Nathalie stood at the door with a lantern in her hand.
Dirk was returning; the witch held up the light to catch a glimpse of his face, then, whispering and crying under her breath, followed into the house.
“There is blood on your shoes and on your breast,” she whispered, when they reached the long chamber at the back.
Dirk flung himself on a chair and moaned; the snow lay still on his hair and his shoulders; he buried his face in the bend of his arm.
“Zerdusht and his master have forsaken us,” whimpered the witch. “I could work no spells tonight, and the mirror was blank.”
Dirk spoke in a muffled voice, without raising his head.
“Of what use magic to me? I should have stayed in Frankfort.”
Nathalie drew his wet cloak from his shoulders. “Have I not warned you? has not the brass head warned you that the young scholar will be your ruin, bringing you to woe and misery and shame?”
Dirk rose with a sob, and turned to the fire; the one dim lamp alone dispelled the cold darkness of the room, and the thin flames on the hearth fell into ashes before their eyes.
“Look at his blood on me!” cried Dirk, “his blood! Balthasar and Ysabeau make merry with his lands, but my hate shall mean something to them yet — I should not have left Frankfort.”
He rested his head against one of the supports of the chimney-piece, and Nathalie, peering into his face, saw that his eyes were wet.
“Alas! who was this man?”
“I did all I could,” whispered Dirk . . . “the Empress shall burn in hell.”
The sickly creeping flames illuminated his pallid face and his small hand, hanging clenched by his side.
“This is an evil day for us,” moaned the witch, “the spirits will not answer, the flames will not burn . . . some horrible misfortune threatens.”
Dirk turned his gaze into the half-dark room.
“Where is Theirry?”
“Gone.” Nathalie rocked to and fro on her stool.
“Gone!” shivered Dirk, “gone where?”
“Soon after you left he crept from his chamber, and his face was evil — he went into the street.” Dirk paced up and down with uneven steps.
“He will come back, he must come back! Ah, my heart! You say Zerdusht will not speak tonight?”
The witch moaned and trembled over the fire.
“Nay, nor will the spirits come.”
Dirk shook his clenched fist in the air.
“They shall answer me.”
He went to the window, opened it and looked out into blackness.
“Bring the lamp.”
Nathalie obeyed; the faint light showed the hastening snowflakes, no more.
“Maybe they will listen to me, nay, as I say, they shall.”
The witch followed with the swinging lamp in her hand, while they made their way in silence through the darkness and the snow, in between the bare rose bushes, over the wet, cold earth until they reached the trap-door at the end of the garden that led to the witch’s kitchen. Here she paused while Dirk raised the stone.
“Surely the earth shook then,” he said. “I felt it tremble beneath my feet — hush, there is a light below!”
The witch peered over his shoulder and saw a faint glow rising from the open trap, while at that moment her own lamp went suddenly out.
They stood in outer darkness.
“Will you dare descend?” muttered Nathalie. “What should I fear?” came the low, wild answer, and Dirk put his foot on the ladder . . . the witch followed . . . they found themselves in the chamber, and saw that it was lit by an immense fire, seated before which was an enormous man, with his back towards them; he was dressed in black, and at his feet lay stretched a huge black hound.
The snow dripped from the garments of the newcomers as it melted in the hot air; they stood very still.
“Good even,” said Dirk in a low voice.
The stranger turned a face as black as his garments; round his neck he wore a collar of most brilliant red and purple stones.
“A cold night,” he said, and again it seemed as if the earth rumbled and shook.
“You find our fire welcome,” answered Dirk, but the witch crouched against the wall, muttering to herself.
“A good heat, a good heat,” said the Blackamoor.
Dirk crossed the room, his arms folded on his breast, his head erect.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Warming myself, warming myself.”
“What have you to say to me?”
The Blackamoor drew closer to the fire.
“Ugh! how cold it is!” he said, and stuck out his leg and thrust it deep into the seething flames. Dirk drew still nearer.
“If you be what I think you, you have some reason coming here.”
The black man put his other leg into the fire, and flames curled to his knees.
“I have been to the palace, I have been to the palace. I sat under the Empress’s chair while she talked to a pretty youth whose name is Theirry — a-ah! it was cold in the palace, there was snow on the youth’s garments, as there is blood on yours, and the Emperor was there . . . ” All this while he looked into the fire, not at Dirk.
“Theirry has betrayed me,” said the youth.
The Blackamoor took his legs from the fire unscorched and untouched, and the hell-hound rose and howled.
“He has betrayed you, and Ysabeau accuses you to save herself; but the devils are on your side since there is other work for you to do; flee from Frankfort, and I will see that you fulfil your destiny.”
