In a ruined villa, shattered by the barbarians and crumbled by time, sat Ysabeau the Empress looking over the sunless Maremma.
A few olive trees were all that shaded the bare expanse of marshy land, where great pools veiled with unhealthy vapours gleamed faintly under the heavy clouds.
Here and there rose the straight roof of a forsaken convent, or the stately pillars of a deserted palace.
There was no human being in sight.
A few birds flew low over the marshes; sometimes one screamed in through the open roof or darted across the gaping broken doorway.
Then Ysabeau would rise from her sombre silence to spurn them from her with fierce words and stones.
The stained marble was grown with reeds and wild flowers; a straggling vine half twisted round two of the slender columns; and there the Empress sat, huddled in her cloak and gazing over the forlorn marshes.
She had dwelt here for three days; at every sunrise a peasant girl, daring the excommunication, had brought her food, then fled with a frightened face.
Ysabeau saw nothing before her save death, but she did not mean to die by the ignoble way of starvation.
She had not heard of the defeat of Balthasar at Tivoli, nor of the election of Theirry to the crown; day and night she thought on her husband, and pondered how she might still possibly serve him.
She did not hope to see him again; it never occurred to her to return to him; when she had fled his camp she had left a confession behind her — no Greek would have heeded it, but these Saxons, still, to her, foreigners, were different.
And Balthasar had loved Melchoir of Brabant.
It was very hot, with a sullen, close heat; the dreary prospect became hateful to her, and she rose and moved to the inner portion of the villa, where the marigold roots thrust up through the inlaid stone floor, and a remaining portion of the roof cast a shade.
Here she seated herself on the capital of a broken column, and a languid weariness subdued her proud spirit; her head sank back against the stained wall, and she slept.
When she woke the whole landscape was glowing with the soft red of sunset.
She stretched herself, shivered, and looked about her.
Then she suddenly drew herself together and listened.
There were faint voices coming from the outer room, and the sound of a man’s tread. Ysabeau held her breath.
But so close a silence followed that she thought she must have been deceived.
For a while she waited, then crept cautiously towards the shattered doorway that led into the other chamber.
She gained it and gazed through.
Sitting where she had just now sat, under the vine-twisted columns, was a huge knight in defaced armour; his back was towards her; by his side his helmet stood, and the great glittering dragon that formed the crest shone in the setting sun.
He was bending over a child that lay asleep on a crimson cloak.
“Balthasar,” said Ysabeau.
He gave a little cry, and looked over his shoulder. “Tell me, my lord,” she asked in a trembling voice, “as you would tell a stranger, if evil fortune brings you here.”
He rose softly, his face flushed.
“I am a ruined man. They have elected another Emperor. Now, I think, it does not matter.” Her eyes travelled in a dazed way to the child.
“Is he sick?”
“Nay, only weary; we have been wandering since Tivoli —”
While he spoke he looked at her, as if the world held nothing else worth gazing on. “I must go,” said Ysabeau.
“I am cast out — I may not share your misfortunes.” Balthasar laughed.
“I have been searching for you madly, Ysabeau.”
And now he looked away from her.
“I thought my heart would have burst when I discovered ye had gone to Rome.”
“But you found the writing?” she cried.
“You know — I slew him?”
“I know you went to give your life for me.”
“I am accursed!
“You have been faithful to me.”
“Oh, Balthasar! — does it make no difference?”
“It cannot,” he said, half sadly. “You are my wife — part of me; I have given you my heart to keep, and nothing can alter it.”
“You do not mock me?” she questioned, shuddering. “It must be that you mock me — I will go away —”
He stepped before her.
“You shall never leave me again, Ysabeau.”
“I had not dared — you have forgiven —”
“I am not your judge —”
“It cannot be that God is so tender!”
“I do not speak for Him,” said Balthasar hoarsely —“but for myself —”
She could not answer.
“Ysabeau,” he cried jealously, “you — could you have lived apart from me?”
“Nay,” she whispered; “I meant to die.”
“That I might be forgiven!”
“What else could I do! Would they had slain me and taken the curse from you!”
He put his arm round her bowed shoulders. “There is no curse while we are together, Ysabeau.”
Her marvellous hair lay across his dinted mail.
“This is sweeter than our marriage day, Balthasar, for now you know the worst of me —” “My wife! — my lady and my wife!”
He set her gently on the broken shaft by the door and kissed her hand.
“Wencelaus sleeps,” she smiled through tears. “I could not have put him to rest more surely —” “He slept not much last night,” said Balthasar, “for the owls and flitter mice — and it was very dark with the moon hidden.”
