The chamber in the Vatican was so dimly, richly lit with jewelled and deep-coloured lamps that at first Theirry thought himself alone.
He looked round and saw silver walls hung with tapestries of violet and gold; pillars with columns of sea-green marble and capitals of shining mosaic supported a roof encrusted with jasper and jade; the floor, of Numidian marble, was spread with Indian silk carpets; here and there stood crystal bowls of roses, white and crimson, fainting in the close, sweet air.
At the far end of the room was a dais hung with brocade in which flowers and animals shone in gold and silver on a purple ground; gilt steps, carved and painted, led up to a throne on the dais, and Theirry, as his eyes became used to the wine-coloured gloom, saw that some one sat there; some one so splendidly robed and so still that it seemed more like one of the images Theirry had seen worshipped in Constantinople than a human being.
Presently he could discern intense eyes looking at him out of a dazzle of dark gold and shimmering shadowed colours.
Michael II moved in his seat.
“Again do you not know me?” he asked in a low tone.
“You sent for me,” said Theirry; to himself his voice sounded hoarse and unnatural. “At last —”
“I have been waiting — you have been Pope thirty days, and never have you given me a sign.” “Is thirty days so long?”
Theirry came nearer the enthroned being.
“You have done nothing for me — you spoke of favours.”
Silver, gold and purple shook together as Michael II turned in his gorgeous chair.
“Favours!” he echoed. “You are the only man in Christendom who would stand in my presence; the Emperor kneels to kiss my foot.”
“The Emperor does not know,” shuddered Theirry; “but I do — and knowing, I cannot kneel to you . . . Ah, God! — how can you dare it?”
The Pope’s soft voice came from the shadows. “Your moods change — first this, then that; what humour are you in now, Theirry of Dendermonde; would you still be Emperor?”
Theirry put his hand to his brow.
“Yea, you know it — why do you torture me with suspense, with waiting? If Evil is to be my master, let me serve him . . . and be rewarded.”
Michael II answered swiftly.
“I was not the one to be faithless to our friendship, nor shall I now shrink from serving you, at any cost — be you but true.”
“In what way can I be false?” asked Theirry bitterly. “I, a thing at your mercy?”
The Pope held back the blossom-strewn brocade so that he could see the other’s face. “I ask of you to let Jacobea of Martzburg be.”
“How ye have always hated her! . . . since I came to Rome I have seen her the once.”
The Pope’s smooth pale face showed a stain of red from the dim beams of one of the splendid lamps; Theirry observed it as he leant forward.
“She did not marry her steward,” he said.
The Pope’s eyes narrowed.
“Ye have been at the pains to discover that?”
Theirry laughed mournfully.
“You have won! you, sitting where you sit now, can afford to mock at me; at my love, at my hope — both of which I placed once at stake on — her — and lost! . . . and lost! Ten years ago — but having again seen her, sometimes I must think of her, and that she was not vile after all, but only trapped by you, as I have been . . . Sebastian went to Palestine, and she has gone unwed.”
The Pope gave a quick sigh and bit his lip.
“I will make you Emperor,” he said. “But that woman shall not be your Empress.” Again Theirry laughed.
“Did I love her even, which I do not — I would put her gladly aside to sit on the Imperial throne! — Come, I have dallied long enough on the brink of devilry — let me sin grandly now, and be grandly paid!”
Michael II gave so quick a breath the jewels on his breast scattered coloured light.
“Come nearer to me,” he commanded, “and take my hand — as you used to, in Frankfort . . . I am always Dirk to you — you who never cared for me, hated me, I think — oh, the traitors our hearts are, neither God nor devil is so fierce to fight!”
Theirry approached the gold steps; the Pope leant down and gave him his cool white hand, heavy with gemmed rings, and looked intently into his eyes.
“When they announced your election — how the storm smote the city,” whispered Theirry fearfully; “were you not daunted?”
The Pope withdrew his hand.
