In the ebony cabinet in the Vatican sat Michael II; an expression of utter anguish marked his face.
On the gold table were spread books and parchments; the sullen light of a stormy midday filtered through the painted curtains and showed the rich splendours of the chamber, the glittering, closed wings of the shrine, the carved gold arms of the Pope’s chair, the threads of silver tissue in his crimson robe.
He sat very still, his elbow resting on the table, his cheek propped on his palm, now and then he looked at the little sand clock.
Presently Paolo Orsini entered; the Pope glanced at him without moving.
“No news?” he asked.
“None of the Lord Theirry, your Holiness.” Michael II moistened his lips.
“They have searched — everywhere?”
“Throughout Rome, your Holiness, but —”
“Only this, my lord, a man might easily disappear — there is no law in the city.”
“He was armed, they said, when he left the palace; have you sent to the convent I told you of —— St. Angela, beyond the Appian Gate?”
“Yea, your Holiness,” answered Orsini, “and they found nought but a dead woman.” The Pope averted his eyes.
“What did they with her?” Orsini lifted his brows.
“Cast her into the plague pit, Holiness — that quarter is a charnel-house.”
The Pope drew a deep breath.
“Well, he is gone — I do not think him dead,”— he flung back his head — “but the game is over, is it not, Orsini? We fling down our pieces and say — good-night!”
His nostrils dilated, his eyes flashed, he brought his open hand softly on to the table. “What does your Holiness mean?” asked Orsini.
“We mean that this puppet Emperor of ours has forsaken us, and that our position becomes perilous,” answered the Pope. “Cardinal Narbonne, hurling defiance at us from Viterbo, grows stronger, and the mob — do not seek to deceive me, Orsini, the mob clamours against us?”
“It is true, my lord.”
The Pope gave a terrible smile, and his beautiful eyes widened.
“And the soldiers mutiny, the Saxons at Trastevere have joined Balthasar and the Veronese have left me — we have not enough men to hold Rome an hour; well, Orsini, you shall take a summons to the Cardinals and we will hold a conclave, there to decide how we may meet our fortune.”
He rose and turned towards the window.
“Hark, do you hear how the factions howl below? — begone, Orsini.”
The secretary departed in silence.
Mutterings, murmurings, howlings rose from the accursed city to the Pontiff’s chamber; lightning darted from the black heavens, and thunder rolled round the hills of Rome. Michael II walked to and fro in his gorgeous cabinet.
In the three days since Theirry had fled the city, his power had crumbled like a handful of sand; Rome had turned against him, and every hour men fell away from his cause.
The devils, too, had forsaken him; he could not raise the spirits, the magic fires would not burn . . . all was blank darkness and silence.
Up and down he paced, listening to the mob surging in the Piazza of St. Peter.
The day wore on and the storm grew in violence.
Paolo Orsini came again to him, his face pale.
“Half the Cardinals are fled to Viterbo and those remaining refuse to acknowledge your Holiness.”
The Pope smiled.
“I had expected it.”
“News comes from a Greek runner that Theirry of Dendermonde is with Balthasar’s host —” “Also I expected that,” said Michael II wildly.
“And they proclaim you,” continued Orsini in an agitated manner, “an impostor, one given to evil practices, and by these means incite the people against you; Cardinal Orvieto has led a thousand men across the marshes to the Emperor’s army —”
“And Theirry of Dendermonde has denounced me!” said the Pope.
As he spoke one beat for admission on the gilt door. The secretary opened and there entered an Eastern chamberlain.
“Holiness,” he cried fearfully, “the people have set fire to your palace on the Palatine Hill, and Cardinal Colonna, with his brother Octavian, have seized Castel San Angelo for the Emperor, and hold it in defiance of your Grace.”
As he finished the lightning darted info the now darkening chamber, and the thunder mingled with the howling of the mob that surged beneath the Vatican walls.
“The captain of my guard and those faithful to me,” answered the Pope, “will know how to do what may be done — apprise me of the approach of Balthasar’s host, and now go.”
They left him; he stood for a while listening to those ominous sounds that filled the murky air, then he pressed a spring in one of the mother-of-pearl panels and stepped into the secret chamber that was revealed.
Cautiously he closed the panel by which he had entered, and looked furtively about him.
The small windowless space was lit only by one blood-red lamp, locked cupboards lined the walls, and a huge globe of faint gold, painted with curious and mystic signs, hung from the ceiling.
