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CHAPTER III
THE EMPRESS

Ysabeau, wife of Balthasar of Courtrai and Empress of the West, waited in the porphyry cabinet of Cardinal Caprarola. She sat on a low chair by the window and rested her chin on her hand. Her superb eyes were grave and thoughtful; she did not move from her reflective attitude during the time the haughty priest kept her waiting. When at last he entered with a shimmer and ripple of purple silks, she rose and bent her head.

"It pleases you to make me attendant on your pleasure, my lord," she said.

Cardinal Caprarola gave her calm greeting.

"My time is not my own," he added. "God His service comes first, lady." The Empress returned to her seat.

"Have I come here to discuss God with your Eminence?" she asked, and her fair mouth was scornful. The Cardinal crossed to the far end of the cabinet and slowly took his place in his carved gold chair.

"It is of ourselves we will speak," he said, smiling. "Certes, your Grace will have expected that."

"Nay," she answered. "What is there we have in common, Cardinal Caprarola?"

"Ambition," said his Eminence, "which is known alike to saint and sinner."

Ysabeau looked at him swiftly; he was smiling with lips and eyes, sitting back with an air of ease and power that discomposed her; she had never liked him.

"If your talk be of policy, my lord, it is to the Emperor you should go."

"I think you have as much influence in Rome as your husband, my daughter."

"It is our influence you wish, my lord—certes, a matter for the Emperor."

"Yea, you understand me."

"Your Eminence desires our support in the Conclave now sitting," she continued haughtily. "But have you ever shown so much duty to us, that we should wish to see you in St. Peter's seat?"

She thought herself justified in speaking thus to a man whose greatness had always galled her, for she saw in this appeal for her help an amazing confession of weakness on his part. But Luigi Caprarola remained entirely composed.

"You have your creatures in the Church," he said, "and you intend one of them to wear the Tiara—there are sixteen Cardinals in the Conclave, and I, perhaps, have half of them. Your Grace, you must see that your faction does not interfere with what these priests desire—my election namely."

"Must?" she repeated, her violet eyes dilating. "Your Eminence has some reputation as a holy man—and you suggest the corruption of the Conclave."

The Cardinal leant forward in his chair.

"I do not play for a saintly fame," he said, "and as for a corrupted Conclave—your Grace should know corruption, seeing that your art, and your art alone, achieved the election of Balthasar to the German throne."

Ysabeau stared at him mutely; he gave a soft laugh.

"You are a clever woman," he continued. "Your husband is the first King of the Germans to hold the Empery of the West for ten years and keep his heel on the home lands as well; but even your wits will scarcely suffice now; Bohemia revolts, and Basil stretches greedy fingers from Ravenna, and to keep the throne secure you desire a man in the Vatican who is Balthasar's creature."

The Empress rose and placed her hand on the gilded ribbing of the window-frame. "Your Eminence shows some understanding," she flashed, pale beneath her paint; "we gained the West, and we will keep the West, so you see, my lord, why my influence will be against you, not with you, in the Conclave."

"Your Grace speaks boldly—you think me your enemy?"

"You declare yourself hostile, my lord."

"Nay, I may be a good friend to you—in St. Peter's."

She smiled. "The Conclave have not declared their decision yet, your Eminence; you are a great prince, but the Imperial party have some power."

The Cardinal sat erect, and his intense eyes quelled her despite herself. "Some power—which I ask you to exert in my behalf."

She looked away, though angry with herself that his gaze overawed her. "You have declared your ambition, my lord; your talents and your wealth we know—you are too powerful already for us to tolerate you as master in Rome."

"Again you speak boldly," smiled the Cardinal. "Perhaps too boldly—I think you will yet help me to the Tiara."

Ysabeau gave a quick glance at his pale, handsome face framed in the red hair. "Do you seek to bribe me, my lord?" She remembered the vast riches of this man and their own empty treasury.

"Nay," said Luigi Caprarola, still smiling. "I threaten."

"Threaten!"

"I threaten that I will make you an outcast in the streets unless you serve me well."

She was the tiger-cat now, ready to turn at bay, Marozia Porphyrogentris of Byzantium.

