Sebastian paused on the steep, dark stairs and listened.
Castle Martzburg was utterly silent; he knew that there were one or two servants only within the walls, and that they slept at a distance; he knew that his cautious entry by the donjon door had made no sound, yet on every other step or so he stood still and listened.
He had procured a light; it fluttered in danger of extinction in the draughty stairway, and he had to shield it with his hand.
Once, when he stopped, he took from his belt the keys that had gained him admission and slipped them into the bosom of his doublet; hanging at his waist, they made a little jingling sound as he moved.
When he gained the great hall he opened the door as softly and slowly as if he did not know emptiness alone awaited him the other side.
He entered, and his little light only served to show the expanses of gloom.
It was very cold; he could hear the rain falling in a thin stream from the lips of the gargoyles without; he remembered that same sound on the night the two students took shelter; the night when the deed he was about to do had by a devil, in a whisper, been first put into his head.
He crossed to the hearth and set the lamp in the niche by the chimney-piece; he wished there was a fire — certainly it was cold.
The dim rays of the lamp showed the ashes on the hearth, the cushions in the window-seat, and something that, even in that dullness, shone with fiery hue.
Sebastian looked at it in a half horror: it was Sybilla’s red lily, finished and glowing from a samite cushion; by the side of it slept Jacobea’s little grey cat.
The steward gazing in curiously intent fashion recalled the fact that he had never conversed with his wife and never liked her; he could not tell of one sharp word between them, yet had she said she hated him he would have felt no surprise; he wondered, in case he had ever loved her, would he have been here to-night on this errand.
Lord of Martzburg! — lord of as fine a domain as any in the empire, with a chance of the imperial crown itself — nay, had he loved his wife it would have made no difference; what sorry fool even would let a woman interfere with a great destiny — Lord of Martzburg.
With little reflection on the inevitable for his wife, he fell to considering Jacobea; until to-night she had been a cipher to him — that she favoured him a mere voucher for his crime; for the procuring of this or that for him — a fact to be accepted and used; but that she should pray about him — speak as she had — that was another matter, and for the first time in his cold life he was both moved and ashamed. His thin, dark face flushed; he looked askance at the red lily and took the light from its niche.
The shadows seemed to gather and throng out of the silence, bearing down on him and urging him forward; he found the little door by the fireplace open, and ascended the steep stone stairs to his wife’s room.
Here there was not even the drip of the rain or the wail of the wind to disturb the stillness; he had taken off his boots, and his silk-clad feet made no sound, but he could not hush the catch of his breath and the steady thump of his heart.
When he reached her room he paused again, and again listened.
Nothing — how could there be? Had he not come so softly even the little cat had slept on undisturbed?
He opened the door and stepped in.
It was a small, low chamber; the windows were unshrouded, and fitful moonlight played upon the floor; Sebastian looked at once towards the bed, that stood to his left; it was hung with dark arras, now drawn back from the pillows.
Sybilla was asleep; her thick, heavy hair lay outspread under her cheek; her flesh and the bedclothes were turned to one dazzling whiteness by the moon.
Worked into the coverlet, that had slipped half to the polished floor, were great wreaths of purple roses, showing dim yet gorgeous.
Her shoes stood on the bed steps; her clothes were flung over a chair; near by a crucifix hung against the wall, with her breviary on a shelf beneath.
The passing storm clouds cast luminous shadows across the chamber; but they were becoming fainter, the tempest was dying away. Sebastian put the lamp on a low coffer inside the door and advanced to the bed.
A large dusky mirror hung beside the window, and in it he could see his wife again, reflected dimly in her ivory whiteness with the dark lines of her hair and brows.
He came to the bedside so that his shadow was flung across her sleeping face.
“Sybilla,” he said.
Her regular breathing did not change.
A swift cloud obscured the moon; the sickly rays of the lamp struggled with darkness. “Sybilla.”
Now she stirred; he heard her fetch a sigh as one who wakens reluctantly from soft dreams. “Do you not hear me speak, Sybilla?”
From the bewildering glooms of the bed he heard her silk bed-clothes rustle and slip; the moon came forth again and revealed her sitting up, wide awake now and staring at him.
“So you have come home, Sebastian?” she said. “Why did you rouse me?”
He looked at her in silence; she shook back her hair from her eyes.
“What is it?” she asked softly.
“The Emperor died,” said Sebastian.
“I know — what is that to me? Bring the light, Sebastian; I cannot see your face.”
“There is no need; the Emperor had not time to pray, I would not deal so with you, therefore I woke you.”
“By my mistress’s commands you must die tonight, and by my desire; I shall be Lord of Martzburg, and there is no other way —”
She moved her head, and, peering forward, tried to see his face.
