The great forest was so silent, so lonely, the aisles of a vast church could have been no more sanctified by holy stillness.
Even the summer wind that trembled in the upper boughs of the huge trees had not penetrated their thick branches and intertwined leaves, so that the grass and flowers were standing erect, untroubled by a breath of air, and the sun, that dazzled without on the town of Frankfort did not touch the glowing green gloom of the forest.
Seated low on the grass by a wayside shrine that held a little figure of the Madonna, Nathalie the witch, hunched together in a brown cloak, looked keenly into the depths of cool shade between the tree trunks.
She was watching the distant figure of a lady tremble into sight among the leaves of the undergrowth.
A lady who walked hesitatingly and fearfully; as she drew near, the witch could see that the long yellow dress she held up was torn and soiled, and that her hair hung disarranged on her shoulders; breathing in a quick, fatigued manner she came towards the shrine, but seeing the witch she stopped abruptly and her grey eyes darkened with apprehension.
“‘What is amiss with Jacobea of Martzburg,” asked the witch in her expressionless way, “that she walks the forest disarrayed and alone?”
“I am lost,” answered Jacobea, shrinking. “How do you know me?
“By your face,” said Nathalie. “How is it you are lost?
“Will you tell me the way to Frankfort?” asked Jacobea wearily. “I have walked since noon. I was accompanying the Empress from the tournament and my horse broke away with me — I slipped from the saddle. Now I have lost him.”
Nathalie smiled faintly.
“I know not where I am,” said Jacobea, still with that look of apprehension in her sweet eyes. “Will you set me on my path?”
She glanced at the shrine, then at the witch, and put her hand to her forehead; dazed, she seemed, and bewildered.
“Of what are you afraid?” asked Nathalie.
“Oh, why should I be afraid!” answered Jacobea, with a start. “But — why, it is very lonely here and I must get home.”
“Let me tell your fortune,” said the witch, slowly rising. “You have a curious fortune, and I will reveal it without gold or silver.”
“No!” Jacobea’s voice was agitated. “I have no credence in those things. I will pay you to show me the way out of the forest.”
But the witch had crossed softly to her side, and, to her manifest shrinking terror, caught hold of her hand.
“What do you imagine you hold in your palm?” she smiled.
Jacobea endeavoured to draw her hand away, the near presence of the woman quickened her unnamed terror.
“Lands and castles,” said the witch, while her fingers tightened on the striving wrist. “Gold and loneliness —”
“You know me,” answered Jacobea, in anger. “There is no magic in this . . . let me go!” The witch dropped the lady’s hand and smoothed her own together.
“I do not need the lines in your palm to tell me your fortune,” she said sharply. “I know more of you than you would care to hear, Jacobea of Martzburg.”
The lady turned away and stepped quickly but aimlessly down the shaded glade.
Nathalie, dragging her brown cloak, came lightly after.
“You cannot escape,” she said. “You may walk in and out the trees until you die of weariness, yet never find your way to Frankfort.”
She laid her small thin fingers on the soft velvet of Jacobea’s yellow sleeve and blinked up into her startled eyes.
“Who are you?” cried the lady, with a touch of desperation in her faint voice. “And what do you want with me?”
The witch licked her pale lips.
“Come with me and I will show you.”
“No, I will not.”
“You cannot find your way alone,” nodded the witch.
The lady hesitated; she looked around her at the motionless aisles of trees, the silent glades, she looked up at the arching boughs and clustering leaves concealing the sky.
“Indeed I will nay you well if you will guide me out of this,” she entreated.
“Come with me now,” answered Nathalie, “and afterwards I will set you on your way.”
“To what end should I go with you?” exclaimed Jacobea. “I know you not, and, God help me, I mistrust you.”
The witch shot a scornful glance over the lady’s tall figure, supple with the strength of youth. “What evil could I do you?” she asked.
Jacobea considered her intently; indeed she was small, seemed frail also; Jacobea’s white fingers could have crushed the life out of her lean throat.
Still she was reluctant.
“To what end?” she repeated.
Nathalie did not answer, but turned into a grass-grown path that twisted through the trees, and Jacobea, afraid of the loneliness, followed her slowly.
