The Pope walked in the garden of the Vatican, behind him Cardinal Orsini and Cardinal Colonna; the first carried a cluster of daisies, white and yellow, strong in colour and pungent of odour, the second tossed up and down a little ball of gold and blue silk.
Both talked of the horrible state of Rome, of the unending storm hanging over the capital, of the army that had gone forth three days ago to crush the excommunicated Emperor. Michael II was silent.
They went along the marble walks and looked at the goldfish in the basin under the overhanging branches of the yellow rose bushes; they passed the trellis over which the jasmine clustered, and came out on the long terrace, where the peacocks flashed their splendour across the grass.
Oleanders grew here, and lilies; laurel trees rose against the murky heavens that should have shown blue, and curious statues gleamed beside the dark foliage.
Cardinal Colonna dropped his ball and let it roll away across the close grass, and Michael slackened his pace. He wore a white robe, his soft heavy red hair showing a brilliant colour above it; his dark eyes were thoughtful, his pale mouth resolutely set. The Cardinals fell further behind and conversed with the greater ease.
Suddenly the Pope paused and stood waiting, for Paolo Orsini, with a sprig of pink flower at his chin, was coming across the lawn.
Michael II tapped his gold-shod foot on the marble path. “What is it, Orsini?”
The secretary went on one knee.
“Your Holiness, a lady, who will neither unveil nor give her name, has obtained entry to the Vatican and desires to see your Holiness.”
The Pope’s face darkened.
“I thought ye had brought me news of the return of Theirry of Dendermonde! What can this woman want with us?”
“She says it is a matter of such import it may avert the war, and she prays, for the love of God, not to be denied.”
Michael II reflected a moment, his slim fingers pulling at the laurel leaves beside him. “We will see her,” he said at length. “Bring her here, Orsini.”
The yellow clouds broke over a brief spell of sunshine that fell across the Vatican gardens, though the horizon was dark with a freshly gathering storm; Michael II seated himself on a bench where the sun gleamed.
“Sirs,” he said to the two Cardinals, “stand by me and listen to what this woman may say.”
And picking a crimson rose from a thorny bush that brushed the seat, he considered it curiously, and only took his eves from it when Paolo Orsini had returned and led the lady almost to his feet.
Then he looked at her.
She wore a dark rough dress showing marks of ill usage, and over her face a thick veil.
This she loosened as she knelt, and revealed the exceedingly fair, sad face of Ysabeau the Empress.
Michael II went swiftly pale, he fixed large wide eyes on her.
“What do you here, defying us?” he demanded.
“I am not here in defiance. I have come to give myself up to punishment for the crime you denounced — the crime for which my lord now suffers.”
Michael crushed the rose in his hand and the Cardinals glanced at each other, having never seen him show agitation.
“It did not occur to your Holiness,” said Ysabeau, facing him fearlessly, “that I should do this; you thought that he would never give me up and you were right — crown, life, heaven he would forfeit for love of me, but I will not take the sacrifice.”
The fitful sunshine touched her great beauty, her fair, soft hair lying loosely on her shoulders, her eyes shadowed and dark, her hollow face.
“Mine was the sin,” she continued. “And I who was strong enough to sin alone can take the punishment alone.”
At last Michael spoke.
“Ye slew Melchoir of Brabant — ye confess it!”
Her bosom heaved.
“I am here to confess it.”
“For love of Balthasar you did it . . . ”
“As for love of him I stand here now to take the consequences.”
“We have fire on earth and fire in hell for those who do murder,” said Michael II; “flames for the body in the market-place, and flames in the pit for the soul, and though the body will not burn long, the soul will burn for eternity.”
“I know — do what you will with me.”
The Pope cast the crushed rose from him.
“Has Balthasar sent you here?”
She smiled proudly.
“I come without his knowledge.” Her voice trembled a little. “I left a writing telling him where I had gone and why —” Her hand crept to her brow. “Enough of that.”
Michael II rose.
“Why have you done this?” he cried angrily.
Ysabeau answered swiftly.
“That you may take the curse off him — for my sin you cast him forth, well, if I leave him, if I accept my punishment, if he be free to find the — woman — who can claim him, your Holiness must absolve him of the excommunication.”
