Dirk took off his riding-coat and listened with a smile to the quick step of Theirry overhead; he was again in the long low chamber looking out on the witch’s garden, and nothing was changed save that the roses bloomed no longer on the bare thorny bushes.
“So you have brought him back,” said Nathalie, caressing the youth’s soft sleeve; “pulled his saint out of her shrine and given her over to the demons.”
Dirk turned his head; a beautiful look was in his eyes.
“Yea, I have brought him back,” he said musingly.
“You have done a foolish thing,” grumbled the witch, “he will ruin you yet; beware, for even now you hold him against his will; I marked his face as he went into his old chamber.” Dirk seated himself with a sigh.
“In this matter I am not to be moved, and now some food, for I am so weary that I can scarcely think. Nathalie, the toil it has been, the rough roads, the delays, the long hours in the saddle — but it was worth it!”
The witch set the table with a rich service of ivory and silver.
“Worth leaving your fortunes at the crisis? Ye left Frankfort the day after the Emperor died, and have been away two months. Ysabeau thinks you dead.”
“No matter, tomorrow she shall know me living. Martzburg is far away and the weather delayed us, but it had to be; now I am free to work my own advancement.”
He drank eagerly of the wine put before him, and began to eat.
“Ye have heard,” asked Nathalie, “that Balthasar of Courtrai has been elected Emperor?” “Yea,” smiled Dirk, “and is to marry Ysabeau within the year; we knew it, did we not?” “Next spring they go to Rome to receive the Imperial crown.”
“I shall be with them,” said Dirk. “Well, it is good to rest. What a thick fool Balthasar is!” He smiled, and his eyes sparkled.
“The Empress is a clever woman,” answered the witch, “she came here once to know whither you had gone. I told her, for the jest, that you were dead. At that she must think her secret dead with you, yet she gave no sign of joy nor relief, nor any hint of what her business was.”
Dirk elegantly poured out more wine
“She is never betrayed by her puppet’s face — an iron-hearted fiend, the Empress.” “They say, though, that she is a fool for Balthasar, a dog at his heels.”
“Until she change.”
“Belike you will be her next fancy,” said Nathalie; “the crystals always foretell a throne for you.”
“I do not mean to share my honours with any — woman,” he answered; “pile up the fire, Nathalie, certes, it is cold.”
He pushed back his chair with a half sigh on his lips, and turned contented eyes on the glowing hearth Nathalie replenished.
“And none has thought evil of Melchoir’s death?” he asked curiously.
The witch returned to her little stool and rubbed her hands together; the leaping firelight cast a false colour over her face.
“Ay, there was Hugh of Rooselaare.”
Dirk sat up.
“The Lord of Rooselaare?”
“Certes, the night Melchoir died he flung ‘Murderess!’ in the Empress’s face.”
Dirk showed a grave, alert face.
“I never heard of that.”
“Nay,” answered the witch with some malice, “ye were too well engaged in parting that boy from his love — it is a pretty jest — certainly, she is a clever woman, she enlists Balthasar as her champion — he becomes enraged, furious, and Hugh is cast into the dungeons for his pains.” The witch laughed softly. “He would not retract, his case swayed to and fro, but Balthasar and the Empress always hated him, he had never a chance.”
Dirk rose and pressed his clasped hand to his temple.
“What do you say? never a chance?”
Nathalie stared at him.
“Why, you seem moved.”
“Tell me of Hugh of Rooselaare,” Dirk in an intense voice.
“He is to die to-night at sunset.”
Dirk uttered a hoarse exclamation.
“Old witch!” he cried bitterly, “why tell me this before? I lose time, time.”
He snatched his cloak from the wall and flung on his hat.
“What is Hugh of Rooselaare to you?” asked Nathalie, and she crept across the room and clung to the young man’s garments.
He shook her off fiercely.
“He must not die — he, on the scaffold! I, as you say, I was following that boy and his love while this was happening!”
The witch fell back against the wall, while overhead the restless tread of Theirry sounded. Dirk dashed from the room and out into the quiet street.
For a second he paused; it was late afternoon, he had perhaps an hour or an hour and a half. Clenching his hands, he drew a deep breath, and turned in the direction of the palace at a steady run.
By reason of the snow clouds and the bitter cold there were few abroad to notice the slim figure running swiftly and lightly; those who were about made their way in the direction of the market-place, where the Lord of Rooselaare was presently to meet his death.
Dirk arrived at the palace one hand over his heart, stinging him with the pain of his great speed; he demanded the Empress.
None among the guards knew either him or his name, but, at his imperious insistence, ‘they sent word by a page to Ysabeau that the young doctor Constantine had a desire to see her.
The boy returned, and Dirk was admitted instantly, smiling gloomily to think with what feelings Ysabeau would look on him.
So far all had been swiftly accomplished; he was conducted to her private chamber and brought face to face with her while he still panted from his running.
