Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 7

The Vengeance of Michael ii

From every church and convent in Rome the bells rang out; it was the Feast of the Assumption and holiday in the city.

Strange, heavy clouds still obscured the sky, and intermittent thunder echoed in the distance. The Basilica of St. Peter was crowded from end to end; the bewildering splendour of walls, ceiling and columns was lit by thousands of wax tapers and coloured lamps; part of the church had been hung with azure and silver; the altar steps were covered in cloth of gold, the altar itself almost hidden with lilies; the various gleaming hues of the marble, orange, rose, pink, mauve, grey and white, the jewel-like sparkle of the mosaic capitals, the ivory carving on the rood screen, the silver arch before the high altar, the silk and satin banners of the church resting here and there before the walls, all combined into one soft yet burning magnificence.

The vast congregation all knelt upon the marble floor, save the Emperor and his wife, who sat under a violet canopy placed opposite the pulpit.

Balthasar wore the imperial purple and buskins; round his brows was the circlet that meant dominion of the Latin world, but his comely face was pale and anxious and his blue eyes troubled. Ysabeau, seated close beside him, sparkled with gems from her throat to her feet; her pale locks, twisted with pearls, hung over her bosom; she wore a high crown of emeralds and her mantle was cloth of silver.

Between them, on a lower step of the dais, stood their little son, gleaming in white satin and overawed by the glitter and the silence.

Surrounding the throne were ladies, courtiers, Frankish knights, members of the Council, German Margraves, Italian nobles, envoys from France, Spain, and resplendent Greeks from the Court of Basil.

Theirry, kneeling in the press, distinguished the calm face of Jacobea of Martzburg among the dames of the Empress’s retinue; but he sought in vain through the immense and varied crowd for the dancer in orange.

A faint chant rose from the sacristy, jewelled crosses showed above the heads of the multitude as the monks entered holding them aloft, the fresh voices of the choristers came nearer, acolytes took their places round the altar, and the blue clouds of incense floated over the hushed multitude.

The bells ceased.

The rise and fall of singing filled the Basilica.

Cardinal Orsini, followed by a number of priests, went slowly down the aisle towards the open bronze doors.

His brilliant dalmatica shivered into gleaming light as he moved.

At the door he paused.

The Pontifical train was arriving in a gorgeous dazzle of colour and motion.

Michael II stepped from a gilt car drawn by four white oxen, whose polished horns were wreathed with roses white and red.

Preceded by Cardinals, the vivid tints of whose silk robes burnt in the golden brightness of the Basilica, the Pope passed down the aisle, while the congregation crouched low on their knees and hid their faces.

Emperor and Empress rose; he looked at his son, but she at the Pontiff, who took no heed of either.

Monks, priests and novices moved away from the high altar, where the rows upon rows of candles shone like stars against the sparkling, incense-laden air.

He passed to his gold and ivory seat, and the Cardinals took their places beside him.

Ysabeau, as she resumed her place beside her lord, gazed across the silent, kneeling crowd at Michael II.

His chasuble was alive with the varying hues of jewels, the purple and crimson train of his robes spread to right and left along the altar steps, the triple crown gave forth showers of light from its rubies and diamonds, while the red hair of the wearer caught the candle-glow and shone like a halo round his pale calm face, so curiously delicate of feature to be able to express such resolution, such pride.

His under-garment of white satin was so thickly sewn with pearls that the stuff was hardly visible, his fingers so covered with huge and brilliant rings that they looked of an unnatural slenderness by contrast; he held a crozier encrusted with rubies that darted red fire, and carbuncles flashed on his gold shoes.

The beautiful dark eyes that always held the expression of some passion for ever surging up, for ever held in before reaching expression, were fixed steadily on the bronze doors that now closed the church.

A little tremor of thunder filled the stillness, then the fair, faint chant of the boys arose.

“Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, diem festum celebrantes

Sub honore Beatae

Mariae Virginis, . . . ”

Ysabeau murmured the words under her breath; none in the devout multitude with more sincerity.

As the notes quivered into silence Cardinal Orsini murmured a prayer, to which a thousand responses were whispered fervently.

And again the thunder made sombre echo. The Empress put her hand over her eyes; her jewels seemed so heavy they must drag her from the throne, the crown galled her brow; the little Wencelaus stood motionless, a bright colour in his cheeks, his eyes brilliant with excitement; now and then the Emperor looked at him in a secretive, piteous manner.

There was an involuntary stir among the people as the rich voices of the men took up the singing at the end of the epistle, a movement of joy, of pleasure in the triumphant music.

“Alleluia, alleluia.

Assumpta est Maria in Coelum; Gaudet exercitus Angelorum. Alleluia.”