As they went through the forest, the green, still forest, with no flower to vary the clinging creepers and great blossomless plants, with no sound of bird or insect to mingle with their light tread and the sweep of their garments on the ground, Jacobea was aware that her senses were being dulled and drugged with the silence and the strangeness; she felt no longer afraid or curious. After a while they came upon a pool lying in a hollow and grown about with thick, dark ferns; the sunless waters were black and dull, on the surface of them floated some dead leaves and the vivid unwholesome green of a tangled weed.
A young man in a plain dark dress was seated on the opposite bank.
On his knees was an open book, and his long straight hair hung either side of his face and brushed the yellow page.
Behind him stood the shattered trunk of a blasted tree, grown with fan-shaped fungi of brilliant scarlet and blotched purple and orange that glowed gorgeously in the universal cold soft greenness.
“Oh me!” murmured Jacobea.
The young man lifted his eyes from the book and looked at her across the black water.
Jacobea would have fled, would have flung herself into the forest with no thought but that of escape from those eyes gazing at her over the pages of that ancient volume; but the witch’s loathsome little hands closed on hers with a marvellous strength and drew her, shuddering, round the edge of the pond.
The youth shut the book, stretched his slender limbs, and, half turning on his side, lay and watched.
Jacobea’s noble and lovely figure, clothed in a thick soft velvet of a luminous yellow hue; her blonde hair, straying on her shoulders and mingling with the glowing tint of her gown; her grave and sweet face, lit and guarded by grey eyes, soft and frightened, made a fair picture against the sombre background of the dark wood.
A picture marred only by the insignificant and drab-coloured figure of the little witch who held her hand and dragged her through the dank grass.
“Do you remember me?” asked the youth.
Jacobea turned her head away.
“Let go of her, Nathalie,” continued the youth impatiently; he rested his elbow on the closed book and propped his chin on his hand; his eyes rested eagerly and admiringly on the lady’s shuddering fairness.
“She will run,” said Nathalie, but she loosened her hold.
Jacobea did not stir; she shook the hand Nathalie had held and caressed it with the other. The young man put back his heavy hair.
“Do you know me?”
She slowly turned her face, pearl pale above the glowing colour of her dress.
“Yes, you came to my castle for shelter once.”
Dirk did not lower his intense, ardent gaze.
“Well, how did I reward your courtesy? I told you something.”
She would not answer.
“I told you something,” repeated Dirk. “And you have not forgotten it.”
“Let me go,” she said. “I do not know who you are nor what you mean. Let me go.”
She turned as if to move away, but sank instead on to one of the moss-covered boulders that edged the pond and clasped her fingers over the shining locks straying across her bosom. “You have never been the same since that time you sheltered me,” said Dirk.
She stiffened with dread and pride.
“Ye are some evil thing,” she said; her glance was fierce for the passive witch. “Why was I brought here?”
“Because it was my wish,” answered Dirk gravely. “Your horse does not often carry you away, Jacobea of Martzburg, and leave you in a trackless forest.”
The lady started at his knowledge.
“That also was my will,” said Dirk.
“Your will!” she echoed.
Dirk smiled, with an ugly show of his teeth.
“Belike the horse was bewitched — have ye not heard of such a thing?”
“Santa Maria!” she cried.
Dirk sat up and clasped his long fingers round his knees.
“You have given a youth I know a post at Court,” he said. “Why?”
Jacobea shivered and could not move; she looked drearily at the black water and the damp masses of fern, then with a slow horror at the figure of the young man seated under the blasted tree.
“I do not know,” she answered weakly, “I never disliked him.”
“As ye did me,” added Dirk.
“Maybe I had no cause to love you,” she returned, goaded. “Why did you ever come to my castle? why did I ever see you?”
She put her cold hand over her eyes.
“No matter for that,” mocked Dirk. “So ye liked my comrade Theirry?”
She answered as if forced against her will. “Well enough I liked him. Was he not pleasured to encounter me again, and since he was doing nought — I— but why do you question me? Can it be that you are jealous?”
The young man pulled his heavy brows together.
“Am I a silly maid to be jealous? Meddle not with things ye cannot measure, it had been better for you had you never seen my comrade’s fair face — ay, and for me also,” and he frowned “Surely he is free to do as he may list,” returned Jacobea. “If he choose to come to Court.” “If ye choose to tempt him,” answered Dirk. “But enough of that.”
