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Title: The Witches' Sabbath
Author: James Platt
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0606331.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2007

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The Witches' Sabbath
James Platt



Our scene is one of those terrific peaks set apart by tradition as the
trysting place of wizards and witches, and of every kind of folk that
prefers dark to day.

It might have been Mount Elias, or the Brocken, associated with Doctor
Faustus. It might have been the Horsel or Venusberg of Tannhaeuser, or
the Black Forest. Enough that it was one of these.

Not a star wrinkled the brow of night. Only in the distance the
twinkling lights of some town could be seen. Low down in the skirts of
the mountain rode a knight, followed closely by his page. We say a
knight, because he had once owned that distinction. But a wild and
bloody youth had tarnished his ancient shield, the while it kept
bright and busy his ancestral sword. Behold him now, little better
than a highwayman. Latterly he had wandered from border to border,
without finding where to rest his faithful steed. All authority was in
arms against him; Hageck, the wild knight, was posted throughout
Germany. More money was set upon his head than had ever been put into
his pocket. Pikemen and Pistoliers had dispersed his following. None
remained to him whom he could call his own, save this stnpling who
still rode sturdily at the tail of his horse. Him also, the outlaw had
besought, even with tears, to abandon one so ostensibly cursed by
stars and men. But in vain. The boy protested that he would have no
home, save in his master's shadow.

They were an ill-assorted pair. The leader was all war-worn and
weather-worn. Sin had marked him for its own and for the wages of sin.
The page was young and slight, and marble pale. He would have looked
more at home at the silken train of some great lady, than following at
these heels from which the gilded spurs had long been hacked.
Nevertheless, the music of the spheres themselves sings not more
sweetly in accord than did these two hearts.

The wild knight, Hageck, had ascended the mountain as far as was
possible to four-legged roadsters. Therefore he reined in his horse
and dismounted, and addressed his companion. His voice was now quite
gentle, which on occasion could quench mutiny, and in due season dry
up the taste of blood in the mouths of desperate men.

"Time is that we must part, Enno."

"Master, you told me we need never part."

"Let be, child, do you not understand me? I hope with your own heart's
hope that we shall meet again to-morrow in this same tarrying place.
But I have not brought you to so cursed a place without some object.
When I say that we must part, I mean that you must take charge of our
horses while I go further up the mountain upon business, which for
your own sake you must never share."

"And is this your reading of the oath of our brotherhood which we
swore together?"

"The oath of our brotherhood, I fear, was writ in water. You are, in
fact, the only one of all my company that has kept faith with me. For
that very reason I would not spare your neck from the halter, nor your
limbs from the wheel. But also for that very reason I will not set
your immortal soul in jeopardy."

"My immortal soul! Is this business then unhallowed that you go upon?
Now I remember me that this mountain at certain seasons is said to be
haunted by evil spirits. Master, you also are bound by our oath to
tell me all."

"You shall know all, Enno, were oaths even cheaper than they are. You
have deserved by your devotion to be the confessor of your friend."

"Friend is no name for companionship such as ours. I am sure you would
die for me. I believe I could die for you, Hageck."

"Enough, you have been more than brother to me. I had a brother once,
after the fashion of this world, and it is his envious hand which has
placed me where I stand. That was before I knew you, Enno, and it is
some sweets in my cup at any rate, that had he not betrayed me I
should never have known you. Nevertheless, you will admit that since
he robbed me of the girl I loved, even your loyal heart is a poor set
off for what fate and fraternity took from me. In fine, we both loved
the same girl, but she loved me, and would have none of my brother.
She was beautiful, Enno--how beautiful you can never guess that have
not yet loved."

"I have never conceived any other love than that I bear you."

"Tush, boy, you know not what you say. But to return to my story. One
day that I was walking with her my brother would have stabbed me. She
threw herself between and was killed upon my breast."

He tore open his clothes at the throat and showed a great faded stain
upon his skin.

"The hangman's brand shall fade," he cried, "ere that wash out.
Accursed be the mother that bore me seeing that she also first bore
him! The devil squat down with him in his resting, lie with him in his
sleeping, as the devil has sat and slept with me every noon and night
since that deed was done. Never give way to love of woman, Enno, lest
you lose the one you love, and with her lose the balance of your
life."

"Alas! Hageck, I fear I never shall."