She stood against a high arched window that showed the heavy threatening winter clouds without; her purple, green and gold draperies shone warmly in the glitter of the fire; a tray of incense stood on the hearth after the manner of the East, and the hazy clouds of it rose before her.
Until the page had gone neither spoke, then Dirk said quickly ——“I returned to Frankfort to — day.”
Ysabeau was agitated to fear by his sudden appearance.
“Where have you been?” she asked. “I thought you dead.”
Dirk, pale and grave, gave her a penetrating glance.
“I have no time for speech with you now — you owe me something, do you not? Well, I am here to ask part payment.”
The Empress winced.
“Well — what? I had no wish to be ungrateful, ’twas you avoided me.”
She crossed to the hearth and fixed her superb eyes intently on the youth.
“Hugh of Rooselaare is to die this evening,” he said.
“Yea,” answered Ysabeau, and her childish loveliness darkened.
For a while Dirk was silent; he showed suddenly frail and ill; on his face was an expression of emotion, mastered and held back.
“He must not die,” he said at last and lifted his eyes, shadowed with fatigue. “That is what I demand of you, his pardon, now, and at once — we have but little time.”
Ysabeau surveyed him curiously and fearfully.
“You ask too much,” she replied in a low voice; “do you know why this man is to die?” “For speaking the truth,” he said, with a sudden sneer.
The Empress flushed, and clutched the embroidery on her bodice.
“You of all men should know why he must be silenced,” she retorted bitterly. “What is your reason for asking his life?”
Dirk’s mouth took on an ugly curl
“My reason is no matter — it is my will.”
Ysabeau beat her foot on the edge of the Carpet.
“Have I made you so much my master?” she muttered.
The young man answered impatiently.
“You will give me his pardon, and make haste, for I must ride with it to the market-place.” She answered with a lowering glance.
“I think I will not; I am not so afraid of you, and I hate this man — my secret is your secret after all.”
Dirk gave a wan smile.
“I can blast you as I blasted Melchoir of Brabant, Ysabeau, and do you think I have any fear of what you can say? But”— he leaned towards her —“suppose I go with what I know to Balthasar?” The name humbled the Empress like a whip held over her.
“So, I am helpless,” she muttered, loathing him.
“The pardon,” insisted Dirk; “sound the bell and write me a pardon.”
Still she hesitated; it was a hard thing to lose her vengeance against a dangerous enemy. “Choose another reward,” she pleaded. “Of what value can this man’s life be to you?”
“You seek to put me off until it be too late,” cried Dirk hoarsely — he stepped forward and seized the hand-bell on the table —“now an’ you show yourself obstinate, I go straight from here to Balthasar and tell him of the poisoning of Melchoir.”
Instinct and desire rose in Ysabeau to defy him with everything in her possession, from her guards to her nails; she shuddered with suppressed wrath, and pressed her little clenched hands against the wall.
Her Chamberlain entered.
“Write out a pardon for the Lord of Rooselaare,” commanded Dirk, “and haste, as you love your place.”
When the man had gone, Ysabeau turned with an ill-concealed savagery.
“What will they think! What will Balthasar think!”
“That must be your business,” said Dirk wearily.
“And Hugh himself!” flashed the Empress. The youth coloured painfully.
“Let him be sent to his castle in Flanders,” he said, with averted face. “He must not remain here.”
“So much you give in!” cried Ysabeau. “I do not understand you.”
He responded with a wild look.
“No one will ever understand me, Ysabeau.”
The Chamberlain returned, and in a shaking hand the Empress took the parchment and the reed pen, while Dirk waved the man’s dismissal.
“Sign,” he cried to her.
Ysabeau set the parchment on the table and looked out at the gathering clouds; the Lord of Rooselaare must have already left the prison.
She dallied with the pen; then took a little dagger from her hair and sharpened it; Dirk read her purpose in her lovely evil eyes, and snatched the lingering right hand into his own long fingers.
The Empress drew together and looked up at him bitterly and darkly, but Dirk’s breath stirred the ringlets that touched her cheek, his cool grip guided her reluctant pen; she shivered with fear and defiance; she wrote her name.
Dirk flung her hand aside with a great sigh of relief.
“Do not try to foil me again, Marozia Porphyrogentris,” he cried, and caught up the parchment, his hat and cloak.
She watched him leave the room; heard the heavy door close behind him, and she writhed with rage, thrusting, with an uncontrollable gesture of passion, the dagger into the table; it quivered in the wood, then broke under her hand.
With an ugly cry she ran to the window, flung it open and cast the handle out.
When it rattled on the cobbled yard Dirk was already there; he marked it fall, knew the gold and red flash, and smiled.
Showing the parchment signed by the Empress, he had commanded the swiftest horse in the stables. He cursed and shivered, waiting while the seconds fled; his slight figure and fierce face awed into silence the youngest in the courtyard as he paced up and down. At last — the horse; one of the grooms gave him a whip; he put it under his left arm and leapt to his seat; they opened the gate and watched him take the wind-swept street.