Then the Pope moved, descended slowly from the dais and mounted the steps of the high altar, his train upheld by two Archbishops.

Emperor and Empress knelt with the rest as he performed the office of the mass; an intense stillness held the rapt assembly, but as he turned and displayed the Host, before the vast multitude who hid their eyes, as he held it like a captured star above the hushed splendour of the altar, a crash of thunder shook the very foundations of the church, and the walls shivered as if mighty forces beat on them without.

Michael II, the only man erect in the crouching multitude smiled slowly as he replaced the Eucharist; lightning’ darted through the high coloured windows and quivered a moment before it was absorbed in the rich lights.

The voices of the choir rose with a melancholy beauty.

“Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.”

The Pope turned to the altar; again the thunder rolled, but his low, steady voice was heard distinctly chanting the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” with the choir.

At the finish Cardinal Orsini took up the prayers, and a half-muffled response came from the crowd.

“Gloria tibi, Domine.”

Every head was raised, every right hand made the sacred sign.

“Laus tibi, Christe.”

The Pope blessed the multitude and returned to his seat.

Then as Emperor and Empress rose from their knees a soft, bright sound of movement filled the Basilica; Ysabeau put out her hand and caught hold of her husband’s.

“Who is this?” she asked in a whisper.

He turned his eyes in the direction of her gaze.

Down the chancel came a tall monk in the robe of the Order of the Black Penitents; his arms were folded, his hands hidden in his sleeves, his deep cowl cast his face into utter shadow.

“I thought Cardinal Colonna preached,” whispered Balthasar fearfully, as the monk ascended the pulpit. “I know not this man.”

Ysabeau looked at the Pope, who sat motionless in his splendour, his hands resting on the arms of the gold chair, his gaze riveted on the black figure of the monk in the glittering pulpit; a faint smile was on his lips, a faint colour in his cheeks, and Ysabeau’s hand tightened on the fingers of her lord.

The monk stood for a moment motionless, evidently contemplating the multitude from the depth of his hood; Balthasar thought he gazed at him, and shivered.

A strange sense of suspense filled the church, even the priests and Cardinals about the altar glanced curiously at the figure in the pulpit; some women began to sob under the influence of nameless and intense excitement.

The monk drew from his sleeve a parchment from which swung a mighty seal, slowly he unfurled it; the Empress crouched closer to Balthasar.

The monk began to speak, and both to Ysabeau and her husband the voice was familiar — a voice long silent in death.

“In the name of Michael II, servant of servants of God and Vicegerent of Christ, I herewith pronounce the anathema over Balthasar of Courtrai, Emperor of the West, over Ysabeau, born Marozia Porphyrogentris, over their son, Wencelaus, over their followers, servants and hosts! I herewith expel them from the pale of Holy Church, and curse them as heretics!

“I forbid any to offer them shelter, food or help, I hurl on their heads the wrath of God and the hatred of man, I forbid any to attend their sick-bed, to receive their confession or to bury their bodies!

“I cut asunder the ties that bind the Latin people in obedience to them, and I lay under an interdict any person, village, town or state that succours or aids them against our wrath! May they and their children and their children’s children be blighted and cursed in life and in death, may they taste misery and desolation on the earth before they go to everlasting torment in hell!”

And now the cowled monk caught up one of the candles that lit the pulpit, and held it aloft.

“May their race perish with them and their memories be swallowed in oblivion — thus! As I extinguish this flame may the hand of God extinguish them!”

He cast the candle on to the marble floor beneath the pulpit, the flame was immediately dashed out, a slow smoke curled an instant and vanished.

“For Balthasar of Courtrai cherishes a murderess on the throne, and until he cast her forth and receive his true wife this anathema rests upon his head!”

Emperor and Empress listened, holding each other’s hands and staring at the monk; as he ended, and while the awe of utter fear held the assembly numb, Ysabeau rose . . .

But at that same instant the monk tossed back his cowl and revealed the stern, pale features of Melchoir of Brabant, crowned with the imperial diadem . . .

A frenzied shriek broke from the woman, and she fell across the steps of the throne; her crown slipped from her fair head and dazzled on the pavement.

Groaning in anguish Balthasar stooped to raise her up . . . when he again looked at the pulpit it was empty.

Ysabeau’s cry had loosened the souls of the multitude, they rose to their feet and began to surge wildly towards the door.

But the Pontiff rose, approached the altar and began calmly to chant the Gratias.

Balthasar gave him a wild and desperate look, staggered and fiercely recovered himself, then took his child by the hand, and supporting with the other the Empress, who struggled back to life, he swept down the aisle, followed by a few of his German knights.

The people shuddered away to right and left to give him passage; the bronze doors were opened and the excommunicated man stepped into the thunder-wrapt streets of the city where he no longer reigned.

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