“Make your peace with Heaven,” he said hoarsely; “for tomorrow I must go to her a free man.”
She put her hand to her long throat.
“I wondered if you would ever say this to me — I did not think so, for it did not enter my mind that she could give commands.”
“Then you knew?”
“Before ever you did, Sebastian, and I have so thought of it, in these long days when I have been alone, it seemed that I must sew it even into my embroideries —‘Jacobea loves Sebastian.’” He gripped the bed-post.
“It is the strangest thing,” said his wife, “that she should love you — you — and send you here to-night; she was a gracious maiden.”
“I am not here to talk of that,” answered Sebastian; “nor have we long — the dawn is not far off.”
Sybilla rose, setting her long feet on the bed step.
“So I must die,” she said —“must die. Certes! I have not lived so ill that I should fear to die, nor so pleasantly that I should yearn to live; it will be a poor thing in you to kill me, but no shame to me to be slain, my lord.”
As she stood now against the shadowed curtains her hair caught the lamplight and flashed into red gold about her colourless face; Sebastian looked at her with hatred and some terror, but she smiled strangely at him.
“You never knew me, Sebastian, but I am very well acquainted with you, and I do scorn you so utterly that I am sorry for the chatelaine.”
“She and I will manage that,” answered Sebastian fiercely; “and if you seek to divert or delay me by this talk it is useless, for I am resolved, nor will I be moved.”
“I do not seek to move you, nor do I ask you for my life. I have ever been dutiful, have I not?” “Do not smile at me!” he cried. “You should hate me.”
She shook her head.
“Certes! I hate you not.”
She moved from the bed, in the long linen garment that she wore, slim and childish to see. She took a wrap of gold-coloured silk from a chair and put it about her. The man gazed at her the while with sullen eyes.
She glanced at the crucifix.
“I have nothing to say; God knows it all. I am ready.”
“I do not want your soul,” he cried.
“I made confession yesterday. How cold it is for this time of the year! — I do not shiver for fear, my lord.”
She put on her shoes, and as she stooped her brilliant hair fell and touched the patch of fading moonshine.
“Make haste,” breathed Sebastian.
His wife raised her face.
“How long have we been wed?” she asked.
“Let that be.”
He paled and bit his lip.
“Three years — nay, not three years. When I am dead give my embroideries to Jacobea, they are in these coffers; I have finished the red lily — I was sewing it when the two scholars came, that night she first knew — and you first knew — but I had known a long while.”
Sebastian caught up the lamp.
“Be silent or speak to God,” he said.
She came gently across the floor, holding the yellow silk at her breast.
“What are you going to do with me?” she whispered. “Strangle me? — nay, they would see that —— afterwards.”
Sebastian went to a little door that opened beside the bed and pulled aside the arras. “That leads to the battlements,” she said.
He pointed to the dark steps.
“Go up, Sybilla.”
He held the lamp above his haggard face, and the light of it fell over the narrow winding stone steps; she looked at them and ascended. Sebastian followed, closing the door after him. In a few moments they were out on the donjon roof.
The vast stretch of sky was clear now and paling for the dawn; faint pale clouds clustered round the dying moon, and the scattered stars pulsed wearily.
Below them lay the dark masses of the other portions of the castle, and beside them rose the straining pole and wind-tattered banner of Jacobea of Martzburg.
Sybilla leant against the battlements, her hair fluttering over her face.
“How cold it is!” she said in a trembling voice. “Make haste, my lord.”
He was shuddering, too, in the keen, insistent wind.
“Will you not pray?” he asked again.
“No,” she answered, and looked at him vacantly. “If I shriek would any one hear me? — Will it be more horrible than I thought? Make haste — make haste — or I shall be afraid.”
She crouched against the stone, shivering violently. Sebastian put the lamp upon the ground. “Take care it does not go out,” she said, and laughed. “You would not like to find your way back in the dark — the little cat will be sorry for me.”
She broke off to watch what he was doing.
A portion of the tower projected; here the wall was of a man’s height, and pierced with arblast holes; through there Sybilla had often looked and seen the country below framed in the stone like a picture in a letter of an horäe, so small it seemed, and yet clear and brightly coloured.
Beneath the wall was a paving-stone, raised at will by an iron ring; when lifted it revealed a sheer open drop the entire height of the donjon, through which stones and fire could be hurled in time of siege upon the assailants in the courtyard below; but Jacobea had always shuddered at it, nor had there been occasion to open it for many years.
Sybilla saw her husband strain at the ring and bend over the hole, and stepped forward. “Must it be that way? — O Jesu! Jesu! shall I not be afraid?”