"Since that miscalled day, blacker than any night, you know as well as
any one the sort of death in life I led. I had the good or evil luck
to fall in with some broken men like myself, fortune's foes and foes
of all whom fortune cherishes, you among them. Red blood, red gold for
a while ran through our fingers. Then a turn of the wheel, and,
presto, my men are squandered to every wind that blows--I am a
fugitive with a price upon my head!"

"And with one comrade whom, believe me, wealth is too poor to buy."

"A heart above rubies. Even so. To such alone would I confide my
present purpose. You must know that my brother was a student of magic
of no mean repute, and before we quarrelled had given me some insight
into its mysteries. Now that I near the end of my tether I have summed
up all the little I knew, and am resolved to make a desperate cast in
this mountain of despair. In a word, I intend to hold converse with my
dead sweetheart before I die. The devil shall help me to it for the
love he bears me."

"You would invoke the enemy of all mankind?"

"Him and none other. Aye, shudder not, nor seek to turn me from it. I
have gone over it again and again. The gates of Hell are set no firmer
than this resolve."

"God keep Hell far from you when you call it!"

"I had feared my science was of too elementary an order to conduct an
exorcism under any but the most favourable circumstances. Hence our
journey hither. This place is one of those where parliaments of evil
are held, where dead and living meet on equal ground. To-night is the
appointed night of one of these great Sabbaths. I propose to leave you
here with the horses. I shall climb to the topmost peak, draw a circle
that I may stand in for my defence, and with all the vehemence of love
deferred, pray for my desire."

"May all good angels speed you!"

"Nay, I have broken with such. Your good wish, Enno, is enough."

"But did we not hear talk in the town about a hermit that spent his
life upon the mountain top, atoning for some sin in day-long prayer
and mortification? Can this evil fellowship of which you speak still
hold its meetings upon a spot which has been attached in the name of
Heaven by one good man?"

"Of this hermit I knew nothing until we reached the town. It was then
too late to seek another workshop. Should what you say be correct, and
this holy man have purged this plague spot, I can do no worse than
pass the night with him, and return to you. But should the practices
of witch and wizard continue as of yore, then the powers of evil shall
draw my love to me, be she where she may. Aye, be it in that most
secret nook of Heaven where God retires when He would weep, and where
even archangels are never suffered to tread."

"O all good go with you!"

"Farewell, Enno, and if I never return count my soul not so lost but
what you may say a prayer for it now and again, when you have
leisure."

"I will not outlive you!"

The passionate words were lost on Hageck, who had already climbed so
far as to be out of hearing. He only knew vaguely that something was
shouted to him, and waved his hand above his head for a reply. On and
on he climbed. Time passed. The way grew harder. At last exhausted,
but fed with inward exaltation, he reached the summit. It was of
considerable extent and extremely uneven. The first thing our hero
noticed was the cave of the hermit. It could be nothing else, although
it was closed with an iron door. A new departure, thought Hageck to
himself, as he hammered upon it with the pommel of his sword, for a
hermit's cell to be locked in like a fortress.

"Open, friend," he cried, "in Heaven's name, or in that of the other
place if you like it better."

The noise came from within of a bar being removed. The door opened. It
revealed a mere hole in the rock, though large enough, it is true, to
hold a considerable number of persons. Furniture was conspicuous by
its absence. There was no sign even of a bed, unless a coffin that
grinned in one corner served the occupant's needs. A skull, a scourge,
a crucifix, a knife for his food, what more does such a hermit want?
His feet were bare, his head was tonsured, but his eyebrows were long
and matted, and fell like a screen over burning maniacal eyes. A
fanatic, every inch of him.

He scrutinised the invader from top to toe. Apparently the result was
unsatisfactory. He frowned.

"A traveller," said he, "and at this unholy hour. Back, back, do you
not know the sinister reputation of this time and place?"

"I know your reputation to be of the highest, reverend father; I could
not credit what rumour circulates about this mountain top when I
understood that one of such sanctity had taken up a perpetual abode
here."

"My abode is fixed here for the very reason that it is a realm of
untold horror. My task is to win back, if I can, to the dominion of
the church this corner, which has been so long unloved that it cries
aloud to God and man. This position of my own choice is no sinecure.
Hither at stated times the full brunt of the Sabbath sweeps to its
rendezvous. Here I defy the Sabbath. You see that mighty door?"

