The orange marble pillars glowing in the light of a hundred lamps gave the chamber a dazzling brightness; the windows were screened by scarlet silk curtains, and crystal bowls of purple flowers stood on the serpentine floor.
On a low gilt couch against the wall sat Theirry, his gold armour half concealed by a violet and ermine mantle; round his close dark hair was a wreath of red roses, and the long pearls in his ears glimmered with his movements.
Opposite him on a throne supported by basalt lions was Michael II, robed in gold and silver tissues under a dalmatica of orange and crimson brocade.
“It is done,” he said in a low eager voice, “and tomorrow I crown you in St. Peter’s church; Theirry, it is done.”
“Truly our fortunes are marvellous,” answered Theirry, “today — when I heard the Princes elect me — an unknown adventurer! — when I heard the mob of Rome shout for me — I thought I had gone mad!”
“It is I who have done this for you,” said the Pope softly.
Theirry seemed to shudder in his gorgeous mail.
“Are you afraid of me?” the other asked. “Why do you so seldom look at me?”
Theirry slowly turned his beautiful face.
“I am afraid of my own fortunes — I am not as bold as you,” he said fearfully. “You never hesitated to sin.”
The Pope moved, and his garments sparkled against the gleaming marble wall.
“I do not sin,” he smiled. “I am Sin — I do no evil for I am Evil — but you”— his face became grave, almost sad —“you are very human, better had it been for me never to have met you!” He placed his little hands either side of him on the smooth heads of the basalt lions. “Theirry — for your sake I have risked everything, for your sake maybe I must leave this strange fair life and go back whence I came — so much I care for you, so dearly have I kept the
vows we made in Frankfort — cannot you meet with courage the destiny I offer you?” Theirry hid his face in his hands.
The Pope flushed, and a wild light sparkled in his dark eyes.
“Was not your blood warmed by that charge at Tivoli? When knight and horse fell before your spears and your host humbled an Emperor, when Rome rose to greet you and I came to meet you with a kingdom for a gift, did not some fire creep into your veins that might serve to heat you now?”
“A kingdom!” cried Theirry, “the kingdom of Antichrist. The victory was not mine — the cohorts of the Devil galloped beside us and urged us to unholy triumph — Rome is a place of horror, full of witches, ghosts and strange beasts!
“You said you would be Emperor,” answered the Pope. “And I have granted you your wish, if you fail me or betray me now . . . it is over — for both of us.”
Theirry rose and paced the chamber.
“Ay, I will be Emperor,” he cried feverishly. “Theirry of Dendermonde crowned by the Devil in St. Peter’s church — why should I hesitate? I am on the road to hell, to hell . . . ” The Pope fixed ardent eyes on him.
“And if ye fail me ye shall go there instantly.”
Theirry stopped in his pacing to and fro.
“Why do you say to me so often, ‘do not fail me, do not betray me’?”
Michael II answered in a low voice.
“Because I fear it.”
Theirry laughed desperately.
“To whom should I betray you! It seems that you have all the world!”
“There is Jacobea of Martzburg.”
“Why do you sting me with that name!”
“Belike I thought ye might wish to make her your Empress,” said the Pope in sudden mockery. Theirry pressed his hand to his brow.
“She believes in God . . . what is such to me?” he cried.
“The other day you lied to me, saying you knew not where she was — and straightway ye visited her.”
“This is your spy’s work, Ursula of Rooselaare.”
“Maybe,” answered the Pope.
Theirry paused before the basalt throne.
“Tell me of her. She follows me — I— I— know not what to think, she has been much in my mind of late, since I—” He broke off, and looked moodily at the ground. “Where has she been these years — what does she mean to do now?”
“She will not trouble you again,” answered Michael II, “let her go.”
“I cannot — she said I had seen her face —”
“Well, if you have? — take it from me she is not fair.”
“I do not think of her fairness,” answered Theirry sullenly, “but of the mystery there is behind all of it —— why you never told me of her before, and why she haunts me with witches in her train.”
The Pope looked at him curiously.
“For one who has never been an ardent lover ye dwell much on women — I had rather you thought on battles and kingdoms — had I been a — were I you, dancer and nun alike would be nothing to me compared with my coronation on the morrow.”
Theirry replied hotly.
“Dancer and nun, as ye term them, are woven in with all I do, I cannot, if I would, forget them. Ah, that I ever came to Rome — would I were still a Chamberlain at Basil’s Court or a merchant’s clerk in India!”
He covered his face with his trembling hands and turned away across the golden room. The Pope rose in his seat and pressed his jewelled fingers against his breast.
“Would ye had never come my way to be my ruin and your own — would you were not such a sweet fair fool that I must love you! . . . and so, we make ourselves the mock of destiny by these complaints. Oh, if you have the desire to be king show the courage to dare a kingly fate.”
Theirry leant against one of the orange marble pillars, the violet mantle falling away from his golden armour, the fainting roses lying slackly in his dark hair.
“You must think me a coward,” he said, “and I have been very weak — but that, I think, is passed; I have reached the summit of all the greatness I ever dreamed and it confuses me, but when the Imperial crown is mine you shall find me bold enough.”