She clasped her hands and fixed her eyes on the figure of Sebastian as he raised the slab and revealed the black aperture; quickly he stepped back as stone rang on stone.
“So,” he said; “I shall not touch you, and it will be swiftly over — walk across, Sybilla.” She closed her eyes and drew a long breath.
“Have you not the courage?” he cried violently. “Then I must hurl you from the battlements . . . it shall not look like murder . . . ”
She turned her face to the beautiful brightening sky.
“My soul is not afraid, but . . . how my body shrinks! — I do not think I can do it . . . ”
He made a movement towards her; at that she gathered herself.
“No — you shall not touch me.”
Across the donjon roof she walked with a firm step.
“Farewell, Sebastian; may God assoil me and thee.”
She put her hands to her face and moaned as her foot touched the edge of the hole . . . no shriek nor cry disturbed the serenity of the night, she made no last effort to save herself; but disappeared silently to the blackness of her death.
Sebastian listened to the strange indefinite sound of it, and drops of terror gathered on his brow; then all was silent again save for the monotonous flap of the banner.
“Lord of Martzburg,” he muttered to steady himself; “Lord of Martzburg.”
He dropped the stone into place, picked up the lantern and returned down the close, cold stairs. Her room . . . on the pillow the mark where her head had lain, her clothes over the coffer; well, he hated her, no less than he had ever done; to the last she had shamed him; why had he been so long? — too long — soon some one would be stirring, and he must be far from Martzburg before they found Sybilla.
He crept from the chamber with the same unnecessary stealth he had observed in entering, and in a cautious manner descended the stairs to the great hall.
To reach the little door that had admitted him he must traverse nearly half the castle; he cursed the distance, and the grey light that crept in through every window he passed and revealed to him his own shaking hand holding the useless lamp. Martzburg, his castle soon to be, had become hateful to him; always had he found it too vast, too empty; but now he would fill it as Jacobea had never done; the knights and her kinsfolk who had ever overlooked him should be his guests and his companions.
The thoughts that chased through his brain took curious turns; Jacobea was the Emperor’s ward . . . but the Emperor was dead, should he wed her secretly and how long need he wait? . . . Sybilla was often on the donjon keep, let it seem that she had fallen . . . none had seen him come, none would see him go . . . and Jacobea, strangest thing of all (he seemed to hear Sybilla saying it) that she should love him . . .
The pale glow of a dreary dawn filled the great hall as he entered it; the grey cat was still asleep, and the shining silks of the red lily shone like the hair of the strange woman who had worked it patiently into the samite. He tiptoed across the hall, descended the wider stairs and made his way to the first chamber of the donjon.
Carefully he returned the lamp to the niche where he had found it; wondering, as he extinguished it, if any would note that it had been burnt that night; carefully he drew on his great muddy boots and crept out by the little postern door into the court.
So sheltered was the castle, and situated in so peaceful a place, that when the chatelaine was not within the walls the huge outer gates that required many men to close them stood open on to the hillside; beyond them Sebastian saw his patient horse, fastened to the ring of the bell chain, and beyond him the clear grey-blue hills and trees.
His road lay open; yet he closed the door slowly behind him and hesitated. He strove with a desire to go and look at her; he knew just how she had fallen . . . when he had first come to Martzburg, the hideous hole in the battlements exercised a great fascination over him; he had often flung down stones, clods of grass, even once a book, that he might hear the hollow whistling sound and imagine a furious enemy below.
Afterwards he had noticed these things and how they struck the bottom of the shaft — lying where she would be now; he desired to see her, yet loathed the thought of it; there was his horse, there the open road, and Jacobea waiting a few miles away, yet he must linger while the accusing daylight gathered about him, while the rising sun discovered him; he must dally with the precious moments, bite the ends of his black hair, frown and stare at the round tower of the donjon the other side of which she lay.
At last he crossed the rough cobbles; skirted the keep and stood still, looking at her.
Yes — he had pictured her; yet he saw her more distinctly than he had imagined he would in this grey light. Her hair and her cloak seemed to be wrapped close about her; one hand still clung to her face; her feet showed bare and beautiful.
Sebastian crept nearer; he wanted to see her face and if her eyes were open; to be certain, also, if that dark red that lay spread on the ground was all her scattered locks . . . the light was treacherous.
He was stooping to touch her when the quick sound of an approaching horseman made him draw back and glance round.
But before he could even tell himself it were well to fly they were upon him; two horsemen, finely mounted, the foremost Dirk Renswoude, bare-headed, a rich colour in his cheek and a sparkle in his eyes; he reined up the slim brown horse.
“So — it is done?” he cried, leaning from the saddle towards Sebastian.
The steward stepped back.
“Whom have you with you?” he asked in a shaking voice.