"I know that of you," said the Cardinal, "that once revealed, would make the Emperor hurl you from his side."

She sucked in her breath and waited.

"Melchoir of Brabant died by poison and by witchcraft."

"All the world knows that"—her eyes were long and evil; "he was bewitched by a young doctor of Frankfort College who perished for the deed."

The Cardinal looked down at the hand on his lap.

"Yea, that young doctor brewed the potion—you administered it."

Ysabeau took a step forward into the room. "You lie … I am not afraid of you—you lie most utterly …"

Luigi Caprarola sprang to his feet. "Silence, woman! speak not so to me! It is the truth, and I can prove it!"

The Cardinal still stood and dominated her. "Do you recall a youth who was scrivener to your Chamberlain and friend of the young doctor of rhetoric—Theirry his name, born of Dendermonde?"

"Yea, he is now dead or in the East.…"

"He is alive, and in Rome. He served you well once, Empress, when he came to betray his friend, and you were quick to seize the chance—it suited him then to truckle to you … I think he was afraid of you … he is not now; he knows, and if I bid him he will speak."

Ysabeau answered swiftly. "I am not of a nation easily cowed, my lord, nor are the people of our blood readily trapped—I can tear your reputed saintship to rags by spreading abroad this tale of how you tried to bargain with me for the Popedom."

The Cardinal smiled in a way she did not care to see. "But first I say to the Emperor—your wife slew your friend that she might be your wife, your friend Melchoir of Brabant—you loved him better than you loved the woman—will you not avenge him now?"

The Empress pressed her clenched hands against her heart and, with an effort, raised her eyes to her accuser's masterful face. "My lord's love against it all," she said hoarsely. "He knows Melchoir's murderer perished in Frankfort in the flames, he knows that I am innocent, and he will laugh at you—weave what tissue of falsehoods you will, sir, I do defy you, and will do no bargaining to set you in the Vatican."

The Cardinal rested his finger-tips on the arm of the chair, and looked down at them with a deepening smile.

"You speak," he answered, "as one whom I can admire—it requires great courage to put the front you do on guilt—but I have certain knowledge of what I say; come, I will prove to you that you cannot deceive me—you came first to the house of a certain witch in Frankfort on a day in August, a youth opened the door and took you into a room at the back that looked on to a garden growing dark red roses; you knew that he had been driven from Basle College for witchcraft, even as I know you compassed the death of your first husband, and you asked him to help you, even as I ask you to help me now."

The Cardinal reseated himself in his gold chair and marked with brilliant, merciless eyes the woman struggling to make a stand against him. "Hugh of Rooselaare died," he said with sudden venom—"died basely for justly accusing you, and so shall you die—basely—unless you aid me in the Conclave."

"Cardinal Caprarola," she said, "you ask me to use my influence to bring about your election to the Popedom—knowing you as I know you now I cannot fail to see you are a man who would stop at nought … if I help you I shall help my husband's enemy—once you are in the Vatican, how long will you tolerate him in Rome? You will be no man's creature, and, I think, no man's ally—what chance shall we have in Rome once you are master? Sylvester was old and meek, he let Balthasar hold the reins—will you do that?"

"That will not I," said Luigi Caprarola. "If it please me I will hurl him down and set one of my own followers up. I have no love for Balthasar of Courtrai."

Ysabeau's face hardened with hate. "But you think he can help you to the Tiara——"

"Through you, lady—you can tell him I am his friend, his ally, what you will—or you may directly influence the Cardinals, I care not, so the thing be done; what I shall do if it be not done, I have said."

"Then you are wrong; neither threats nor bribery can make me do this thing—say what you will to the Emperor, I am secure in his good affections; blight my fame and turn him against me if you can, I am not so mean a woman that fear can make me betray the fortunes of my husband and my son."

The Cardinal lowered his eyes; he was very pale. "You dare death," he said, "a shameful death—if my accusation be proved—as proved it shall be."

The Empress looked at him over her shoulder. "Dare death!" she cried. "You say I have dared Hell for—him!—shall I be afraid, then, of paltry death?"

Luigi Caprarola's breast heaved beneath the vivid silk of his robe. "Of what are you afraid?" he asked.