“I was not in the Conclave,” he said in a strange tone. “I lay sick in my villa — as for the storm —”
“It has not lifted since,” breathed Theirry; “day and night have the clouds hung over Rome — is not there, after all, a God?”
“Silence!” cried the Pope in a troubled voice.
“You would be Emperor of the West, would you not? — let us speak of that.”
Theirry leant against the arm of the throne and stared with an awful fascination into the other’s face.
“Ay, let us speak of that,” he answered wildly; “can all your devilries accomplish it? It is common talk in Rome that you secured your election by Frankish influence because you vowed to league with Balthasar — they say you are his ally —”
The dark intense eyes of Michael II glittered and glowed.
“Nevertheless I will cast him down and set you in his place — he comes today to ask my aid against Lombardy and Bohemia; and therefore have I sent for you that you may overhear this audience, and see how I mate and checkmate an Emperor for your sake.”
As he spoke, he pointed to the other end of the room where hung a sombre and rich curtain. “Conceal yourself — behind that tapestry — and listen carefully to what I say, and you will understand how I may humble Balthasar and shake him from his throne.”
Theirry, not joyous nor triumphant, but agitated and trembling with a horrible excitement, crept across the room and passed silently behind the arras.
As the long folds shook into place again the Pope touched a bell.
Paolo Orsini entered.
“Admit the Emperor.”
The secretary withdrew; there was a soft sound in the ante-chamber, the voices of priests.
Michael II put his hand to his heart and fetched two or three quick panting breaths; his full lips curved to a strange smile, and a stranger thought was behind it; a thought that, if expressed, would not have been understood even by Theirry of Dendermonde, who of all men knew most of his Holiness.
This it was —
“Did ever lady meet her lord like this before, or like this use him to advance her love!”
A heavy tread sounded without, and the Emperor advanced into the splendid glooms of the audience-chamber.
He was bare-headed, and at sight of the awe-inspiring figure, went on his knees at the foot of the dais.
Michael II looked at him in silence; the silver door was closed, and they were alone, save for the unseen listener behind the arras.
At last the Pope said slowly —
“Arise, my son.”
The Emperor stood erect, showing his magnificent height and bearing; he wore bronze-hued armour, scaled like a dragon’s breast, the high gold Imperial buskins, and an immense scarlet mantle that flowed behind him; his thick yellow hair hung in heavy curls on to his shoulders, and his enormous sword made a clatter against his armour as he moved.
Theirry, cautiously drawing aside the curtain to observe, dug his nails into his palms with bitter envy.
Behold the man who had once been his companion — little more than his equal, and now — an Emperor!
“You desired an audience of us,” said the Pope. “And some tedium may be spared, for we can well guess what you have to say.”
A look of relief came into Balthasar’s great blue eyes; he was no politician; the Empress, whose wits alone had kept him ten years on a throne, had trembled for this audience.
“Your Holiness knows that it is my humble desire to form a firm alliance between Rome and Germany. I have ruled both long enough to prove myself neither weak nor false, I have ever been a faithful servant of Holy Church —”
The Pope interrupted.
“And now you would ask her help against your rebellious subjects?”
“Yea, your Holiness.”
Michael II smiled.
“On what right does your Grace presume when you ask us to aid you in steadying a trembling throne?”
Balthasar flushed, and came clumsily to the point.
“I was assured, Holy Father, of your friendliness before the election — the Empress —” Again the Pope cut him short.
“Cardinal Caprarola was not the Vicegerent of Christ, the High Priest of Christendom, as we are now — and those whom Louis of Dendermonde knew, become as nothing before the Pope of Rome, in whose estimate all men are the same.”
Balthasar’s spirit rose at this haughty speech; his face turned crimson, and he savagely caught at one of his yellow curls.