He rose and leant against the tree; above his slender shoulder rose the jagged tongue of grey wood and the smooth colour of the clustering fungi, and beyond that the forest sank into immense depths of still gloom.
Jacobea strove desperately with her dull dread and terror, but it seemed to her as if a sickly vapour was rising from the black pool that chilled her blood to horror; she could not escape Dirk’s steady eyes that were like bright stones in his smooth face.
“Come here,” he said.
Jacobea made no movement to obey until the witch clutched her arm, when she shook off the clinging fingers and approached the spot where Dirk waited.
“I think you have bewitched me,” she said drearily.
“Not I, another has done that,” he answered. “Certes, ye are slow in mating, Jacobea of Martzburg.”
A little shuddering breath stirred her parted lips; she looked to right and left, saw nothing but the enclosing forest, and turned her frightened eyes on Dirk.
“I know some little magic,” he continued. “Shall I show you the man you would wish to make Lord of Martzburg?”
“There is no one,” she said feebly.
“You lie,” he answered. “As I could prove.”
“As you cannot prove,” she returned, clasping her hands together.
“Why, you are a fair thing and a gentle, but you have rebellious thoughts, thoughts ye would blush to whisper at the confessional grate.”
She moved her lips, but did not speak.
“Why did your steward come with ye to Frankfort?” asked Dirk. “And his wife stay as chatelaine of Martzburg? It had been more fitting had he remained. What reward will he receive for his services as your henchman at the Court?”
Jacobea drew her handkerchief from her girdle and pressed it to her lips.
“What reward do you imagine I should offer?” she answered very slowly.
“I cannot tell,” said Dirk, with a hot force behind every word. “For I do not know if you are a fool or no, but this I know, the man waits a word from you —”
“Stop!” said Jacobea.
But Dirk continued ruthlessly —
“He waits, I tell you —”
“Oh God, for what?” she cried.
“For you to say —‘you think me fair, Sebastian, you know me rich and all my life shall prove me loving, and only a red-browed woman in Martzburg Castle prevents you coming from my footstool to my side’— said you that, he would take horse tomorrow for Martzburg and return a free man.”
The handkerchief fell from Jacobea’s fingers and fluttered on the dark ferns.
“You are a fiend,” she said in a sick voice. “You cannot be human to so touch my heart, and you are wrong, I dare to tell you in the name of God that you are wrong — those evil thoughts have never come to me.”
“In the name of the Devil I am right,” smiled Dirk.
“The Devil! Ye are one of his agents!” she cried in a trembling defiance. “Or how could you guess what I scarcely knew until ye came that baleful night? — what he never knew till then — ah, I swear it, be never dreamt that I— never dreamt what my favour meant, but now — his — eyes — I cannot mistake them.”
“He is a dutiful servant,” said Dirk, “he waits for his mistress to speak.”
Jacobea sank to her knees on the grass.
“I entreat you to forbear,” she whispered. “Whoever you are, whatever your object I ask your mercy. I am very unhappy — do not goad me — drive me further.”
Dirk stepped forward and caught her drooping shoulders in his firm hands.
“Pious fool!” he cried. “How long do you think you can endure this? how long do you think he will remain the servant when he knows he might be the master?”
She averted her agonised face.
“Then it was from you he learned it, you —”
Dirk interrupted hotly —
“He knows, remember that! he knows and he waits. Already he hates the woman who keeps him dumb; it were very easily done — one look, some few words — ye would not find him slow of understanding.” He loosened his grasp on her and Jacobea fell forward and clasped his feet.
“I implore you take back this wickedness, I am weak; since my first sight of you I have been striving against your influence that is killing me; man or demon, I beseech you, let me be!”
She raised her face, the slow, bitter tears forced out of her sweet, worn eyes; her hair fell like golden embroidery over the yellow gown, and her fingers fluttered on her unhappy bosom. Dirk considered her curiously and coldly.
“I am neither man nor demon,” he said. “But this I tell you, as surely as he is more to you than your own soul, so surely are you lost.”
“Lost! lost!” she repeated, and half raised herself.