“This comes late — too late;” he turned to the Cardinals. “My lords, is not this love a mad thing? — that she should hope to cheat Heaven so!”
“My hope is not to cheat Heaven but to appease it,” said Ysabeau; and the sun, making a pale glimmer in her hair, cast her shadow faintly before her to the Pontiff’s feet. “If not for myself, for him.”
“This foolish sacrifice,” said Michael, “cannot avail Balthasar. Since not of his free will ye are parted from him, how is his sin then lessened?”
She trembled exceedingly.
“Now, perchance he shall loathe me . . . ” she said.
“Had you told him to his face of your crime, would he have given you over to our wrath?” “Nay,” she flashed. “It would have been only noble in him to refuse; but since of myself I am come, I pray you, Lord Pope, to send me to death and take the curse off him.”
Michael II looked at his hand; the stem of the red rose had scratched his finger, and a tiny drop of blood showed on the white flesh.
“You are a wicked woman, by your own confession,” he said, frowning. “Why should I show you any pity?”
“I do not ask pity, but justice for the Emperor. I am the cause of the quarrel, and now ye have me ye can have no bitterness against him.”
He gave her a quick sidelong look.
“Do you repent, Ysabeau?”
She shook the clinging hood free of her yellow hair.
“No; the gain was worth the sin, nor am I afraid of you nor of Heaven. I am not of a faltering race, nor of a name easily ashamed. In my own eyes I am not abashed.”
Michael raised his head and their eyes met.
“So you would die for him?”
“I think I shall. I do not think your Holiness is merciful.”
He glanced again at the drop of blood on his finger.
“You show some courage, Ysabeau.”
“When I was a child I was taught that they who live as kings and queens must not look for age — the flame soon burns away, leaving the ashes — and gorgeous years are like the flame; why should we taste the dust that follows? I have lived my life.”
He answered —
“This shall not save Balthasar, nor take our curse from off him; Theirry of Dendermonde has gone forth with many men and banners, and soon the Roman gates shall open to him and victory lead his charger through the streets! And his reward shall be the Latin world, his badge of triumph the Imperial crown. He is our choice to share with us the dominion of the West, therefore no more of Balthasar — ye might speak until the heavens fell and still our heart be as brass!”
He turned swiftly and caught the arm of Cardinal Orsini.
“Away, my lord, we have given this Greek time enough.”
Ysabeau fell on her knees.
“My lord, take off the curse!”
“What shall we do with her?” asked Cardinal Colonna.
She clutched, in her desperation, at the priest’s white garments.
“Show some pity; Balthasar dies beneath your wrath —”
Paolo Orsini drew her away, while Michael II stared at her with a touch of fear.
“Cast her without the walls — since the excommunication is upon her we do not need her life.” “Oh, sirs!” shrieked Ysabeau, striving after them, “my lord is innocent!”
“Take her away,” said Michael. “Cast her from Rome,”— he glared at her over his shoulder ——“doubtless the Eastern she-cat will find it worse so to die than as Hugh of Rooselaare perished; come on, my lords.”
Leaning on the arm of Cardinal Orsini, he moved away across the Vatican gardens. Paolo Orsini blew a little whistle.
“You must be turned from the city,” he said.
Ysabeau rose from the grass.
“This your Christian priest!” she cried hoarsely, staring after the white figure; then, as she saw the guards approaching, she fell into an utter silence.
As Michael II entered the Vatican the sun was again obscured and the thunder rolled; he passed up the silver stairs to his cabinet and closed the door on all.
The storm grew and rioted angrily in the sky; in the height of it came a messenger riding straight to the Vatican.
Blood and dust were smeared on his clothes, and he was weary with swift travel; they brought him to the ebony cabinet and face to face with the Pope.
“From Theirry of Dendermonde?” breathed Michael, his face white as his robe.
“From Theirry of Dendermonde, your Holiness.”
“What says he — victory?”
“Balthasar of Courtrai is defeated, his army lies dead, men and horses, in the vale of Tivoli, and his conqueror marches home today.”
A shaft of lightning showed the ghastly face of Michael II, and a peal of thunder shook the messenger back against the wall.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51