"I had wondered, but feared to ask, what purpose such a barrier could
serve in such a miserable place."

"You may be glad to crouch behind it if you stay here much longer. At
midnight, Legion, with all the swirl of all the hells at his back,
will sweep this summit like a tornado. Were you of the stuff that
never trembles, yet you shall hear such sounds as shall melt your
backbone. Avoid hence while there is yet time."

"But you, if you remain here, why not I?"

"I remain here as a penance for a crime I did, a crime which almost
takes prisoner my reason, so different was it from the crime I set out
to do, so deadly death to all my hopes. I am on my knees throughout
the whole duration of this pandemonium that I tell you of, and count
thick and fast my beads during the whole time. Did I cease for one
second to pray, that second would be my last. The roof of my cavern
would descend and efface body and soul. But you, what would you do
here?"

"I seek my own ends, for which I am fully prepared. To confer with a
shade from the other world I place my own soul in jeopardy. For the
short time that must elapse, before the hour arrives when I can work,
I ask but a trifle of your light and fire."

"The will-o'-the-wisp be your light, Saint Anthony's your fire! Do you
not recognise me?"

The wild knight bent forward and gazed into the hermit's inmost eye,
then started back, and would have fallen had his head not struck the
iron door. This recalled him to his senses, and after a moment he
stood firm again, and murmured between his teeth, "My brother!"

"Your brother," repeated the holy man, "your brother, whose sweetheart
you stole and drove me to madness and crime."

"I drove you to no madness, I drove you to no crime. The madness, the
crime you expiate here, were all of your own making. She loved me, and
me alone--you shed her blood, by accident I confess, yet you shed it,
and not all the prayers of your lifetime can gather up one drop of it.
What soaked into my own brain remains there for ever, though I have
sought to wash it out with an ocean of other men's blood."

"And I," replied the hermit, and he tore his coarse frock off his
shoulders, "I have sought to drown it with an ocean of my own."

He spoke truth. Blood still oozed from his naked flesh, ploughed into
furrows by the scourge.

"You, that have committed so many murders," he continued, "and who
have reproached me so bitterly for one, all the curses of your dying
victims, all the curses I showered upon you before I became reformed
have not availed to send you yet to the gibbet or to the wheel. You
are one that, like the basil plant, grows ever the rifer for cursing.
I remember I tried to lame you, after you left home, by driving a
rusty nail into one of your footsteps, but the charm refused to work.
You were never the worse for it that I could hear. They say the
devil's children have the devil's luck. Yet some day shall death trip
up your heels."

"Peace, peace," cried the wild horseman, "let ill-will be dead between
us, and the bitterness of death be passed, as befits your sacred
calling. Even if I see her for one moment to-night, by the aid of the
science you once taught me, will you not see her for eternity in
Heaven some near day?"

"In Heaven," cried the hermit, "do I want to see her in Heaven? On
earth would I gladly see her again and account that moment cheap if
weighted against my newly discovered soul! But that can never be. Not
the art you speak of, not all the dark powers which move men to sin,
can restore her to either of us as she was that day. And she loved
you. She died to save you. You have nothing to complain of. But to me
she was like some chaste impossible star."

"I loved her most," muttered the outlaw.

"You loved her most," screamed the hermit. "Hell sit upon your eyes!
Put it to the test. Look around. Do you see anything of her here?"

The other Hageck gazed eagerly round the cave, but without fixing upon
anything.

"I see nothing," he was forced to confess.

The hermit seized the skull and held it in front of his eyes.

"This is her dear head," he cried, "fairer far than living red and
white to me!"

The wild knight recoiled with a gasp of horror, snatched the ghastly
relic from the hand of his brother, and hurled it over the precipice.
He put his fingers over his eyes and fell to shaking like an aspen.
For a moment the hermit scarcely seemed to grasp his loss. Then with a
howl of rage he seized his brother by the throat.

"You have murdered her," he shrieked in tones scarcely recognisable,
"she will be dashed to a hundred pieces by such a fall!"