"Of nothing save evil to my lord."

The Cardinal's lids drooped; he moistened his lips. "This is your answer?"

"Yea, your Eminence; all the power I possess shall go to prevent you mounting the throne you covet so—and now, seeing you have that answer I will leave, my courtiers grow weary in your halls." She moved to the door; as she opened it the Cardinal turned his head.

"Give me a little longer, your Grace," he said softly. "I have yet something to say."

She reclosed the door and stood with her back against it.

"Well, my lord?"

"Here is the weapon shall bring you to your knees," he said, "and make your boasting die upon your lips—you are not the wife of Balthasar, and the only heritage your son will ever have is the shame and weariness of the outcast."

"Not his wife … why, you rave … we were married before all Frankfort … not Balthasar's wife!"

"Your lord was wed before."

"Yea, I know … what of it?"

"This—Ursula of Rooselaare lives!"

"Ursula of Rooselaare died in Antwerp," she cried wildly—"in the convent of the White Sisters."

"She did not, and Balthasar knows she did not—he thinks she died thereafter, he thinks he saw her grave, but he would find it empty—she lives, she is in Rome, and she is his wife, his Empress, before God and man."

"How do you know this?" She made a last pitiful attempt to brave him, but the terrible Cardinal had broken her strength; the horror of the thing he said had chilled her blood and choked her heart-beats.

"The youth who helped you once, the doctor Constantine … from him Balthasar obtained the news of his wife's death, for Ursula and he were apprenticed to the same old master—ask Balthasar if this be not so—well, the youth lied, for purposes of his own; the maid lived then, and is living now, and if I choose it she will speak."

"It is not possible," shuddered the Empress; "no—you wish to drive me mad, and so you torture me—why did not this woman speak before?"

The Cardinal smiled. "She did not love her husband as you do, lady, and so preferred her liberty; you should be grateful. She has his ring, and her wedding deeds, signed by him and by the priest—there are those at Rooselaare who know her, albeit it is near twenty years since she was there; also she hath the deposition of old Master Lukas that she was a supposed nun when she came to him, and in reality the wife of Balthasar of Courtrai; she can prove no one lies buried in the garden of Master Lukas's house, and she can bring forward sisters of the Order to which she belonged to show she did not die on her wedding day—this and further proof can she show."

"She must be silenced! By Christus His Mother she must be silent!"

"Secure me the casting vote in the Conclave and she will never speak."

"I have said. I … cannot, for his sake, for my son's sake——"

"Then I will bring forth Ursula of Rooselaare, and she shall prove herself the Emperor's wife—then instantly must you leave him, or both of you will be excommunicated—your alternative will be to stay and be his ruin or go to obscurity, never seeing his face again; your son will no longer be King of the Romans, but a nameless wanderer—spurned and pitied by those who should be his subjects—and another woman will sit by Balthasar's side on the throne of the West!"

For a little while she was silent, and the Cardinal also as he looked at her, then she raised her eyes to meet his; steadily now she kept them at the level of his gaze, and her base, bold blood served her well in the manner of her speech.

"Lord Cardinal," she said, "you have won; before you, as before the world, I stand Balthasar's wife, nor can you fright me from that proud station by telling of—this impostor; yet, I am afraid of you; I dare not come to an issue with you, Luigi Caprarola, and to buy your silence on these matters I will secure your election—and afterwards you and my lord shall see who is the stronger."

"We part as enemies," he answered, "but I kiss the hem of your gown, Empress, for you are brave as you are beautiful." He gracefully lifted the purple robe to his lips. "And above all things do I admire a constant woman;" his voice was strangely soft.

She moved away, steadying her steps with difficulty; the two chamberlains in the ante-chamber rose as she stepped out of the cabinet.

"Benedictus, my daughter," smiled the Cardinal, and closed the door.

"How she loves him still!" he said aloud; "yet—why do I wonder?—is he not as fair a man as——" He broke off, then added reflectively, "Also, she is beautiful."

His long fingers felt among his silk robes; he drew forth a little mirror and gazed at his handsome face with the darkened upper lip and tonsured head. As he looked he smiled, then presently laughed.