Her hand still lay in his great palm.
“Tell me of yourself,” she whispered.
And he told her how they had been defeated at Tivoli, how the remnant of his force had forsaken him, and how Theirry of Dendermonde had been elected Emperor by the wishes of the Pope.
Her eyes grew fierce at that.
“I have ruined you,” she said; “made you a beggar.”
“If you knew”— he smiled half shyly —“how little I care, for myself — certes, for you.” “Do not shame me,” she cried.
“Could I have held a throne without you, Ysabeau?”
Her fingers trembled in his.
“Would I had been a better woman, for your sake, Balthasar.”
His swift bright flush dyed his fair face.
“All I grieve for, Ysabeau, is — God.”
“God?” she asked, wondering.
“If He should not forgive?”— his blue eyes were troubled —“and we are cursed and cast out —— what think you?”
She drew closer to him.
“Through me! — you grieve, and this is — through me!”
“Nay, our destiny is one — always. Only, I think — of afterwards — yet, if you are — damned, as the priest says, why, I will be so too —”
“Do not fear, Balthasar; if God will not receive me, the little images at Constantinople will forgive me if I pray to them again as I did when I was a child —”
They fell on silence again, while the red colour of the setting sun deepened and cast a glow over their weary faces and the sleeping figure of Wencelaus; the vine leaves fluttered from the ancient marble and the wild-fowl screamed across the marshes.
“Who is this Pope that he should hate us so?” mused Ysabeau. “And who Theirry of Dendermonde that he should be Emperor of the West?”
“He is to be crowned in the Basilica today,” said Balthasar.
“While we sit here!”
“I do not understand it. Nor do I now, Ysabeau,”— Balthasar looked at her —“greatly care —”
“But you shall care!” she cried. “If I be all to you, I will be that — I must see you again upon the throne; we will to Basil’s Court. That this Theirry of Dendermonde should sleep to-night in the golden palace!”
“We have found each other,” said the Emperor simply.
She raised his hand, kissed it, and no more was said, while the mists gathered and thickened over the Maremma and the rich hues faded from the sky.
“Who is that?” cried Ysabeau, and pointed across the marsh-land.
A figure, dark against the mists, was running aimlessly, wildly to and fro, winding his way in and out the pools, now and then flinging his arms up in a frantic gesture towards the evening sky.
“A madman,” said Balthasar; “see, he runs with no object, round and round, yet always as if pursued —”
Ysabeau drew close to her husband, as they both watched, with a curious fascination, the man being driven hither and thither as by an invisible enemy.
“Is it a ghost?” whispered Ysabeau; “strangely chilled and horror-stricken do I feel —” The Emperor made the sign of the Cross.
“Part of the curse, maybe,” he muttered.
Suddenly, as if exhausted, the man stopped and stood still with hanging head and arms; the sun burning to the horizon made a vivid background to his tall dark figure till the heavy noisome vapours rose to the level of the sunset, and the solitary, motionless stranger was blotted from the view of the two watching in the ruined villa.
“Why should we wonder?” said Balthasar. “There must be many men abroad, both Saxon and Roman —”
“Yet, he ran strangely,” she murmured; “and I have been here three days and seen no one.” “We must get away,” said Balthasar resolutely. “This is a vile spot.”
“At dawn a girl comes here with food, enough at least for Wencelaus.
“I have food with me, Ysabeau, given by one who did not know that we were excommunicate.”
The Empress looked about her fearfully.
“I heard a step.”
Balthasar peered through the mist.
“The man,” whispered Ysabeau.
Out of the dreary vapours, the forlorn and foul mists of the marshes, he appeared, stumbling over the stones in his way . . .
He caught hold of the slender pillar by the entrance and stared at the three with distraught eyes. His clothes were dark, wet and soiled, his hair hung lank round a face hollow and pale but of obvious beauty.
“Theirry of Dendermonde!” exclaimed Balthasar. Ysabeau gave a cry that woke the child and sent him frightened into her arms.
“The Emperor,” said the new-comer in a feeble voice.
Balthasar answered fiercely ——“Am I still Emperor to you? — you who today were to receive my crown in St. Peter’s church?”
Ysabeau clasped Wencelaus tightly to her breast, and her eyes shone with a wrathful triumph. “They have cast him out; Rome rose against such a king!”
Theirry shivered and crouched like one very cold.
“Of my own will I fled from Rome, that city of the Devil!”
Balthasar stared at him.
“Is this the man who broke our ranks at Tivoli?”
“Is this he who would be Emperor of the West?” cried Ysabeau.