The Pope’s stiff garments made a soft rustling sound as he moved; his quick desperate breathing disturbed the heavy confined air.
In his pallid face his eyes rolled and gleamed.
“Sathanas, Sathanas,” he muttered, “is this the end?”
A throbbing shook the red-lit gloom, his last words were echoed mournfully —
He clutched his hands into the jewelled embroidery on his breast.
“Now you mock me — by my old allegiance, is this the end?”
Again the echo from the dark walls —
The Pope glared in front of him.
“Must I die, Sathanas — must I swiftly die?”
A little confused laughter came before the echo “swiftly die.”
He paced up and down the narrow space.
“I staked my fortunes on that man’s faith and he has forsaken me, and I have lost, lost!” “Lost! lost!”
The Pope laughed frantically.
“At least she died, Sathanas, her yellow hair rots in the plague pit now; I had some skill left . . . but what was all my skill if I could not keep him faithful to me —”
He clasped his jewelled hand over his eyes; utter silence followed his words now; the globe of pallid gold trembled in the darkness of the domed ceiling, and the mystic characters on it began to writhe and move.
“Long had I lived with the earth beneath my feet had I not met that fair sweet fool, and I go to ruin for his sake who has denounced me —”
The red lamp became dull as a dying coal.
“Ye warned me,” breathed the Pope, “that this man would be my bane — you promised on his truth to you and me to halve the world between us; he was false, and you have utterly forsaken me?”
The echo answered —
“Utterly forsaken . . . ”
The lamp went out.
The pale luminous globe expanded to a monstrous size, the circle of dark little fiends round it danced and whirled madly..
Then it burst and fell in a thousand fragments at the Pope’s feet.
Out of the darkness came a wail as of some thing hurt or dying, then long sighing shook the close air . . .
The Pope felt along the wall, touched the spring and stepped into the ebony cabinet. He looked quite old and small and bowed.
Night had fallen; the chamber was lit by perfumed candles in curious carved sticks of soapstone; faint veils of incense floated in the air.
Without the thunder rolled and threatened, and the factions of Rome fought in the streets.
The Pope sank into a chair and folded his hands in his lap; his head fell forward on his breast; his lips quivered and two tears rolled down his cheeks.
The Angelus bells rang out over the city, there were not many to ring now; as they quivered away a clock struck, quite near.
The Pope did not move.
Once again Paolo Orsini entered, and Michael II averted his face.
“Holiness, Balthasar marches on Rome,” said the secretary, “the mob rush forth to join him, and if the gates were brass, and five times brass, the Vatican could not withstand them.” The Pope spoke without looking round.
“Will they storm the Vatican?”
“Ay, that they will, Holiness,” answered Orsini.
Now the Pontiff turned his white face.
“What may I do?”
“The captain of the guard suggests that ye come to terms with the Emperor, and by submission save your life.”
“That I will not.”
“Then it were well if your Holiness would flee; there is a secret way out of the Vatican —” “And that I will not.”
Orsini, too, was very pale.
“Then are you doomed to fall into the hands of Balthasar, and he and his faction say — horrible things.”
The Pope rose.
“You think they would lay hands on me?
“I do fear it!
“It would be a shameful death, Orsini?”
“Surely not that! I cannot think the Emperor would do more than imprison your Holiness.” “Well, you are very faithful, Orsini.”
The young Roman shrugged his shoulders.
“Cardinal Narbonne is a Colonna, Holiness, and I have always found you a generous master.”
The Pope went to the window. “How they howl!” he said through his teeth, “and Balthasar comes nearer, nearer —”
He checked himself abruptly.
“I will dine here to-night, Orsini, see that everything is done as usual.”
The secretary bowed himself out of the gilt door. Michael II went to the table on the dais and took from it a scroll of parchment.
Standing in the centre of the room he unrolled it; some verses were written in a scarlet ink on the smooth surface; in a low voice he read aloud the two last.
“If Love were all!
I had lived glad and meek, Nor heard Ambition call And Valour speak.
If Love were all!”
He smiled bitterly. “But Love is weak.
And often leaves his throne, Among his scattered roses pale To weep and moan.
And I, apostate to his whispered creed.
Shall miss his wings above my pall.
Nor find his face in this my bitter need.
When Love is all!”
“The metre halts,” said Michael II, “the metre . . . halts.”
He tore the parchment into fragments and scattered them on the floor. Again the gilt doors were opened, this time a chamberlain entered. A herald had brought a fierce and grim message from Balthasar.