And now he glanced over his shoulder.
“The witch comes home to-night, to-night, the work here is done, take the road through Frankfort.”
He stood up, and his head touched the roof; the gems on his throat gave out long rays of light . . . the fire grew dim; the Blackamoor changed into a thick column of smoke . . . that spread . . . “Hell will not forsake you, Ursula of Rooselaare.”
Dirk fell back against the wall, thick vapours encompassing him; he put his hands over his face . . . When he looked up again the room was clear and lit by the beams of the dying fire; he gazed round for the witch, but Nathalie had gone.
With a thick sob in his throat he sprang up the ladder into the outer air, and rushed towards the desolate house.
Desolate indeed; empty, dark and cold it stood, the snow drifting in through the open windows, the fires extinguished on the hearths, a dead place never more to be inhabited.
Dirk leant against the door, breathing hard.
Here was a crisis of his fate; betrayed by the one whom he loved, deserted, too, it seemed, since Nathalie had disappeared . . . the Blackamoor . . . he remembered him as a vision . . . a delusion perhaps.
Oh, how cold it was! Would his accusers come for him to-night? He crept to the gate that gave on to the street and listened.
“Nathalie!” he cried forlornly.
Out of the further darkness came a distant hurry and confusion of sound.
Horses, shouting, eager feet; a populace roused, on the heels of the dealer in black magic, armed with fire and sword for the witches.
Dirk opened the gate, for the last time stepped from the witch’s garden; he wondered if Theirry was with the oncoming crowd, yet he did not think so, probably he was in the palace, probably he had repented already of what he had done; but the Empress had found her chance; her accusation falling first, who would take his word against her?
He wore neither cloak nor hat, and as he waited against the open gate the thick snow covered him from head to foot; his spirit had never been afraid, was not afraid now, but his frail body shivered and shrank back as when the angry students fronted him at Basle.
He listened to the noises of the approaching people, till through these another sound, nearer and stranger, made him turn his head.
It came from the witch’s house.
“Nathalie!” called Dirk in a half hope.
But the blackness rippled into fire, swift flames sprang up, a column of gold and scarlet enveloped house and garden in a curling embrace.
Dirk ran out into the road, where the glare of the fire lit the swirling snow for a trembling circle, and shading his eyes he stared at the flames that consumed his books, his magic herbs and potions, the strange things, rich and beautiful, that Nathalie had gathered in her long evil life; then he turned and ran down the street as the crowd surged in at the other end, to fall back upon one another aghast before the mighty flames that gave them mocking welcome.
Their dismayed and angry shouts came to Dirk’s ears as he ran through the snow; he fled the faster, towards the eastern gate.
It was not yet shut; light of foot and swift he darted through before they could challenge him, perhaps even before the careless guards saw him.
He was a fine runner, not easily fatigued, but he had already strained his endurance to the utmost, and, after he had well cleared the city gates, his limbs failed him and he fell to a walk.
The intense darkness produced a feeling of bewilderment, almost of light-headedness; he kept looking back over his shoulder, at the distant lights of Frankfort, to assure himself that he was not unwittingly stumbling back to the gates.
Finally he stood still and listened; he must be near the river; and after a while he could distinguish the sound of its sullen flow coming faintly out of the silent dark.
Well, of what use was the river to him, or aught else; he was cold, weary, pursued and betrayed; all he had with him were some few pieces of white money and a little phial of swift and keen poison that he never failed to carry in his breast; if his master failed him he would not go alive into the flames.
But, hopeless as his case might seem, he was far from resorting to this last refuge; he remembered the Blackamoor’s words, and dragged his numbed and aching limbs along. After a while he saw, glimmering ahead of him, a light.
It was neither in a house nor carried in the hand, for it shone low on the ground, lower, it seemed to Dirk, than his own feet.
He paused, listened, and proceeded cautiously for fear of the river, that must lie, he thought, very close to his left.
As he neared the light he saw it to be a lantern, that cast long rays across the clearing snowstorm; a glittering, trembling reflection beneath it told him it belonged to a boat roped to the bank.
Dirk crept towards it, went on his knees in the snow and mud, and beheld a small, empty craft, the lantern hanging at the prow.
He paused; the waters, rushing by steadily and angrily, must be flowing towards the Rhine and the town of Cologne.
He stepped into the boat that rocked while the water splashed beneath him; but with cold hands he undid the knotted rope.
The boat trembled a moment, then sped on with the current as if glad to be freed.
An oar lay in the bottom, with which for a while Dirk helped himself along, fearful lest the owners of the boat should pursue, then he let himself float down stream as he might. The water lapped about him, and the snow fell on his unprotected and already soaked figure; he stretched himself along the bottom of the boat and hid his face in the cushioned seat.