“Your Holiness can have no object in refusing my alliance,” he answered. “Sylvester crowned me with his own hands, and I always lived in friendship with him — he aided me with troops when the Lombards rebelled against their suzerain, and Suabia he placed under an interdict —”
“We are not Sylvester,” said the Pope haughtily ——“nor accountable for his doings; as you may show yourself the obedient son of the Church so may we support you — otherwise! — we can denounce as we can uphold, pull down as we can raise up, and it wants but little, Balthasar of Courtrai, to shake your throne from under you.”
The Emperor bit his lip, and the scales of his mail gleamed as they rose with his heavy breathing; he knew that if the power of the Vatican was placed on the side of his enemies he was ruined.
“In what way have I offended your Holiness?” he asked, with what humility he could.
The fair young face of Michael II was flushed and proud in expression; the red curls surrounding the tonsure fell across his smooth forehead; his red lips were sternly set and his heavy brows frowned.
“Ye have offended Heaven, for whom we stand,” he answered. “And until by penitence ye assoil your soul we must hold you outcast from the mercies of the Church.”
“Tell me my sins,” said Balthasar hoarsely. “And what I can do to blot them out — masses, money, lands —”
The Pope made a scornful movement with his little hand.
“None of these can make your peace with God and us — one thing only can avail there.”
“Tell it me,” cried the Emperor eagerly. “If it be a crusade, surely I will go — after Lombardy is subdued.”
The Pope flashed a quick glance over him. “We want no knight-errantry in the East; we demand this — that you put away the woman whom you call your wife.”
Balthasar stared with dilating eyes.
“Saint Joris guard us!” he muttered; “the woman whom I call my wife!”
“Ysabeau, first wedded to the man whom you succeeded.”
Balthasar’s hand made an instinctive movement towards his sword.
“I do not understand your Holiness.”
The Pope turned in his chair so that the lamplight made his robe one bright purple sheen. “Come here, my lord.”
The Emperor advanced to the gold steps; a slim fair hand was held out to him, holding, between finger and thumb, a ring set with a deep red stone.
“Do you know this, my lord?” The Pope’s brilliant eyes were fixed on him with an intent and terrible expression.
Balthasar of Courtrai looked at the ring; round the bezel two coats of arms were delicately engraved in the soft red gold.
“Why,” he said in a troubled way, “I know the ring — yea, it was made many years ago” “And given to a woman.
“Certes — yea —”
“It is a wedding ring.”
Again the Emperor assented, his blue eyes darkened and questioning.
“The woman to whom in your name it was given still lives.”
“Ursula of Rooselaare!” cried Balthasar.
“Yea, Ursula of Rooselaare, your wife.”
“My first wife who died before I had seen her, Holiness,” stammered the Emperor.
The Pope’s strange handsome face was hard and merciless; he held the wedding ring out on his open palm and looked from it to Balthasar.
“She did not die — neither in the convent, as to your shame you know, nor in the house of Master Lukas.”
Balthasar could not speak; he saw that this man knew what he had considered was a close secret of his own heart alone.
“Who told you she was dead?” continued the Pope. “A certain youth, who, for his own ends, I think, lied, a wicked youth he was, and he died in Frankfort for compassing the death of the late Emperor — or escaped that end by firing his house, the tale grows faint with years; ’twas he who told you Ursula of Rooselaare was dead; he even showed you her grave — and you were content to take his word — and she was content to be silent.”
“Oh, Christus!” cried the Emperor. “Oh, Saint Joris! —— but, holy father — this thing is impossible!” He wrung his hands together and beat his mailed breast. “From whom had you this tale?”
“From Ursula of Rooselaare.”
“It cannot be . . . why was she silent all these years? why did she allow me to take Ysabeau to wife?”
A wild expression crossed the Pope’s face; he looked beyond the Emperor with deep soft eyes. “Because she loved another man.”
A pause fell for a second, then Michael II spoke again.
“I think, too, she something hated you who had failed her, and scorned her — there was her father also, who died shamefully by Ysabeau’s command; she meant, I take it, to revenge that upon the Empress, and now, perhaps, her chance has come.”