He threw the outlaw to the ground and, retreating to his cave, slammed
the door behind him, but his heart-broken sobs could still be heard
distinctly. It was very evident that he was no longer in his right
mind. The wild knight rose somewhat painfully and limped to a little
distance where he perceived a favourable spot for erecting his circle.
The sobbing of the crazed hermit presently ceased. He was aware that
his rival had entered upon his operations. The hermit re-opened his
door that he might more clearly catch the sound of what his foe was
engaged upon. Every step was of an absorbing interest to the solitary
as to the man who made it. Anon the hermit started to his feet. He
fancied he heard another voice replying to his brother. Yes, it was a
voice he seemed to know. He rushed out of the cave. A girlish figure
clad in a stained dress was clasped in his brother's arms. Kiss after
kiss the wild knight was showering upon brow, and eye, and cheek, and
lip. The girl responded as the hermit had surely seen her do once
before. He flew to his cave.

He grasped the knife he used for his food. He darted like an arrow
upon the startled pair. The woman tried to throw herself in front of
her lover, but the hermit with a coarse laugh, "Not twice the dagger
seeks the same breast," plunged it into the heart of her companion.
The wild knight threw up his arms and without a cry fell to the
ground. The girl uttered a shriek that seemed to rive the skies and
flung herself across her dead. The hermit gazed at it stupidly and
rubbed his eyes. He seemed like one dazed, but slowly recovering his
senses. Suddenly he started, came as it were to himself, and pulled
the girl by the shoulder.

"We have not a minute to lose," he cried, "the great Sabbath is all
but due. If his body remains out here one second after the stroke of
twelve, his soul will be lost to all eternity. It will be snatched by
the fiends who even now are bound to it. Do you not see yon shadowy
hosts--but I forget, you are not a witch."

"I see nothing," she replied, sullenly, rising up and peering round.
The night was clear, but starless.

"I have been a wizard," he answered, "and once a wizard always a
wizard, though I now fight upon the other side. Take my hand and you
will see."

She took his hand, and screamed as she did so. For at the instant
there became visible to her these clouds of loathsome beings that were
speeding thither from every point of the compass.

Warlock, and witch, and wizard rode past on every conceivable
graceless mount. Their motion was like the lightning of heaven, and
their varied cries--owlet hoot, caterwaul, dragon shout---the horn of
the Wild Hunter, and the burly of risen dead--vied with the bay of
Cerberus to the seldseen moon. A forest of whips was flourished aloft.
The whirr of wings raised dozing echoes.

The accustomed mountain shook and shivered like a jelly, with the fear
of their onset.

The girl dropped his hand and immediately lost the power of seeing
them. She had learned at any rate that what he said was true.

"Help me to carry the body to the cave," cried he, and in a moment it
was done. The corpse was placed in the coffin of his murderer. Then
the hermit crashed his door to its place. Up went bolts and bars. Some
loose rocks that were probably the hermit's chairs and tables were
rolled up to afford additional security.

"And now," demanded the man, "now that we have a moment of breathing
space, tell me what woman-kind are you whom I find here with my
brother? That you are not her I know (woe is me that I have good
reason to know) yet you are as like her as any flower that blows. I
loved her, and I murdered her, and I have the right to ask, who and
what are you that come to disturb my peace?"

"I am her sister."

"Her sister! Yes, I remember you. You were a child in those days.
Neither I nor my brother (God rest his soul!), neither of us noticed
you."

"No, he never took much notice of me. Yet I loved him as well as she
did."

"You, too, loved him," whispered the hermit, as if to himself; "what
did he do to be loved by two such women?"

"Yes, I loved him, though he never knew it, but I may confess it now,
for you are a priest of a sort, are you not, you that shrive with
steel?"

"You are bitter, like your sister. She was always so with me."

"I owe you my story," she replied more gently; "when she died and he
fell into evil courses and went adrift with bad companions, I found I
could not live without him, nor with anyone else, and I determined to
become one of them. I dressed in boy's clothes and sought enlistment
into his company of free lances. He would have driven me from him,
saying it was no work for such as I, yet at last I wheedled it from
him. I think there was something in my face (all undeveloped as it was
and stained with walnut juice) that reminded him of her he had lost. I
followed him faithfully through good and evil, cringing for a look or
word from him. We were at last broken up (as you know) and I alone of
all his sworn riders remained to staunch his wounds. He brought me
hither that he might wager all the soul that was left to him on the
chance of evoking her spirit. I had with me the dress my sister died
in, that I had cherished through all my wanderings, as my sole
reminder of her life and death. I put it on after he had left me, and
followed him as fast as my strength would allow me. My object was to
beguile him with what sorry pleasure I could, while at the same time
saving him from committing the sin of disturbing the dead. God forgive
me if there was mixed with it the wholly selfish yearning to be kissed
by him once, only once, in my true character as loving woman, rid of
my hated disguise! I have had my desire, and it has turned to apples
of Sodom on my lips. You are right. All we can do now is to preserve
his soul alive."