“Certes, therefore get the price of your soul,” he mocked. “What is the woman to you? A coldhearted jade, as good dead now as fifty years hence — what is one sin the more? I tell you while you set that man’s image up in your heart before that of God ye are lost already.”
“I am so lonely,” she whispered piteously. “Had I one friend —” She paused, as though some one came into her mind with the words, and Dirk, intently watching her, suddenly flushed and glowed with anger.
He stepped back and clapped his hands.
“I promised you a sight of your lover,” he said. “Now let him speak for himself.” Jacobea turned her head sharply.
A few feet away from her stood Sebastian, holding back the heavy boughs and looking at her.
She gave a shriek and swiftly rose; Dirk and the witch had disappeared; if they had slipped into the undergrowth and were yet near they gave no answer when she wildly called to them; the vast forest seemed utterly empty save for the silent figure of Sebastian.
Not doubting now that Dirk was some evil being whom her own wicked thoughts had evoked, believing that the appearance of her steward was some phantom sent for her undoing, she, unfortunate, distracted with misery and terror, turned with a shuddering relief to the oblivion of the still pool.
Hastening with trembling feet through the clinging weeds and ferns, she climbed down the damp bank and would have cast herself into the dull water, when she heard his voice calling her — a human voice.
She paused, lending a fearful ear to the sound while the water rippled from her foot. “It is I,” he called. “My lady, it is I.”
This was Sebastian himself, no delusion nor ghost but her living steward, as she had seen him this morning in his brown riding-habit, wearing her gold and blue colours round his hat. She mastered her terror and confusion.
“Indeed, you frightened me,”— a lie rose to save her. “I thought it some robber — I did not know you.”
Fear of his personal aid gave her strength to move away from the water and gain the level ground.
“I have been searching for you,” said Sebastian. “We came upon your horse on the high road and then upon your gloves in the grass, so, as no rider could come among these trees, on foot I sought for you. I am glad that you are safe.”
This calm and carefully ordered speech gave her time to gather courage; she fumbled at her bosom, drew forth a crucifix and clutched it to her lips with a murmur of passionate prayers.
He could not but notice this; he must perceive her soiled torn dress, her wild face, her white exhaustion, but he gave no sign of it.
“It was a fortunate chance that sent me here,” he said gravely. “The wood is so vast —” “Ay, so vast,” she answered. “Know you the way out, Sebastian?”
She tried to nerve herself to look at him, but her glance was lifted only to fall instantly again.
“You must forgive me,” she said, struggling with a fainting voice. “I have walked very far, I am so weary — I must rest a while.”
But she did not sit, nor did he urge that she should.
“Have you met no one?” he asked.
She hesitated; if he had encountered neither the woman nor the young man, then they were indeed wizards or of some unearthly race — she could not bring herself to speak of them.
“No,” she answered at length.
“We have a long way to walk,” said the steward.
Jacobea felt his look upon her, and grasped her crucifix until the sharp edges of it cut her palm. “Do you know the way?” she repeated dully.
“Ay,” he answered now. “But it is far.”
She gathered up her long skirt and shook off the withered leaves that clung to it. “Will you lead the way?” she said.
He turned and moved ahead of her down the narrow path by which he had come; as she followed him she heard his foot fall soft on the thick grass and the swishing sound of the straying boughs as he held them back for her to pass, till she found the silence so unendurable that she nerved herself to break it; but several times she gathered her strength in vain for the effort, and when at last some foolish words had come to her lips, he suddenly looked back over his shoulder and checked her speech.
“’Tis strange that your horse should have gone mad in such a manner,” he said.
“But ye found him?” she faltered.
“Ay, a man found him, exhausted and trembling like a thing bewitched.”
Her heart gave a great leap — had he used that word by chance —
She could not answer.
“Ye were not hurt, my lady, when ye were thrown?” said the steward.
“No,” said Jacobea, “no.”
Silence again; no bird nor butterfly disturbed the sombre stillness of the wood, no breeze stirred the thick leaves that surrounded them; gradually the path widened until it brought them into a great space grown with ferns and overarched with trees.
Then Sebastian paused.
“It is a long way yet,” he said. “Will you rest a while?”
“No,” she replied vehemently. “Let us get on —— where are the others? surely we must meet some one soon!”
