Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 6

San Giovanni in Laterano

In the palace on the Aventine, Balthasar stood at a window looking over Rome.

The clouds that had hung for weeks above the city cast a dull yellow glow over marble and stone; the air was hot and sultry, now and then thunder rolled over the Vatican and a flash of lightning revealed the Angel on Castel San Angelo poised above the muddy waters of the Tiber.

A furious, utter dread and terror gripped Balthasar’s heart; days had passed since his defiance of the Pope and he had heard no more of his daring, but he was afraid, afraid of Michael II, of the Church, of Heaven behind it — afraid of this woman who had risen from the dead . . .

He knew the number of his enemies and with what difficulty he held Rome, he guessed that the Pope intended his downfall and to put another in his place — but not this almost certain ruin disturbed him day and night, no — the thought that the Church might throw him out and consign his soul to smoky hell.

Bravely enough had he dared the Pope at the time when his heart was hot within him, but in the days that followed his very soul had fainted to think what he had done; he could not sleep nor rest while waiting for outraged Heaven to strike; he darkly believed the continual storm brooding over Rome to be omen of God’s wrath with him.

His trouble was the greater because it was secret, the first that, since they had been wedded, he had concealed from Ysabeau. As this touched her, in an infamous and horrible manner, he could neither breathe it to her nor any other, and the loneliness of his miserable apprehension was an added torture.

This morning he had interviewed the envoys from Germany and his chamberlain; tales of anarchy and turmoil in Rome, of rebellion in Germany had further distracted him; now alone in his little marble cabinet, he stared across the gorgeous, storm-wrapt city.

Not long alone; he heard some one quietly enter, and because he knew who it was, he would not turn his head.

She came up to him and laid her hand on his plain brown doublet.

“Balthasar,” she said, “will you never tell me what it is that sits so heavily on your heart?” He commanded his voice to answer.

“Nothing, Ysabeau — nothing.”

The Empress gave a long, quivering sigh.

“This is the first time you have not trusted me.”

He turned his face; white and wan it was of late, with heavy circles under the usually joyous eyes; she winced to see it.

“Oh, my lord!” she cried passionately. “No anguish is so bitter when shared!”

He took her hand and pressed it warmly to his breast; he tried to smile.

“Certes, you know my troubles, Ysabeau, the discontent, the factions — matter enough to make any man grave.”

“And the Pope,” she said, raising her eyes to his; “most of all it is the Pope.”

“His Holiness is no friend to me,” said the Emperor in a low voice. “Oh, Ysabeau, we were deceived to aid him to the tiara.”

She shuddered.

“I persuaded you . . . blame me . . . I was mad. I set your enemy in authority.”

“Nay!” he answered in a great tenderness. “You are to blame for nothing, you, sweet Ysabeau.”

He raised the hand he held to his lips; in the thought that he suffered for her sake was a sweet recompense.

She coloured, then paled.

“What will he do?” she asked. “What will he do?”

“Nay — I know not.” His fair face overclouded again.

She saw it and terror shook her.

“He said more to you that day than you will tell me!” she cried. “You fear something that you will not reveal to me!”

The Emperor made an attempt at lightness of speech.

“He is a poor knight who tells his lady of his difficulties,” he said. “I cannot come crying to you like a child.”

She turned to him the soft frail beauty of her face and took his great sword hand between hers. “I am very jealous of you, Balthasar,” she said thickly, “jealous that you should shut me out —— from anything.”

“You will know soon enough,” he answered in a hoarse voice. “But never from me.” The tears lay in her violet eyes as she fondled his band.

“Are we not as strong as this man, Balthasar!”

“Nay,” he shivered, “for he has the Church behind him — tomorrow, we shall see him again — I dread tomorrow.”

“Why?” she asked quickly. “To-morrow is the Feast of the Assumption and we go to the Basilica.”

“Yea, and the Pope will be there in his power and I must kneel humbly before him — yet not that alone —”

“Balthasar! what do you fear?”

He breathed heavily.

“Nothing — a folly, an ugly presentiment, of late I have slept so little. — Why is he quiet? — He meditates something.”

His blue eyes widened with fear, he put the Empress gently from him.

“Take no heed, sweet, I am only weary and your dear solicitude unnerves me — I must go pray Saint Joris to remember me.”

“The Saints!” she cried hotly. “A knife would serve us better could we but thrust it into this Caprarola — who is he, this man who dares menace us?”

The childishly fair face was drawn with anxious love and bitter fury; the purple eyes were wet and brilliant, under her long robe of dull yellow samite her bosom strove painfully with her breath.

The Emperor turned uneasily aside.

“The storm,” he said, raising his voice above a whisper with an effort. “I think that it oppresses me and makes me fearful — how many days — how many days, Ysabeau, since we have seen a cloudless sky!”

He moved away from her hastily and left the room with an abrupt step.

