The mob had stormed the Vatican; Octavian Colonna, with a handful of fighting men, ascended the undefended marble staircase.
The papal guards lay slain in the courtyard and in the entrance hall; chamberlains, secretary, pages, and priests, fled or surrendered.
With the Lord Colonna was Theirry of Dendermonde, who had entered Rome that morning by the Appian Gate and headed a faction of the lawless crowd in their wild attack on the Vatican. To himself he kept saying —
“I shall know, she did not come; I shall know, she did not come.”
It was early morning; the terrific storm of last night still lingered over Rome; flashes of blue light divided the murky clouds and the thunder hung about the Aventine; the Colonna grew afraid; he waited below in the gorgeous audience-chamber and sent up to the Pope’s apartments, demanding his submission and promising him safety.
The overawed crowd retired into the courtyard and the Piazza while Paolo Orsini ascended the silver stairs.
He returned with this message —
“His Holiness’s apartments were locked, nor could they make him hear.”
“Break down the doors,” said the Colonna, but he trembled.
It was a common thought among the knights that Michael II had escaped; a monk offered to show them the secret passage where his Holiness might be even now; many went; but Theirry followed the attendants to the gilt door of the ebony cabinet.
They broke the lock and entered, fearfully.
On the floor torn fragments of parchments, a pile of ashes with a ruby ring lying in the midst . . .
“His Holiness is in his chamber — we dare not enter.”
They had always been afraid of him; even now his name held terror.
“The Colonna waits our news!” cried Theirry wildly, “I— I dare enter.”
They tiptoed to the other gilt door; it took them some time to remove the lock.
When at last the door gave and swung open they shrunk away — but Theirry passed into the chamber.
The sombre light of dawn filled it; heavy shadows obscured the rich splendours of golden colours, of gleaming white walls; the men crept after him — it seemed to Theirry as if the world had stopped about them.
On the magnificent purple bed lay the Pope; on his brow the tiara glittered, and on his breast the chasuble; the crozier lay by his side on the samite coverlet, and his feet glittered in their golden shoes; by the crozier was a letter and a jade bottle.
The attendants shrieked and fled.
Theirry crept to the bedside and took up the parchment; his name was over the top; he broke the seal.
He read the fair writing.
“If I be a devil I go whence I came, if a man I lived as one and die as one, if woman I have known Love, conquered it and by it have been vanquished. Whatsoever I am, I perish on the heights, but I do not descend from them. I have known things in their fulness and will not stay to taste the dregs. So, to you greeting, and not for long farewell.”
The letter fell from Theirry’s hand, fluttered and sank to the floor.
He raised his eyes and saw through the window the meteor, blazing over Rome.
Dead . . .
He looked now at the proud smooth face on the pillow; the gems of the papal crown gleaming above the red locks, the jewelled chasuble sparkling in the strengthening dawn until he was nearly fooled into thinking the bosom heaved beneath.
He was alone.
At least he could know.
The air was like incense sweet and stifling; his blood seemed to beat in his brain with a little foolish sound of melody; a shaft of grey light fell over the splendours of the bed, the roses and dragons, hawks and hounds sewn on the curtains and coverlets; from the Pope’s garments rose a subtle and beautiful perfume.
“Ursula,” said Theirry; he bent over the bed until the pearls in his ears touched his cheeks. Without the thunder muttered.
To know —
He lifted the dead Pope’s arm; there seemed to be neither weight nor substance under the stiff silk. He dropped the sleeve; his cold fingers unclasped the heavy chasuble, underneath lay perfumed samite, white and soft.
An awful sensation crept through his veins; he thought that under these gorgeous vestments was nothing — nothing — ashes.
He did not dare to uncover the bosom that lay, that must lie, under the gleaming samite . . . But he must know.
He lifted up the fair crowned head to peer madly into the proud features . . .
It came away in his hands, like crumbling wood that may preserve, till touched, the semblance of the carving . . . so the Pope’s head parted from the trunk.
Theirry smiled with horror and stared at what he held.
Then it disappeared, fell into ashes before his eyes, and the tiara rolled on to the floor. Gone — like an image of smoke.
He sank across the headless thing on the bed.
“Must I follow you to know, follow you to hell?” he whispered.
Now he could open the rich garments.
They were empty of all save dust.
The strange strong perfume was stinging and numbing his brain, his heart; he thought he heard the fiends coming for his soul — at last.
He hid his face in the purple silk robes and felt his blood grow cold.
The room darkened about him, he knew he was being drawn downwards into eternity, he sighed and slipped from the bed on to the floor.
As his last breath hovered on his lips the meteor vanished, the thunder-clouds rolled away from a fair blue sky and a glorious sunrise laughed over the city.
The reign of Antichrist was ended.
Through the Pope’s chamber the notes of silver trumpets quivered.
Balthasar’s trumpets as his hosts marched triumphantly into Rome.
This web edition published by:
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51