Michael II flushed and gave a dazzling smile.
“Then are we great indeed! — we shall join hands across the fairest dominion men ever ruled, Suabia is ours, Bohemia and Lombardy, France courts our alliance, Cyprus, the isle of Candy and Malta town, in Rhodes they worship us, and Genoa town owns us master!”
He paused in his speech and stepped down from the throne.
“Do you remember that day in Antwerp, Theirry, when we looked in the mirror?” he said, and his voice was tender and beautiful; “we hardly dared then to think of this.”
“We saw a gallows in that mirror,” answered Theirry, “a gallows tree beside the triple crown.” “It was for our enemies!” cried Michael; “our enemies whom we have triumphed over; Theirry, think of it, we were very young then, and poor — now I have kings at my footstool, and you will sleep tonight in the Golden Palace of the Aventine!” He laughed joyously. Theirry’s face grew gentle at the old memories.
“The house still stands, I wot,” he mused, “though the dust be thick over the deserted rooms and the vine chokes the windows — when I was in the East, I have thought with great joy of Antwerp.”
The Pope laid his delicate fragrant hand on the glittering vambrace.
“Theirry — do you not value me a little now?”
Theirry smiled, into the ardent eyes.
“You have done more for me than man or God, and above both I do you worship,” he answered wildly. “I am not fearful any more, and tomorrow ye shall see me a king indeed.”
“Until tomorrow then, farewell. I must attend a Conclave of the Cardinals and show myself unto the multitude in St. Peter’s church. You to the palace, on the Aventine, there to sleep soft and dream of gold.”
They clasped hands, a hot colour was in the Pope’s face.
“The Syrian guards wait below and the Lombard archers who stood beside you at Tivoli — they will attend you to the Imperial Palace.”
“What shall I do there?” asked Theirry. “It is early yet, and I do not love to sit alone.”
“Then, come to the service in the Basilica — come with a bold bearing and a rich dress to overawe these mongrel crowds of Rome.”
To that Theirry made no answer.
“Farewell,” he said, and lifted the scarlet curtain that concealed the door, “until to — morrow.” The Pope came quickly to his side.
“Do not go to Jacobea to-night,” he said earnestly. “Remember, if you fail me now —” “I shall not fail you or myself, again — farewell.”
His hand was on the latch when Michael spoke once more —
“I grieve to let you go,” he murmured in an agitated tone. “I have not before been fearful, but to-night Theirry smiled.
“You have no cause to dread anything, you with your foot on the neck of the world.” He opened the door on to the soft purple light of the stairs and stepped from the room.
In a half-stifled voice the Pope called him. “Theirry! —— be true to me, for on your faith have I staked everything.”
Theirry looked over his shoulder and laughed.
“Will you never let me begone?”
The other pressed his hand to his forehead.
“Ay, begone — why should I seek to keep you?”
Theirry descended the stairs and now and then looked up.
Always to see fixed on him the yearning, fierce gaze of the one who stood by the gilded rails and stared down at his glittering figure.
Only when he had completely disappeared in the turn of the stairs did Michael II slowly return to the golden chamber and close the gorgeous doors.
Theirry, splendidly attended, flashed through the riotous streets of Rome to the palace on the Aventine Hill.
There he dismissed the knights.
“I shall not go to the Basilica to-night,” he said, “go thou there without me.”
He laid aside the golden armour, the purple cloak, and attired himself in a dark habit and a steel corselet; he meant to be Emperor tomorrow, he meant to be faithful to the Pope, but it was in his heart to see Jacobea once more before he accepted the Devil’s last gift and sign.
Leaving the palace secretly, when they all thought him in his chamber, he took his way towards the Appian Gate.
Once more, for the last time . . . he would suggest to her that she returned to Martzburg. The plague was rampant in the city; more than once he passed the death-cart attended by friars clanging harsh bells; several houses were sealed and silent; but in the piazzas the people danced and sang, and in the Via Sacra they held a carnival in honour of the victory at Tivoli.
It was nearly dark, starless, and the air heavy with the sense of storm; as he neared the less-frequented part of the city Theirry looked continually behind him to see if the dancer in orange dogged his footsteps — he saw no one.
Very lonely, very silent it was in the Appian Way, the only domestic light he came to the little lamp above the convent gate.
The stillness and gloom of the place chilled his heart, she could not, must not stay here.. He gently pushed the gate and entered.
The hot dusk just revealed to him the dim shapes of the white roses and the dark figure of a lady standing beside them.
“Jacobea,” he whispered.
She moved very slowly towards him.
“Jacobea — you must not remain in this place! —— where are the nuns?”
She shook her head.
“They are dead of the plague days past, and I have buried them in the garden.”
He gave a start of horror.
“You shall go back to Martzburg — you are alone here?”
Her answer came calmly out of the twilight.
“I think there is no one living anywhere near. The plague has been very fierce — you should not come here if you do not wish to die.”
“But what of you?” His voice was full of horror.
“Why, what can it matter about me?”
He thought she smiled; he followed her into the house, the chamber where they had sat before. A tall pale candle burnt on the bare table, and by the light of it he saw her face.