The Empress crouched against the marble columns that supported the window, and as her unseeing eyes gazed across the shadowed city a look of cunning calculation, of fierce rage came into her face; it was many years since that sinister expression had marred her loveliness, for, since her second marriage she had met no man who threatened her or menaced her path or the Emperor’s as now did his Holiness, Michael II.

She half suspected him of having broken his vile bargain with her, she rightly thought that nothing save the revelation of his first wife’s existence could have so subdued and troubled Balthasar’s joyous courage and hopeful heart; she cursed herself that she had been a frightened fool to be startled into making a pact she might have known the Cardinal would not keep; she was bitterly furious that she had helped to set him in the position he now turned against her, it had been better had she refused to buy his silence at such a price — better that Cardinal Caprarola should have denounced her than that the Pope should use this knowledge to unseat her husband.

She had never imagined that she had a friend in Michael II, but she had not imagined him so callous, cruel and false as to take her bribe and still betray her — even though the man had revealed himself to her for what he was, as ambitious, unscrupulous and hard; she had not thought he would so shamelessly be false to his word.

Angry scorn filled her heart when she considered the reputation this man had won in his youth — that indeed he still bore with some — yet it could not but stir her admiration to reflect what it must have cost a man of the Pope’s nature to play the ascetic saint for so many years. But his piety had been well rewarded — the poor Flemish youth sat in the Vatican now, lord of her husband’s fortunes and her own honour.

Then she fell to pondering over the story of Ursula of Rooselaare, wondering where she was, where she had been these years, and how she had met Cardinal Caprarola . . . The Empress dwelt on these things till her head ached; impatiently she thrust wider open the stained glass casement and leant from the window.

But there was no breeze abroad to cool her burning brow, and on all sides the sky was heavy with clouds over which the summer lightning played.

Ysabeau turned her eyes from the threatening prospect, and with a stifled groan began pacing up and down the tesselated floor of the cabinet.

She was interrupted by the entry of a lady tall and fair, leading a beautiful child by the hand. Jacobea of Martzburg and Ysabeau’s son.

“We seek for his Grace,” smiled the lady. “Wencelaus wishes to say his Latin lesson, and to tell the tale of the three Dukes and the sack of gold that he has lately learnt.”

The Empress gave her son a quick glance.

“You shall tell it to me, Wencelaus — my lord is not here.”

The boy, golden, large and glorious to look upon, scowled at her.

“Will not tell it you or any woman.” Ysabeau answered in a kind of bitter gentleness. “Be not too proud, Wencelaus,” and the thought of what his future might be made her eyes fierce.

The Prince tossed his yellow curls. “I want my father.” Jacobea, in pity of the Empress’s distracted bearing, tried to pacify him.

“His Grace cannot see you now — but presently —” He shook his hand free of hers. “Ye cannot put me off — my father said an hour before the Angelus;” his blue eyes were angry and defiant, but his lips quivered.

The Empress crushed back the wild misery of her thoughts, and caught the child’s embroidered yellow sleeve.

“Certes, ye shall see him,” she said quietly, “if he promised you — I think he is in the oratory, we will wait at the door until he come forth.”

The boy kissed her hand, and, the shadow passed from his lovely face.

Jacobea saw the Empress look down on him with a desperate and heart-broken expression; she wondered at the anguish revealed to her in that second, but she was neither disturbed nor touched; her own heart had been broken so long ago that all emotions were but names to her.

The Empress dismissed her with a glance.

Jacobea left the palace, mounted the little Byzantine chariot with the blue curtains and drove to the church of San Giovanni in Laterano. She went there every day to hear a mass sung for the soul of one who had died long ago.

A large portion of her immense fortune had gone in paying for masses and candles for the repose of Sybilla, one time wife of Sebastian her steward; if gold could send the murdered woman there Jacobea had opened to her the doors of Paradise.

In her quiet monotonous life in a strange land, caring for none, and by none cared for, with a dead heart in her bosom and leaden feet walking heavily the road to the grave, this Sybilla had come to be with Jacobea the most potent thing she knew.

Neither Balthasar nor the Empress, nor any of their Court were so real to her as the steward’s dead wife.

She was as certain of her features, her bearing, the manner of her dress, as if she saw her daily; there was no face so familiar to her as the pale countenance of Sybilla with the wide brows and heavy red hair; she saw no ghost, she was not frightened by dreams nor visions, but the thought of Sybilla was continuous.

For ten years she had not spoken her name save in a whisper to the priest, nor had she in any way referred to her; by the people among whom she moved this woman was utterly forgotten, but in Jacobea’s bed-chamber stood a samite cushion exquisitely worked with a scarlet lily, and Jacobea looked at it more often than at anything else in the world.

She did not regard this image she had created with terror or dread, with any shuddering remorse or aversion; it was to her a constant companion whom she accepted almost as she accepted herself.