She fell on her knees beside the coffin. The hermit pressed his
crucifix into her hands.

"Pray!" he cried, and at the same moment the distant clock struck
twelve. There came a rush of feet, a thunder at the iron door, the
cave rocked like a ship's cabin abruptly launched into the trough of a
storm. An infernal whooping and hallooing filled the air outside,
mixed with it imprecations that made the strong man blanch. The banner
of Destruction was unfurled. All the horned heads were upon them.
Thrones and Dominions, Virtues, Princes, Powers. All hell was loose
that night, and the outskirts of Hell.

The siege had begun. The hermit told his beads with feverish rapidity.
One Latin prayer after another rolled off his tongue in drops of
sweat. The girl, to whom these were unintelligible, tried in vain to
think of prayers. All she could say, as she pressed the Christ to her
lips, was "Lord of my life! My Love." She scarcely heard the hurly-
burly that raged outside. Crash after crash resounded against the
door, but good steel tempered with holy water is bad to beat. Showers
of small pieces of rock fell from the ceiling and the cave was soon
filled with dust. Peals of hellish cachinnation resounded after each
unsuccessful attempt to break down that defence. Living battering rams
pressed it hard, dragon's spur, serpent's coil, cloven hoof, foot of
clay. Talliniquities set their backs to it, names of terror, girt
with earthquake. All the swart crew dashed their huge bulk against it,
rakchelly riders, humans and superhumans, sin and its paymasters. The
winds well nigh split their sides with hounding of them on. Evil stars
in their courses fought against it. The seas threw up their dead.
Haunted houses were no more haunted that night.

Graveyards steamed. Gibbets were empty. The ghoul left his half-gnawn
corpse, the vampire his victim's throat. Buried treasures rose to
earth's surface that their ghostly guardians might swell the fray. Yet
the hermit prayed on, and the woman wept, and the door kept its face
to the foe.

Will the hour of release never strike? Crested Satans now lead the
van. Even steel cannot hold out for ever against those in whose veins
instead of blood, runs fire. At last it bends ever so little, and the
devilish hubbub is increased tenfold.

"Should they break open the door--" yelled the hermit, making a
trumpet of his hands, yet she could not hear what he shouted above the
abominable din, nor had he time to complete his instructions. For the
door did give, and that suddenly, with a clang that was heard from far
off in the town, and made many a burgher think the last trump had
come. The rocks that had been rolled against the door flew off in
every direction, and a surging host--and the horror of it was that
they were invisible to the girl--swept in.

The hermit tore his rosary asunder, and scattered the loose beads in
the faces of the fiends.

"Hold fast the corpse!" he yelled, as he was trampled under foot, and
this time he made himself heard. The girl seized the long hair of her
lover pressed it convulsively, and swooned.

Years afterwards (as it seemed to her) she awakened and found the
chamber still as death, and--yes--this was the hair of death which she
still clutched in her dead hand. She kissed it a hundred times before
it brought back to her where she was and what had passed. She looked
round then for the hermit. He, poor man, was lying as if also dead.
But when she could bring herself to release her hoarded treasure, she
speedily brought him to some sort of consciousness.

He sat up, not without difficulty, and looked around. But his mind,
already half way to madness, had been totally overturned by what had
occurred that woeful night.

"We have saved his soul between us," she cried. "What do I not owe you
for standing by me in that fell hour?"

He regarded her in evident perplexity. "I cannot think how you come to
be wearing that blood-stained dress of hers," was all he replied.

"I have told you," she said, gently, "but you have forgotten that I
cherished it through all my wanderings as my sole memento of her
glorious death. She laid down the last drop of her blood for him. She
chose the better part. But I! my God! what in the world is to become
of me?"

"I had a memento of her once," he muttered. "I had her beautiful head,
but I have lost it."

"That settles it," she said, "you shall cut off mine."



THE END




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