“Hugh of Rooselaare is dead and Theirry has betrayed me,” he whispered into the darkness. Then he began sobbing, very bitterly.
His anguished tears, the cruel cold, the steady sound of the unseen water exhausted and numbed him till he fell into a sleep that was half a swoon, while the boat drifted towards the town.
When he awoke he was still in the open country. The snow had ceased, but lay on the ground thick and untouched to the horizon.
Dirk dragged his cramped limbs to a sitting posture and stared about him; the river was narrow, the banks flat; the boat had been caught by a clump of stiff withered reeds and the prow driven into the snowy earth.
On either side the prospect was wintry and dreary; a grey sky brooded over a white land, a pine forest showed sadly in dark mournfulness, while near by a few bare isolated trees bent under their weight of snow; the very stillness was horribly ominous.
Dirk found it ill to move, for his limbs were frozen, his clothes wet and clinging to his wincing flesh, while his eyes smarted with his late weeping, and his head was racked with giddy pains.
For a while he sat, remembering yesterday till his face hardened and darkened, and he set his pale lips and crawled painfully out of the boat.
Before him was a sweep of snow leading to the forest, and as he gazed at this with dimmed, hopeless eyes, a figure in a white monk’s habit emerged from the trees.
He carried a rude wooden spade in his hand, and walked with a slow step; he was coming towards the river, and Dirk waited.
As the stranger neared he lifted his eyes, that had hitherto been cast on the ground, and Dirk recognised Saint Ambrose of Menthon.
Nevertheless Dirk did not despair; before the saint bad recognised him his part was resolved upon . . .
Ambrose of Menthon gazed with pity and horror at the forlorn little figure shivering by the reeds. It was not strange that he did not at once know him; Dirk’s face was of a ghastly hue, his eyes shadowed underneath, red and swollen, his lank hair clinging close to his small head, his clothes muddy, wet and soiled, his figure bent.
“Sir,” he said, and his voice was weak and sweet, “have pity on an evil thing.”
He fell on his knees and clasped his hands on his breast.
“Rise up,” answered the saint. “What God has given me is yours; poor soul, ye are very miserable.”
“More miserable than ye wot of,” said Dirk, through chattering teeth, still on his knees. “Do you not know me?”
Ambrose of Menthon looked at him closely.
“Alas!” he murmured slowly, “I know you.”
Dirk beat his breast.
“Mea culpa!” he moaned. “Mea culpa!”
“Rise. Come with me,” said the saint. “I will attend your wants.”
The youth did not move.
“Will you solace my soul, sir?” he cried. “God must have sent you here to save my soul — for long days I have sought you.”
Saint Ambrose’s face glowed
“Have ye, then, repented?”
Dirk rose slowly to his feet and stood with bent head.
“May one repent of such offences?”
“God is very merciful,” breathed the saint tenderly.
“Remorse and sorrow fill my heart,” murmured Dirk. “I have cast off my evil comrades, renounced my vile gains and journeyed into the loneliness to find God His pardon . . . and it seemed He would not hear me . . . ”
“He hears all who come in grief and penitence,” said the saint joyously. “And He has heard you, for has He not sent me to find you, even in this most desolate place?”
“You feed me with hope,” answered Dirk in a quivering voice, “and revive me with glad tidings . . . may I dare, I, poor lost wretch, to be uplifted and exalted?”
“Poor youth,” was the tender murmur. “Come with me.”
He led the way across the thick snow, Dirk following with downcast eyes and white cheeks. They skirted the forest and came upon a little hut, set back and sheltered among the scattered trees.
Saint Ambrose opened the rude door.
“I am alone now,” he said softly, as he entered. “I had with me a frail holy youth, who was travelling to Paris; last night he died, I have just laid his body in the earth, his soul rests on the bosom of the Lord.”
Dirk stepped into the hut and stood meekly on the threshold, and Saint Ambrose glanced at him wistfully.
“Maybe God has sent me this soul to tend and succour in place of that He has called home.” Dirk whispered humbly —
“If I might think so.”
The saint opened an inner door.
“Your garments are wet and soiled.”
A sudden colour stained Dirk’s face.
“I have no others.”
Ambrose of Menthon pointed to the inner chamber. “There Blaise died yester-eve; there are his clothes, enter and put them on.”
“It will be the habit of a novice?” asked Dirk softly.
Dirk bent and kissed the saint’s fingers with ice-cold lips.
“I have dared,” he whispered, “to hope that I might die wearing the garb of God His servants, and now I dare even to hope that He shall grant my prayer.”
He stepped into the inner chamber and closed the door.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48