As she stepped from the chariot at the door of San Giovanni in Laterano the gathering thunder rolled round the hills of Rome; she pondered a moment on the ominous clouds that had hung so long over the city that the people began to murmur that they were under God’s displeasure, and passed through the dark portals into the dimly illuminated church.

She turned to a little side chapel and knelt on a purple cushion worn by her knees.

Mechanically she listened as the priest murmured over the mass, hurrying it a little that it might not interfere with the Angelus, mechanically she made the responses and rose when it was over with a calm face.

She had done this every day for nine years. There were a few people in the church, kneeling for the Angelus; Jacobea joined them and fixed her eyes on the altar, where a strong purple light glowed and flickered, bringing out points of gold in the moulding of the ancient arches.

A deep hush held the scented stillness; the scattered bent figures were dark and motionless against the mystic clouds of incense and the soft bright lights.

Monks in long brown habits came and stood in the chancel; the bell struck the hour, and young novices entered singing —

“Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae, et concepit de Spiritu Sancto.”

The monks knelt and folded their hands on their breasts; the response that still seemed very sweet to Jacobea arose.

“Ave Maria, gratia plena —”

A side door near Jacobea opened’ softly and a man stepped into the church . . . Now the priest was speaking.

“Ecce ancilla Domini.

fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”

A strong sense that the new-comer was observing her made Jacobea turn, almost unconsciously, her head towards him as she repeated the “Ave Maria.”

A tall richly-dressed man was gazing at her intently; his face was in shadow, but she could see long pearls softly gleam in his ears.

“Et Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis.”

The deep voices of the monks and the subdued tones of the worshippers again answered; Jacobea could distinguish the faltering words of the man near her.

“Ora pro nobs, Sancta Del Genitrix.”

Jacobea bent her head in her hands, as she replied —

“Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi.”

Priests and novices left the church, the monks filed out and the bent figures rose. The man stepped from the shadows as Jacobea rose to her feet, and their eyes met. “Ah — you!” said Jacobea; she had her hands on her breviary as he had seen them long ago.

She was so little moved by meeting him that she began to clasp the ivory covers, bending her head to do so.

“You remember me?” asked Theirry faintly.

“I have forgotten nothing,” she answered calmly. “Why do you seek to recall yourself to me?” “I cannot see you and let you pass.”

She looked at him; it was a different face from the one he had known, though little changed in line or colour.

“You must hate me,” he faltered.

The words did not touch her.

“Are you free of the devils?” she asked, and crossed herself.

Theirry winced; he remembered that she believed Dirk was dead, that she thought of the Pope as a holy man . . .

“Forgive me,” he murmured.

“For what?”

“Ah — that I did not understand you to be always a saintly woman.”

Jacobea laughed sadly.

“You must not speak of the past, though you may think of nothing else, even as I do — we might have been friends once, but the Devil was too strong for us.”

At that moment Thierry hated Dirk passionately; he felt he could have been happy with this woman, and with her only in the whole world, and he loathed Dirk for making it impossible. “Well,” said Jacobea, in the same unmoved tone, “I must go back — farewell, sir.”

Theirry strove with speech in vain; as she moved towards the door he came beside her, his beautiful face white and eager.

Then, by a common impulse, both stopped.

Round one of the dark glittering pillars a brilliant figure flashed into the rich light. The masked dancer in orange.

She stepped up to Theirry and laid her fingers on his scarlet sleeve.

“How does Theirry of Dendermonde keep his word!” she mocked, and her eyes gleamed from their holes; “is your heart of a feather’s weight that it flutters this way and that with every breath of air?”

“What does that mean?” asked Jacobea, as the man flushed and shuddered. “And what does she here in this attire?”

The dancer turned to her swiftly

“What of one who drags his weary limbs beneath a Syrian sun in penitence for a deed ye urged him to?” she said in the same tone.

Jacobea stepped back with a quick cry, and Theirry seized the dancer’s arm.

“Begone,” he said threateningly. “I know you, or who you feign to be.”

She answered between laughter and fear.

“Let me go — I have not hurt you; why are you angry, my brave knight?”

At the sound of her voice that she in no way lowered, a monk came forward and sternly ordered her from the church.

“Why?” she asked. “I am masked, holy father, so cannot prove a temptation to the faithful!” “Leave the church,” he commanded, “and if you would worship here come in a fitting spirit and a fitting dress.”

The dancer laughed.

“So I am flung out of the house of God — well, sir and sweet lady, will you come to the Mass at the Basilica tomorrow? — nay, do, it will be worth beholding — the Basilica tomorrow! I shall be there.”

With that she darted before them and slipped from the church.

Man and woman shuddered and knew not why.

A peal of thunder rolled, the walls of the church shook, and an image of the Virgin was hurled to the marble pavement and shivered into fragments.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51