“A friend of mine and a suitor to the chatelaine —— f which folly you and I shall cure him.” Theirry pressed forward, the hoofs of his striving horse making musical clatter on the cobbles. “The steward!” he cried; “and . . . ”
His voice sank; he turned burning eyes on Dirk.
“— the steward’s wife that was,” smiled the youth. “But, certes! you must do him worship now, he will be Lord of Martzburg.”
Sebastian was staring at Sybilla.
“You tell too much,” he muttered.
“Nay, my friend is one with me, and I can answer for his silence.” Dirk patted the horse’s neck and laughed again; laughter with a high triumphant note in it.
Theirry swung round on him in a desperate, bitter fierceness.
“Why have you brought me here? Where is the chatelaine? — by God His saints that woman has been murdered . . . ”
Dirk turned in the saddle and faced him.
“Ay, and by Jacobea of Martzburg’s commands.”
Theirry laughed aloud.
“The lie is dead as you give it being,” he answered —“nor can all your devilry make it live.” “Sebastian,” said Dirk, “has not this woman come to her death by the chatelaine’s commands?” He pointed to Sybilla.
“You know it, since in your presence she bade me hither,” answered Sebastian heavily. Dirk’s voice rose clear and musical.
“You see your piece of uprightness thought highly of her steward, and that she might endow him with her hand his wife must die —”
“Peace! peace!” cried Sebastian fiercely, and Theirry rose in his saddle.
“It is a lie!” he repeated wildly. “If ’tis not a lie God has turned His face from me, and I am lost indeed!
“If ’tis no lie,” cried Dirk exultingly, “you are mine — did ye not swear it?”
“An’ she be this thing you name her,” answered Theirry passionately — “then the Devil is cunning indeed, and I his servant; but if you speak false I will kill you at her feet.”
“And by that will I abide,” smiled Dirk. “Sebastian, you shall return with us to give this news to your mistress.”
“Is she not here?” cried Theirry.
Dirk pointed to the silver-plated harness.
“You ride her horse. See her arms upon his breast. Sweet fool, we left her behind in the hostel, waiting the steward’s return . . . ”
“All ways ye trap and deceive me,” exclaimed Theirry hotly.
“Let us begone,” said Sebastian; he looked at Dirk as if at his master. “Is it not time for us to begone?”
It was full daylight now, though the sun had not yet risen above the hills; the lofty walls and high towers of the huge grey castle blocked up the sky and threw into the gloom the three in their shadow.
“Hark!” said Dirk, and lifted his finger delicately. Again the sound of a horse approaching on the long white road, the rise and fall of the quick trot bitterly distinct in the hard stillness.
“Who is this?” whispered Sebastian; he caught Dirk’s bridle as if he found protection in the youth’s near presence, and stared towards the blank open gates.
A white horse appeared against the cold misty background of grey Country; a woman was in the saddle: Jacobea of Martzburg.
She paused, peered up at the high little windows in the donjon, then turned her gaze on the silent three.
“Now can the chatelaine speak for herself,” breathed Dirk.
Theirry gave a great sigh, his eyes fixed with a painful intensity on the approaching lady, but she did not seem to see either of them.
“Sebastian,” she cried, and drew rein gazing at him, “where is your wife?”
Her words rang on the cold, clear air like strokes on a bell.
“Sybilla died last night,” answered the steward, “but I did nought. And you should not have come.”
Jacobea shaded her brows with her gloved hand and stared past the speaker.
Theirry broke out in a trembling passion.
“In the name of the angels in whose company I ever placed you, what do you know of this that has been done?”
“What is that on the ground?” cried Jacobea. “Sybilla — he has slain Sybilla — but, sirs,”— she — looked round her distractedly —“ye must not blame him — he saw my wish . . . ” “From your own lips!” cried Theirry.
“Who are you who speak?” she demanded haughtily. “I sent him to slay Sybilla . . . ” She interrupted herself with a hideous shriek. “Sebastian, ye are stepping in her blood!”
And, letting go of the reins, she sank from the saddle; the steward caught her, and as she slipped from his hold to her knees her unconscious head came near to the stiff white feet of the dead.
“Her yellow hair!” cried Dirk. “Let us leave her to her steward — you and I have another way!” “May God curse her as He has me,” said Theirry in an agony — “for she has slain my hope of heaven!”
“You will not leave me?” called Sebastian. “What shall I say? — what shall I do?”
“Lie and lie again!” answered Dirk with a wild air; “wed the dame and damn her people — let fly your authority and break her heart as quickly as you may —”
“Amen to that!” added Theirry.
“And now to Frankfort!” cried Dirk, exultant. They set their horses to a furious pace and galloped out of Castle Martzburg.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06