“Ye are ill already,” he shuddered.
Again she shook her head.
“Why do you come here?” she asked gently. “You are to be Emperor tomorrow.”
She crept with a slow sick movement to a bench that stood against the wall and sank down on it; her features showed pinched and wan, her eyes unnaturally blue in the pallor of her face.
“You must return to Martzburg,” repeated Theirry distractedly; and thought of her as he had first seen her, bright and gay, in a pale crimson dress . . .
“Nay, I shall return to Martzburg no more,” she answered. “He died today.”
“He? — who died, Jacobea?”
Very faintly she smiled.
“Sebastian — in Palestine. God let me see him then, because I had never looked on him since that morning on which you saw us, sir . . . he has been a holy man fighting the infidel; they wounded him, I think, and he was sick with fever — he crept into the shade (for it is very hot there, sir), and died.”
Theirry stood dumb, and the mad hatred of the devil who had brought about this misery anew possessed him.
Jacobea spoke again.
“Maybe they have met in Paradise — and as for me I hope God may think me fit to die — of late it seemed to me that the fiends were again troubling me”— she clasped her hands tightly on her knees and shivered; “something evil is abroad . . . who is the dancer? . . . last night I saw her crouching by my gate as I was making the grave of Sister Angela, and it seemed, it seemed, that she bewitched me — as the young scholar did, long ago.”
Theirry leant heavily against the table.
“She is the Pope’s spy and tool,” he cried hoarsely, “Ursula of Rooselaare!”
Jacobea’s dim eyes were bewildered.
“Ah, Balthasar’s wife,” she faltered, “but the Pope’s tool — how should he meddle with an evil thing?”
Then he told her, in an outburst of wild, unnameable feeling.
“The Pope is Dirk Renswoude — the Pope is Antichrist — do you not understand? And I am to help him rule the kingdom of the Devil!”
Jacobea gave a shuddering cry, half rose in her seat and sank back against the wall. Theirry crossed the room and fell on his knees beside her.
“It is true, true,” he sobbed. “And I am damned for ever!”
The lightning darted in from the darkness and thunder crashed above the convent; Theirry laid his head on her lap and her cold fingers touched his hair.
“Since, knowing this, you are his ally,” she whispered fearfully.
He answered through clenched teeth.
“Yea, I will be Emperor — and it is too late to turn back.”
Jacobea stared across the candle-lit room.
“Dirk Renswoude,” she muttered, “and Ursula of Rooselaare — why — was it not to save Hugh of Rooselaare that he rode — that night?”
Theirry lifted his head and looked at her, her utterance was feeble and confused, her eyes glazing in a livid face; he clasped his hands tightly over hers.
“What was Lord Hugh to him?” she asked, “Ursula’s father . . . ”
“I do not understand,” cried Theirry.
“But it is very clear to me — I am dying — she loved you, loves you still — that such things should be . . . ”
“Whom do you speak of — Jacobea?” he cried, distracted.
She drooped towards him and he caught her in his arms.
“The city is accursed,” she gasped; “give me Christian burial, if ever once you cared for me, and fly, fly!”
She strained and writhed in his frantic embrace. “And you never knew it was a woman,” she whispered, “Pope and dancer . . . ”
“God!” shrieked Theirry; and staggered to his feet drawing her with him.
She choked her life out against his shoulder, clinging with the desperation of the dying, to him, while he tried to force her into speech.
“Answer me, Jacobea! What authority have you for this hideous thing, in the name of God, Jacobea!”
She slipped from him to the bench.
“Water, a crucifix . . . Oh, I have forgot my prayers.” She stretched out her hands towards a wooden crucifix that hung on the wall, caught hold of it, pressed her lips to the feet.. “Sybilla,” she said, and died with that name struggling in her throat.
Theirry stepped back from her with a strangled shriek that seemed to tear the breath from his body, and staggered against the table.
The lightning leapt in through the dark window, and appeared to plunge like a sword into the breast of the dead woman.
Dead! — even as she uttered that horror — dead so suddenly. The plague had slain her — he did not wish to die, so he must leave this place — was he not to be Emperor tomorrow?
He fell to laughing.
The candle had burnt almost to the socket; the yellow flame struggling against extinction cast a fantastic leaping light over Jacobea, lying huddled along the bench with her yellow hair across the breast of her rough garment; over Theirry, leaning with slack limbs against the table; it showed his ghastly face, his staring eyes, his dropped jaw — as his laughter died into silence.
He must fly from this Thing that reigned in Rome — he could not face tomorrow, he could not look again into the face of Antichrist . . .
He crawled across the room and stared at Jacobea.
She was not beautiful; he noticed that her hands were torn and stained with earth from making the graves of the nuns . . . she had asked for Christian burial . . . he could not stay to give it her . . .
He fiercely hated her for what she had told him, yet he took up the ends of her yellow hair and kissed them.
Again the thunder and lightning and wild howlings reached him from without, as ghosts and night-hags wandered past to hold court within the accursed city.
The candle shot up a long tongue of flame — and went out.
Theirry staggered across the darkness.
A flash of lightning showed him the door. As the thunder crashed above the city he fled from the convent and from Rome.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06