The market-place lay at the other end of the town; and the hour for the execution was close at hand — but the white horse he rode was fresh and strong.
The thick grey clouds had obscured the sunset and covered the sky; a few trembling flakes of snow fell, a bitter wind blew between the high narrow houses; here and there a light sparkling in a window emphasized the colourless cold without.
Dirk urged the steed till he rocked in the saddle; curtains were pulled aside and doors opened to see who rode by so furiously; the streets were empty —— but there would be people enough in the marketplace.
He passed the high walls of the college, galloped over the bridge that crossed the sullen waters of the Main, swept by the open doors of St. Wolfram, then had to draw rein, for the narrow Street began to be choked with people.
He pulled his hat over his eyes and flung his cloak across the lower half of his face; with one hand he dragged on the bridle, with the other waved the parchment.
“A pardon!” he cried. “A pardon! Make way!” They drew aside before the plunging steed; some answered him —
“It is no pardon — he wears not the Empress’s livery.”
One seized his bridle; Dirk leant from the saddle and dashed the parchment into the fellow’s face, the horse snorted, and plunging cleared a way and gained the market-place.
Here the press was enormous; men, women and children were gathered close round the mounted soldiers who guarded the scaffold; the armour, yellow and blue uniforms and bright feathers of the horsemen showed vividly against the grey houses and greyer sky.
On the scaffold were two dark, graceful figures; a man kneeling, with his long throat bare, and a man standing with a double-edged sword in his hands.
“A pardon!” shrieked Dirk. “In the name of the Emperor!”
He was wedged in the crowd, who made bewildered movements but could not give place to him; the soldiers did not or would not hear.
Dirk rose desperately in his stirrups; as he did so the hat and cloak fell back and his head and shoulders were revealed clearly above the swaying mass.
Hugh of Rooselaare heard the cry; he looked across the crowd and his eyes met the eyes of Dirk Renswoude.
“A pardon!” cried Dirk hoarsely; he saw the condemned man’s lips move.
The sword fell . . .
“A woman screamed,” said the monk on the scaffold, “and proclaimed a pardon.”
And he pointed to the commotion gathered about Dirk, while the executioner displayed to the crowd the serene head of Hugh of Rooselaare.
“Nay, it was not a woman,” one of the soldiers answered the monk, “’twas this youth.” Dirk forced to the foot of the scaffold.
“Let me through,” he said in a terrible voice; the guard parted; and seeing the parchment in his hand, let him mount the steps.
“You bring a pardon?” whispered the monk.
“I am too late,” said Dirk; he stood among the hurrying blood that stained the platform, and his face was hard.
“Dogs! was this an end for a lord of Rooselaare!” he cried, and clasped his hand on a straining breast. “Could you not have waited a little — but a few moments more?”
The snow was falling fast; it lay on Dirk’s shoulders and on his smooth hair; the monk drew the parchment from his passive hand and read it in a whisper to the officer; they both looked askance at the young man.
“Give me his head,” said Dirk.
The executioner had placed it at a corner of the scaffold; he left off wiping his sword and brought it forward.
Dirk watched without fear or repulsion, and took Hugh’s head in his slim fair hands. “How heavy it is,” he whispered.
The quick distortion of death had left the proud features; Dirk held the face close to his own, with no heed to the blood that trickled down his doublet.
Priest and captain standing apart, noticed a horrible likeness between the dead and the living, but would not speak of it.
“Churl,” said Dirk, gazing into the half-closed grey eyes that resembled so his own. “He spoke — as he saw me; what did he say?”
The headsman polished the mighty blade.
“Nought to do with you, or with any,” he answered, “the words had no meaning, certes.” “What were they?” whispered the youth.
“Have you come for me, Ursula?’ then he said again, ‘Ursula.’”
A quiver ran through Dirk’s frame.
“She shall repent this, the Eastern witch!” he said wildly. “May the Devil snatch you all to bitter judgment!”
He turned to the captain, with the head held against his breast.
“What are you going to do with this?”
“His wife has asked for his head and his body that he may be buried befitting his estate.” “His wife!” echoed Dirk; then slowly, “Ay, he had a wife — and a son, sir?”
“The child is dead.”
Dirk set the head down gently by the body.
“And his lands?” he asked.
“They go, sir, by favour of the Empress, to Balthasar of Courtrai, who married, as you may know, this lord’s heiress, Ursula, dead now many years.”
The snow had scattered the crowd; the soldiers were impatient to begone; the blood stiffened and froze about their feet; Dirk looked down at the dead man with an anguished and hopeless expression.
“Sir,” said the officer, “will you return with me to the palace, and we will tell the Empress how this mischance arose, how you came too late.”
“Nay,” replied Dirk fiercely. “Take that good news alone.”
He turned and descended the scaffold steps in a proud, gloomy manner.
One of the soldiers held his horse; he mounted in silence and rode away; they who watched saw the thick snowflakes blot out the solitary figure, and shuddered with no cause they understood.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48