“I do not know that any came this way,” he answered, and cast his brooding glance over the “trembling weariness of her figure.
“Ye must rest, certes, it is folly to persist,” he added, with some authority.
She seated herself, lifting the hand that held the crucifix to her bosom.
“How full of shadows it is here,” she said. “It is difficult to fancy the shining of the sun on the tops of these darkened trees.”
“I do not love forests,” answered Sebastian. As he stood his profile was towards her; and she must mark again the face that she knew so bitterly well, his thin dark cheek, his heavy-lidded eyes, his contained mouth.
Gazing down into the clusters of ferns at his feet, he spoke —
“I think I must return to Martzburg,” he said.
She braced herself, making a gesture with her hand as if she would ward off his words. “You know that you are free to do what you will, Sebastian.”
He took off his right glove slowly and looked at his hand.
“Is it not better that I should go?”
He challenged her with a full sideways glance.
“I do not know,” she said desperately, “why you put this to me, here and now.”
“I do not often see you alone.”
He was not a man of winning manners or of easy speech; his words came stiffly, yet with a purpose in them that chilled her with a deeper sense of dread.
She opened her hand to stare down at the crucifix in her palm.
“You can leave Frankfort when you wish — why not?” she said.
He faced her quickly.
“But I may come back?”
It seemed to Jacobea that he echoed Dirk’s words; the crucifix slipped through her trembling fingers on to the grass.
“What do you mean? Oh, Sebastian, what do you mean?” The words were forced from her, but uttered under her breath; she added instantly, in a more courageous voice, “Go and come as you list, are you not free?”
He saw the crucifix at her feet and picked it up, but she drew back as he came near and held out her hand.
He put the crucifix into it, frowning, his eyes dark and bright with excitement.
“Do you recall the two students who were housed that night in Martzburg?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Is not one now at Court?”
“I would mean the other — the boy,” answered Sebastian.
She averted her face and drooped until the ends of her hair touched her knees.
“I met him again today,” continued the steward, with a curious lift in his voice, “here, in this forest, while searching for you. He spoke to me.”
Certainly the Devil was enmeshing her, surely he had brought her to this pass, sent Sebastian, of all men, to find her in her weariness and loneliness.
And Sebastian knew — knew also that she knew — outspoken words between them could be hardly more intolerable shame than this.
“He is cunning beyond most,” said the steward.
Jacobea lifted her head.
“He is an enchanter — a wizard, do not listen to him, do not speak to him — as you value your soul, Sebastian, do not think of him.”
“As I value some other things,” he answered grimly, “I must both listen to him and consider what he says.”
“We will go on our way. I cannot talk with you now, Sebastian.”
But he stood in her path.
“Let me journey to Martzburg,” he said thickly; “one word — I shall understand you.”
She glanced and saw him extraordinarily keen and moved; he was lord of Martzburg could he but get her to pledge herself; in his eagerness, however, he forgot advice. “Tell her,” said Dirk, “you have adored her for years in secret.” This escaped his keenness, for though his wife was nothing to him compared with his ambition, he had no tenderness for Jacobea. Had he remembered to feign it he might have triumphed and now; but though her gentle heart believed he held her dear, that he did not say so made firmness possible for her.
“You shall stay in Frankfort,” she said, with sudden strength.
“Sybilla asks my return,” he said, gazing at her passionately. “Do we not understand each other without words?”
“The fiend has bewitched you also,” she answered fearfully. “You know too much —— you guess too much — and yet I tell you nothing, and I, I also am bewitched, for I cannot reply to you as I should.”
“I have been silent long,” he said. “But I have dared to think — had I been free — as I can be free —”
The crucifix was forgotten in her hand.
“We do evil to talk like this,” she said, half fainting.
“You will bid me go to Martzburg,” he insisted, and took her long cold fingers.
She raised her eyes to the boughs above her.
“No, no!” then, “God have compassion on me!” she said.
The thick foliage stirred — Jacobea felt as if the bars of a cage were being broken about her —— she turned her head and a little colour flushed her cheek.
Through the silvery stems of the larches came some knights and a page boy, members of the party left to search for her.
She moved towards them; she hailed them almost gaily; none, save Sebastian, saw her as they turned towards Frankfort raise the crucifix and press her lips to it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51