Balthasar gave a dry sob.
“Where is this woman who has so influenced your Holiness against me? An impostor! do not listen to her!”
“She speaks the truth, as God and devils know!” flashed the Pope. “And we, with all the weight of Holy Church, will support her in the maintenance of her just rights; we also have no love for this Eastern woman who slew her lord.”
“Nay, that is false”— Balthasar ground his teeth. “I know some said it of her — but it is a lie.” “This to me!” cried the Pope. “Beware how ye anger God’s Vicegerent.”
The Emperor quivered, and put his hand to his brow.
“I bend my neck for your Holiness to step on — so you do not ask me to listen to evil of the Empress.”
The Pope rose with a gleam of silk and a sparkle of jewels.
“Ysabeau is not Empress, nor your wife; her son is not your heir, and you must presently part with both of them or suffer the extremity of our wrath — yea, the woman shall ye give into the hands of the executioner to suffer for the death of Melchoir, and the child shall ye turn away from you — and with pains and trouble shall ye search for Ursula of Rooselaare, and finding her, cause her to be acknowledged your wife and Empress of the West. That she lives I know, the rest is for you.”
The Emperor drew himself up and folded his arms on his breast.
“This is all I have to say,” added the Pope. “And on those terms alone will I secure to you the throne.”
“I have but one answer,” said Balthasar. “And it would be the same did I deliver it in the face of God — that while I live and have breath to speak, I shall proclaim Ysabeau and none other as my wife, and our son as an Empress’s son, and my heir and successor; kingdom and even life may your Holiness despoil me of — but neither the armies of the earth nor the angels of heaven shall take from me these two — this my answer to your Holiness.”
The Pope resumed his seat.
“Ye dare to defy me,” he said. “Well — ye are a foolish man to set yourself against Heaven; go back and live in sin and wait the judgment.”
Balthasar’s flesh crept and quivered, but he held his head high, even though the Pope’s words opened the prospect of a sure hell.
“Your Holiness has spoken, so also have I,” he answered. “I take my leave.”
Michael II gazed at him in silence as he bent his head and backed towards the silver door.
No other word passed between Pope and Emperor; the gleaming portals opened; the mail of Balthasar’s retinue clinked without, and then soft silence fell on the richly lit room as the door was delicately closed.
The Pope rose and descended from the dais; the dark arras was lifted cautiously, and Theirry crept into the room.
Michael II stood at the foot of the golden steps; despite his magnificent and flowing draperies, he looked very young and slender.
“Well,” he asked, and his eyes were triumphant. “Stand I not in a fair way to cast down the Emperor?”
Theirry moistened his lips.
“Yea — how dared you! — to use the thunderbolts of heaven for such ends!”
The Pope smiled.
“The thunders of heaven may be used to any ends by those who can wield them.” “What you said was false?” whispered Theirry, questioning.
The jewelled light flickered over the Pope’s face.
“Nay, it was true, Ursula of Rooselaare lives.”
“Ye never told me that — in the old days!”
“Maybe I did not know — she lives, and she is in Rome;” he caught hold of the robe across his breast as he spoke, and both voice and eyes were touched with weariness.
“This is a curious tale,” answered Theirry in a confused manner. “She must be a strange woman.”
“She is a strange woman.”
“I would like to see her — who is it that she loves?”
The Pope showed pale; he moved slowly across the room with his head bent.
“A man for whose sake she puts her very life in jeopardy,” he said in a low passionate voice. “A man I think, who is unworthy of her.”
“She is in Rome?” pondered Theirry.
The Pope lifted an arras that concealed an inner door.
“The first move is made,” he said. “Farewell now — I will acquaint you of the progress of your fortunes;” he gave a slight, queer smile; “as for Ursula of Rooselaare, ye have seen her —” “Seen her?”
“Yea; she wears the disguise of a masked dancer in orange.”
With that he pointed Theirry to the concealed doorway, and turning, left him.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06