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CHAPTER IX
POPE AND EMPRESS

The Pope walked in the garden of the Vatican, behind him Cardinal Orsini and Cardinal Colonna. 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. 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?"

"Your Holiness, a lady, who will neither unveil nor give her name, has obtained entry to the Vatican and desires to see your Holiness."

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.

She rose. "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.

"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."

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."

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."

"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?"

"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."

She clutched, in her desperation, at the priest's white garments. "Show some pity; Balthasar dies beneath your wrath——"

"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."

"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, 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 to-day."

A shaft of lightning showed the ghastly face of Michael II., and a peal of thunder shook the messenger back against the wall.