“You are the Emperor,” said Theirry faintly, “and I pretend no longer to these wrongful honours, nor serve I any longer Antichrist —”
“He is mad!” cried Balthasar.
“Nay,” Ysabeau spoke eagerly —“listen to him.”
“I have nothing to say — give me a place to rest in.”
“Through you we have no place ourselves to rest in,” answered Balthasar grimly. “No shelter save these broken walls you see; but since you have returned to your allegiance, we command that you tell us of this Antichrist —”
Theirry straightened himself.
“He who reigns in Rome is Antichrist, Michael, who was Dirk Renswoude ——”
“He perished,” said the Emperor, very pale; “and the Pope was Blaise of Dendermonde.”
“That was the Devil’s work, black magic!” cried Theirry wildly; “the youth Blaise died ten years ago, and Dirk Renswoude took his place.”
“It is true!” cried the Empress; “by what he said to me I know it true — now do I see it very clearly.”
But Balthasar stared at Theirry in a confused manner.
“I do not understand.”
The lightning darted through the broken wall, and a solitary winged thing flapped over the roofless villa.
Theirry began to speak.
He told them, in a thick, expressionless voice, all he knew of Dirk Renswoude.
He did not mention Ursula of Rooselaare. As his tale went on, the storm gathered till all light had vanished from the sky, the lightning rent a starless gloom, and the continual roar of the thunder quivered in the stifling air.
In the pauses between the lightning they could not see each other; Wencelaus sobbed on his mother’s breast, and the owls hooted in the crevices of the marble.
Theirry’s voice suddenly strengthened.
“Now, turn against Rome, for all men will join you — a force of Lombards marches up from Trastevere, and the Saxons gather without the walls of the accursed city.”
A blue flash showed them his face . . . they heard him fall . . .
After a while Balthasar made his way to him through the dark.
“He has fainted,” he said fearfully; “is he, belike, mad?”
“He speaks the hideous truth,” whispered Ysabeau.
Suddenly, at its very height the storm ceased, the air became cool and fragrant, and a bright moon floated from the clouds.
The silver radiance of it, extraordinarily bright and vivid, illuminated the Maremma, the pools, the tall reeds, the deserted buildings, the ruins that sheltered them; the clouds rolled swiftly from the sky, leaving it clear and blazing with stars.
The first moon and the first stars that had shone since Michael II’s reign in the Vatican. Theirry’s dark dress and hair, and deathlike face pressed against the marble pavement showed now plainly.
Balthasar looked at his wife; neither dared to speak, but Wencelaus gave a panting sigh of relief at the lifting of the darkness.
“My lord,” he said, striving out of his mother’s arms, “a goodly company comes across the marsh —”
A great awe and fear held them silent, and the wonderful silver shine of the moon lay over them like a spell.
They saw, slowly approaching them, two knights and two ladies, who seemed to advance without motion across the marsh-land.
The knights wore armour that shone like glass, and long mantles of white samite; the dames were clad in silver tissue, and around their brows were close-pressed wreaths of roses mingled red and white.
Very bright and fair they seemed; the knights came to the fore, carrying silver trumpets; the ladies held each other’s hands lovingly, and their gleaming tresses of red and gold wove together as they walked.
They reached the portals of the villa, and the air blew cold and pure.
The lady with the yellow hair who held white violets in her hand, spoke to the other, and her voice was like the echo of the sea in a wide-lipped shell.
They paused; Balthasar drew back before the great light they brought with them, and Ysabeau hid her face, for some of them she knew.
On earth their names had been Melchoir, Sebastian, Jacobea and Sybilla.
“Balthasar,” said the foremost Knight, “we are come from the courts of Paradise to bid you march against Rome. In that city reigns Evil, permitted to punish a sinful people, but now her time is come. Go you to Viterbo, there you will find the Cardinal of Narbonne, whom God has ordained Pope, and with him an army; at the head of it storm Rome, and all the people shall join you in destroying Antichrist.”
Balthasar fell on his knees.
“And the curse!” he cried.
“’Tis not the curse of God upon you, therefore be comforted, Balthasar of Courtrai, and at the dawn haste to Viterbo.”
With that they moved away, and were absorbed into the silver light that transfigured the Maremma.
Balthasar sprang to his feet, shouting —
“I am not excommunicate! I shall be Emperor again. The curse is lifted!”
The moonlight faded, again the clouds rolled up . . .
Balthasar caught Theirry by the shoulder.
“Did you see the vision? — the angels?”
Theirry came shuddering from his swoon.
“I saw nothing — Ursula . . . Ursula . . . ”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51