship. He is silly and fond.”
“I have to do with you,” answered the lady. “Ye have a great, a terrible skill, evil spirits league with you . . . your spells killed a man —” She stopped.
“Poor fool,” said Dirk sombrely.
The stranger rose; her calm and self-possession had suddenly given way to fierce only half-repressed passion; she clasped her hands and trembled as she stood.
“Well,” she cried thickly. “You could do that again — a softer, more subtle way?” “For you?” he whispered.
“For me,” she answered, and sank into the window-seat, pulling at her gloves mechanically.
A silence, while the dying red sunlight fell over the Eastern cushions and over her dark mantle and outside the red roses shook and whispered in the witch’s garden.
“I cannot help you if you tell me nothing,” said Dirk at length in a grim manner.
“I will tell you this,” answered she passionately. “There is a man I hate, a man in my way — I do not talk wildly; that man must go, and if you will be the means —”
“You will be in my power as I am now in yours,” thought Dirk, completing the broken sentence.
The lady looked out at the roses.
“I cannot convey to you what nights of horror and days of bitterness, what resolutions formed and resolutions broken — what hate, and what — love have gone to form the impulse that brought me here today — nor does it concern ye; certes enough I am resolved, and if your spells can aid me —” She turned her head sharply. “I will pay you very well.”
“You have told me nothing,” repeated Dirk. “And though I can discover what you are and who is your enemy, it were better that you told me with your own lips.”
She seemed, now, in an ill-concealed agitation.
“Not today will I speak. I will come again. I know this place . . . meanwhile, certes, your secret is safe with me — think over what I have said.”
She rose as if to take a hasty departure; but Dirk was in her way.
“Nay,” he said firmly. “At least show your face —— how shall I know you again? And what confidence have you in me if you will not take off your mask? I say you shall.”
She trembled between a sigh and a laugh.
“Perhaps my face is not worth gazing at,” she answered on a breath.
“I wot ye are a fair woman,” replied Dirk, who heard the consciousness of it in her alluring voice.
Still she hesitated.
“Know ye many about the Court?” she asked.
“Nay. I have not concerned myself with the Court.”
“Well, then — and since I must trust you — and like you”— her voice rose and fell —“look at me and remember me.”
She loosened her cloak, flung back the hood and quickly unfastening the mask, snatched it off. The disguise flung aside, she was revealed to the shoulders, clearly in the warm twilight.
Dirk’s first impression was, that this was beauty that swept from his mind all other beauty he had ever beheld; his second, that it was the same face he and Theirry had seen in the mirror. “Oh!” he cried. “Well?” said the lady, the hideous mask in her band.
Now she was disclosed, it was as if another presence had entered the dusky chamber, so difficult was it to associate this brilliance with the cloaked figure of a few moments since.
Certainly she was of a great beauty, smiting into breathlessness, a beauty not to be realised until beheld; Dirk would not have believed that a woman could be so fair.
If Jacobea’s hair was yellow, this lady’s locks were pale, pure glittering gold, and her eyes a deep, soft, violet hue; the throwing back of her cloak revealed her round slender throat, and the glimmer of a rich bodice.
The smile faded from her lips, and her gorgeous loveliness became grave, almost tragic. “You do not know me?” she asked.
“No,” answered Dirk; he could not tell her that he had seen her before in his devil’s mirror. “But you will recognise me again?”
Dirk laughed quietly.
“You were not made to be forgotten. Strange with such a face ye should have need of witchcraft!”
The lady replaced the mottled mask, that looked the more horrible after that glimpse of gleaming beauty, and drew her mantle over her shoulders.
“I shall come to you or send to you, sir. Think on what I have said, and on what I know.”
She was obscured again, hidden in her green cloak. Dirk proffered no question, made no comment, but preceded her down the dark passage and opened the door; she passed out; her footstep was light on the path; Dirk watched her walk rapidly down the street then closed the door and bolted it. After a pause of breathless confusion and heart-heating excitement, he ran to the back of the house and out into the garden.
It was just light enough for the huge dusky roses to be visible as they nodded on their trailing bushes; Dirk ran between them until he reached a gaunt stone statue half concealed by laurels; in front of this were flags irregularly placed; in the centre of one was an iron ring; Dirk, pulling at this, disclosed a trap door that opened at his effort, and revealed a flight of steps; he descended from the soft pure evening and the red roses into the witch’s kitchen, closing the stone above him.
The underground chamber was large and lit by lamps hanging from the roof, revealing smooth stone walls and damp floor; in one side a gaping blackness showed where a passage twisted to the outer air; on another was a huge alchemist’s fireplace; before this sat the witch, about her a quantity of glass vessels, retorts and pots of various shapes.
Either side this fireplace hung a human body, black and withered, swinging from rusted ropes and crowned with wreaths of green and purple blotched leaves.
On a table set against the wall was a brass head that glimmered in the feeble light. Dirk crossed the floor with his youthful step and touched Nathalie on the shoulder. “One came to see me,” he said breathlessly. “A marvellous lady.”