It spoke of the Pope as Antichrist, and called on him to submit if he would keep his life.
The Pope read it with haughty eyes; when he had finished he rent it across and cast the pieces down among the others.
“And ye shall hang the herald,” he said. “We have so much authority.” The chamberlain handed him a second packet, sealed.
“This also the herald brought, Holiness.” “From whom?”
“From Theirry of Dendermonde.”
“Theirry of — of Dendermonde?”
The Pope took the packet.
“Let the herald live,” he said, “but cast him into the dungeons.”
The chamberlain withdrew.
For a while Michael II stood staring at the packet, while the thunder crashed over Rome. Then he slowly broke the seal.
“What curses have you for me?” he cried wildly. “What curses? You!”
He unfolded the long strip of vellum, and went nearer the candles to read it.
Thus it ran —
“The Emperor’s camp, marching on Rome, Theirry of Dendermonde to Michael, Pope of Rome, thus —
“I am approaching madness, I cannot sleep or rest — after days of torment I write to you whom I have twice betrayed. She died on my breast, but I do not care; Balthasar says he saw her walking on the Maremma, but I saw nothing . . . before she died she said something. I think of you and of nothing else, though I have betrayed you, I have never uttered what she said. No one guesses.
“The uncertainty, the horror, gnaw away my heart. So I write this to you.”
“This is my message —”
“If you are a devil, be satisfied, for your devil’s work is done.”
“If you are a man, you have befriended, wronged me, and I have avenged myself.”
“If you are that other thing you may be, then I know you love me, and that I kissed you once.”
“If this last be true, as I do think it true, have some pity on my long ignorance and believe I have it in me to love even as you have loved.”
“Oh, Ursula, I know a city in India where we might live, and you forget you ever ruled in Rome; yonder are other gods who are so old they have forgot to punish, and they would smile on you and me there, Ursula. Balthasar marches on the city, and you must be ruined and discovered — brought to an end so horrible. You have showed me a secret way out of the Vatican, use it now, this night. I am in advance of the host — I shall be without the Appian Gate tonight, and I have means whereby we may fly to the coast and there take ship to India; until we meet, farewell! and in the name of all the passions you have roused in me — come!”
As the Pope read, all the colour slowly left his face; when he had finished he mechanically rolled up the parchment, then unrolled it again.
Thunder shook the Vatican and the mob howled without.
Again he read the letter.
Then he thrust it into one of the candles and watched it blacken, curl, burst into flame. He flung it on the marble floor and set his gold heel on it, grinding it into ashes.
At the usual hour they served his sumptuous supper; when it was finished and removed, Paolo Orsini came again.
“Will not your Holiness fly, before it is too late?” All traces of anguish and woe had vanished from his master’s features; he looked proud and beautiful.
“I shall stay here; but let them who will, seek safety.”
He dismissed Orsini and the attendants.
It was now late in the evening — and the thunder unceasing.
The Pope locked the door of the cabinet, then went to the gilt table, and wrote a letter rapidly —— this he folded, sealed with purple wax and stamped with his great thumb ring.
He sat silent a little while after this and stared with great luminous eyes before him, then roused himself and unlocked a drawer in the table.
From this he took some documents, tied together with orange silk, and a ring with a red stone in it.
One by one he burnt the parchments in the candle, and when they were reduced to a little pile of ashes he cast the ring into the midst of it and turned away.
He crossed to the window, drew the curtains and looked out over Rome.
In the black heavens, above the black hills, hung a huge meteor, a blazing globe of fire with a trail of flame . . .
The Pope let the silk fall together again.
He took up one of the candles and went to the gold door that led to his bed-chamber.
Before he opened it he paused a moment; the candle-flame lit his vivid eyes, his haughty face, his glittering vestments..
He turned the handle and entered the dark, spacious room
Through the high, undraped window could clearly be seen the star that seemed to burn away the very sky.
The Pope set the candle on a shelf where it showed dim glimpses of white and gold tapestries, walls of alabaster, a bed of purple and gilt, mysterious, gorgeous luxury..
He returned to the cabinet and took from the bosom of his gown a little bottle of yellow jade; for the stopper a ruby served.
The thunder crashed deafeningly; the lightning seemed to split the room in twain; the Pope stood still, listening.
Then he blew out the candles and returned to his bed-chamber.
Softly he passed into the scented, splendid chamber and closed the door behind him.
In the little pause between two thunder-peals was the sound of a great key turning in a lock.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48