this the story of the duke of s---------, an evil man who plotted against earth and heaven, and of the fate which attended him, a fate which may serve as a most terrible warning to those who would question the ancient wisdom of our ancestors.
the duke was in a rage.
his plans had all gone awry.
the night which he had planned so carefully, the night which was to be the beginning of his triumphant campaign to seize effective control of the empire, if not of the imperial crown itself, had ended in disaster.
many of the most powerful nobles of the empire, carefully selected as to those who not only had the greatest grievance against the empire, but had some wherewithal to actually defy it, had been brought to the duke's remotest and most secure castle.
there they had been attended with the greatest luxury and respect the duke's fortune could bestow, preparatory to a splendid banquet - a banquet calculated to not only make them amenable to the duke's proposals but impress upon them the power and wealth he already held, a power and wealth that made resistance to him foolish.
he had obtained the blessing of the pope for his plans, and although his holiness had made his excuses for not attending the banquet himself, his emissary, cardinal g--------, had arrived with a particularly splendid retinue.
fortune seemed to be smiling on the duke.
but in the event it was the duke who had been made to look foolish. who had been made the target of both politely raised eyebrows and boisterous guffaws.
the duke had been humiliated - humiliated as no one of his ancient race had ever been humiliated before.
his oldest and trusted servants feared to approach him, but watched silently from the shadows as he paced the battlement of his ancient castle.
back and forth he paced, as the torches of the trains of his departing guests grew more distant, and eventually vanished in the darkness.
for all the guests save two had - after the disaster of the dinner - decided to return to their own castles rather than continue to enjoy the duke's hospitality.
the more refined among them, including cardinal g-------------, felt that they had already abused the duke's good will by joining in the laughter at him.
the more fearful among them feared that the duke would have them murdered in their beds, that they might not spread the word of his humiliation.
only two guests remained - the elderly count of ------- x, who had long enjoyed the reputation of a practitioner of the black arts, and the young countess of c-----------, whose fabulous beauty had already brought so many to despair and doom.
at last his most trusted servant - alfonso, his major domo, apothecary, astrologer, torturer, and mage, ventured on to the parapet to enquire as to whether the duke would like his evening wine.
at this the duke, as if waking from a dream, murmured "of course, of course," and followed alfonso back into the castle.
when the duke had been settled into his comfortable chair, and his wine brought to him, alfonso gently broached the subject of what to do with the culprit.
"should a gallows be prepared, my lord, or a stake? perhaps some torture would be in order - at your convenience, of course…"
the duke's face darkened again, but he retained his self-control. "a stake, a stake by all means … we shall burn the vile creature at dawn."
"of course, my lord. and who shall be witnesses to the event?"
the duke managed to laugh. "witnesses? what care i who witnesses it? just so she be well and truly turned to ash."
"very good, my lord. do you wish some torture…?"
the duke considered for a moment. "bring her to me."
"of course, my lord, of course. do you wish some instruments?"
"bah! a few stout birch rods will do. i do not wish to spend all night with the wretch."
the duke stood up and looked around him. "i really only wish to look at her - to see if she be human, or, as i suspect, a demon sent from hell by my enemies to confound me."
the duke went over to the window and opened it.
the night was dark and cloudy, with no moon, a cold wind and a threat of snow.
how quickly his prospects had vanished! vanished like one of the snowflakes which were sure to be falling by morning.
a noise was heard in the corridor, and the door opened.
alfonso had returned. behind him came two of the duke's tallest and brawniest guardsmen.
and held tight between the two guardsmen, a young servant girl, no more than eleven or twelve years old and small for her age, with a tearstreaked face and her strawlike hair falling in her face.
the guardsman threw her down on the floor at the duke's feet.
without a word, alfonso handed the duke three birch rods, each of slightly different length and thickness.
without bothering to look at them closely, the duke selected one and tossed the others aside.
"oh, my lord!" cried the child. "mercy! have mercy!"
when the duke did not reply she continued, " i am so sorry, my lord! but it was a mistake - an honest mistake!"
the duke laughed, and flexed the birch rod in his hands. "i am afraid i have naught to do with mistakes - or, for that matter, with honesty."
alfonso and the guardsmen laughed at this.
"oh, my lord, what are you going to do to me?" the girl wailed.
"what am i going to do with you? well, to start - but only to start - i am going to turn your snow white little bottom a thundering sunset red."
the duke nodded to the guardsmen and they seized the girl and quickly flipped her over with her back to the duke and tore her skirt off.
the duke raised the rod and stopped.
for on the girl's "snow white little bottom" were some blue markings - an inscription of some sort.
the duke gave a short laugh. he was vaguely aware that the lower classes were given to the barbarous practice of tattooing themselves, but somehow the sight gave him pause.
he looked closer. it was indeed an inscription, and it read:
- duc de s------------, prepare to meet your doom -
he felt a thrill of fear, not so much at the words themselves, as at the delicate artistry of the perfectly formed letters - for how could - how could -
the duke felt powerful hands on each of arms.
the rod fell from his hand. he looked up.
the two guardsmen were gripping him, and they had been transformed into two grinning red demons - one with a blue face, one with a green.
he heard cackling laughter at his feet. the girl had turned into a hideous little gargoyle-demon, with a second head where her buttocks should have been,
and alfonso - his faithful alfonso! was now the very twin brother of beelzebub - if not the old one himself!
the duke cried out in terror, and in an instant the laughing demons had him out the door .
as he was hurried down the winding steps of the castle, he saw two figures on the last landing before they reached the front gate.
the old count of x-----------, looking more malevolent than ever.
and the young countess of c---------, looking more beautiful than ever.
both laughed merrily as the duke was carried past.
the duke could hardly grasp all that met his eyes when they arrived in the courtyard.
the courtyard was lit up as for a carnival.
a troop of demons - surely the entire population of hell - was gathered, laughing and shouting, around a raised gallows.
and there, swinging from the gallows in the night wind, in all his golden finery though without his crown, was the duke's erstwhile ally - the pope!
the demons capered, cheered, and banged on drums.
then, suddenly the laughter of the demons stopped.
the green-faced demon holding the duke's right arm pointed to the horizon.
the little two headed gargoyle, who had followed down the stairs, hopping like a toad, gave a shout.
three riders appeared on the horizon.
on the left, on a red horse, was joan of arc.
on the right, on a golden horse, was mary magdalen.
between them, on a white horse, was the virgin mary.