“I know,” murmured the witch. “And was it to play into thy hands?”
The air was thick and tainted with unwholesome smells; Dirk leant against the wall and stared down the chamber, his hand to his brow.
“She threatened me,” he said, “and for a moment I was afraid; for, certes, I do not wish to leave Frankfort . . . but she wished me to serve her — which I will do — for a price.” “Who is she?” blinked the witch.
“That I am come to discover,” frowned Dirk. “And who it is she spoke of — also somewhat of Jacobea of Martzburg”— he coughed, for the foul atmosphere had entered his nostrils. “Give me the globe.”
The witch handed him a ball of a dark muddy colour, which he placed on the floor, flinging himself beside it; Nathalie drew a pentagon round the globe and pronounced some words in a low tone; a slight tremor shook the ground, though it was solid earth they stood on, and the globe turned a pale, luminous, blue tint.
Dirk pushed back the damp hair from his eyes, and, resting his face in his hands, his elbows on the ground, he stared into the depths of the crystal, the colour of which brightened until it glowed a ball of azure fire.
“I see nothing,” he said angrily.
The witch repeated her incantations; she leant forward, the yellow coins glistening on her pale forehead.
Rays of light began to sparkle from the globe. “Show me something of the lady who came here today,” commanded Dirk.
“Do ye see anything?” breathed the witch.
“Yea — very faintly.”
He gazed for a while in silence.
“I see a man,” he said at last. “The spells are wrong . . . I see nothing of the lady —” “Watch, though,” cried the witch. “What is he like?”
“I cannot see distinctly . . . he is on horseback . . . he wears armour . . . now I can see his face — he is young, dark — he has black hair —”
“Do ye know him?”
“Nay — I have never seen him before.” Dirk did not lift his eyes from the globe. “He is evidently a knight . . . he is magnificent but cold . . . ah!”
His exclamation was at the change in the ball; slowly it faded into a faint blue, then became again dark and muddy.
He flung it angrily out of the pentagon.
“What has that told me?” he cried. “What is this man?”
“Question Zerdusht,” said the witch, pointing to the brass head. “Maybe he will speak tonight.”
She flung a handful of spices on to the slow-burning fire, and a faint smoke rose, filling the chamber.
Dirk crossed to the brass head and surveyed it with eager hollow eyes.
“The dead men dance,” smiled the witch. “Certes, he will speak to-night.”
Dirk turned his wild gaze to where the corpses hung. Their shrivelled limbs twisted and jerked at the end of their chain, and the horrid lurid colour of their poisonous wreaths gleamed through the smoke and shook with the nodding of their faceless heads.
“Zerdusht, Zerdusht,” murmured Dirk. “In the name of Satan, his legions, speak to thy servant, show or tell him something of the woman who came here today on an evil errand.”
A heavy stillness fell with the ending of the words; the smoke became thick and dense, then suddenly cleared.
At that instant the lamps were extinguished and the fire fell into ashes.
“Something comes,” whispered the witch.
Through the dark could be heard the dance of the dead men and the grind of their bones against the ropes.
Dirk stood motionless, his straining eyes fixed before him.
Presently a pale light spread over the end of the chamber, and in it appeared the figure of a young knight; his black hair fell from under his helmet, his face was composed and somewhat haughty, his dark eyes fearless and cold.
“’Tis he I saw in the crystal!” cried Dirk, and as be spoke the light and the figure disappeared. Dirk beat his breast.
“Zerdusht! ye mock me! I asked ye of this woman! I know not the man.”
The brass head suddenly glowed out of the darkness as if a light shone behind it; the lids twitched, opened, and glittering red eyeballs stared at Dirk, who shouted in triumph. He fell on his knees.
“A year ago today I saw a woman in the mirror; today she came to me . . . who is she? . . . Zerdusht — her name?”
The brass lips moved and spoke.
What did this tell him?
“Who was the knight ye have shown me?” he cried.
“Her husband,” answered the head.
“Who is the man she seeks my aid to . . . to . . . who is it of whom she spoke to me?” The flaming eyeballs rolled.
Dirk gave a start.
“Make haste,” came the witch’s voice through the swimming blackness. “The light fades.” “Who is she?”
“The Empress of the West,” said the brass head. A cry broke from Dirk and the witch; Dirk shrieked another question.
“She wishes to put another in the Emperor’s place?”
“Yea;” the light was growing fainter; the eyelids flickered over the red eyes.
“Whom?” cried Dirk. Faint, yet distinct came the answer —
“The Lord of Ursula of Rooselaare, Balthasar of Courtrai.”
The lids fell and the jaws clicked, the light sank into nothingness, and the lamps sprang again into dismal flame that disclosed the black bodies of the dead men, hanging slackly with their wreaths touching their chests, the witch crouching by the hearth —
And in the centre of the floor Dirk, smiling horribly.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06