Markova Nataliya S.: другие произведения.

The Fourth Angel

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Конкурс фантрассказа Блэк-Джек-21
Поиск утраченного смысла. Загадка Лукоморья
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  • Аннотация:
    Peter the musician is held in high regard in his town. He composes music for yearly carnivals. Knight Harald and Lady Ermengard, who've come to see the famous carnival, ask the Musician to teach his daughter Iseborg music. Peter's wife becomes jealous of Iseborg.




Nataliya Markova

   'Just think how your husband has made it in the world!' Martina the dressmaker said rapturously to her sister Anita. 'I must say, at the time I was so upset over your marriage. You, poor orphan, and a husband to match, as penniless as yourself. And not too handsome at that. Looking back to the days when he played a squeaky fiddle in the streets, being paid rather for his poverty than for his music, who could think that things would turn like this? Now it's to his heavenly tunes that we sing psalms in church; counts and dukes commission music from him. But his greatest fame comes from the carnival. Of course, it's not for fun that the Mayor takes all that trouble--people flock to our town from far and wide, each needing food and drinks, and accommodation, each keen to bring home a fairing. A good profit for our merchants and innkeepers. And a dressmaker like me can make good money with fancy dresses. Well, your husband gets a little more money than I do, I guess. And for a reason--there would be no carnival without him. That's why he's always in the lead of the procession, beside the mayor and his counselors, holding your hand, while his eyes flick left and right to check if everyone admires you. And who can help admiring you, the fairest woman in the town? Especially during the last carnival, when you were wearing your light-blue satin dress embroidered with waves and seashells, pearls gleaming in your blond hair. Oh, you dear thing!'
   With these words Martina gave her sister a tender hug.
   'Please, don't,' retorted Anita. 'Do you really think I care for pearls or satin? Or for marching beside the mayor in the procession? It's Peter's wonderful music that I'm proud of. An onlooker in the crowd hears violins and flutes, which he usually does only if somebody else tells him that it's nice, but I ... I can hear music coming to life in his soul, I can hear melodies that may take him years to compose, but they are already around, waiting for him to give them shape.'
   'O-o-oh, Anita, you love him too much, you think the world of him, and that won't do.'
   'I don't know why, that's the way it is. You need to have your own life, your own business to attend to.'
   'I've got my own business, Martina. I'm part of the choir of the Church of Our Lady.'
   'That's not what I mean. What about having a baby? Just look at your brother-in-law's son, such a cute imp!'
   Whether Anita heeded her sister's advice or it came about of its own accord, but a year later she gave birth to a daughter name of Lisa.
   The sickly baby won't sleep at night. Anita distrusted the nanny and made a point of tending her daughter herself. Exhausted and worn out, she didn't notice that the eyelids of her blue eyes had grown red and puffy, her blond hair had lost its pearly glint, and color had drained from her cheeks.
   Peter wasn't much of a help, but Anita would excuse him, 'He can't get up at night to comfort the baby, now that he has to urgently compose the music for the festival and to rehearse with musicians. And as if that were not enough, loads of people asking him for an idea of a fancy dress. I wonder what he will devise for us this year. No doubt, he does love our daughter; he comes every day to take her in his arms.'
   On the eve of the carnival opening, Martina came to stay overnight with her sister so that she could have enough sleep. In the morning Martina managed Anita's hair, put eye-shadows on her eyes and dabbed her pale cheeks with blush. Now the musician's wife looked as beautiful as she used to be before.
  There he was, Peter, in the lead of the procession beside the mayor and city council members, clad in a dark green gold-stitched jacket, hand in hand with his wife, stunningly beautiful in her light gray silk dress embroidered in garlands of strawberries.
   City dignitaries were followed by companies of professional guilds, each with its own disguise, musicians and tunes.
   There were shoemakers wearing enormous boots with stilts inside. Weavers, leading a gilded-horned white sheep and carrying a long pole topped with silver cobweb with a hairy, black spider, whose red eyes were rolling in all directions. There was Death in a white shroud, surrounded by doctors and pharmacists, shaking its scythe to the clang of cymbals among dancing skeletons. When the procession reached its end at the Market Square, Death slumped onto the ground as a young white-clad healer hit it with a bunch of medicinal herbs in one hand and a surgeon's scalpel in the other. Fishermen's carriage was set as a whale, whose tail was whipping around; from time to time the whale blasted spouts of water into the air, spattering prancing sirens and seals, as well as spectators.
   At the festive tables, set in the Market Square, everyone was saying that the carnival was even more successful than the previous, and everyone paid tribute to Peter's talent. People came over to congratulate him, and among them there was the Mayor accompanied with an odd couple. Both tall and sturdy, in their fifties, wrapped in dark-gray woolen cloaks. The man's ginger, drooping moustache fringed a massive chin, his mousy grizzled hair hang down to his shoulders. His right hand was resting on the hilt of his sword; his left hand supported a woman with a stern, sallow face. The woman's hair, covered with white cloth, was crowned with an age-tarnished silver circlet.
   As the Musician met the woman's eyes, he felt a painful twinge in his heart. Apparently there was nothing special about the pale green eyes. Just the cool and piercing kind of eyes that Peter had seen only once, when a thug who'd slain a merchant had been executed in the Market Square.
   'This is our Master Musician,' said the Mayor, 'the man who started our carnival. And what's more, every year he composes new music for the pageant. Peter, here are our guests from the Rocky Island, knight Harald and lady Ermengard.'
   The knight and the lady were so lavish in praises to the carnival, Peter's music, and his wife's beauty, that the annoying feeling passed away.
   'Know what,' said the lady, 'we're going to have a carnival on our Rocky Island, too. On Midsummer Day. We count on you to plan the pageant and compose the music to it.'
   'Why not?' Peter replied breezily, but Anita broke in.
   'You must have forgotten, dear, that you've got two other commissions to finish? Didn't you complain that the ceremonial march for the duke's wedding keeps coming out wrong?'
   Peter looked upset.
   'Oh gosh, I forgot all about it. And there are rehearsals with the duke's musicians, too.'
   He spread his hands confusedly, 'I'm really very sorry.'
   Lady Ermengard gave Anita a blank look and exchanged quick glances with her spouse.
   'All right, then,' smiled the knight courteously, 'I think we'll handle it somehow.'
   He turned to the mayor.
   'Well, Mayor, getting back to the price for your wool ...'
   Harald and Ermengard lead the mayor away without bothering to say good-bye.
   Strangely, the encounter gave Peter a vague feeling of resentment against Anita.
   On the next day, Peter had barely left when there was a knock at the door. Anita heard the maid tell somebody that the Musician wasn't in and call the lady of the house.
   Anita reluctantly greeted a smiling lady Ermengard. The unwelcoming expression on the young woman's face was so obvious that the lady said with a twisted smile:
   'Don't you bother, we can talk here. Getting back to our last conversation, it looked like you could change your mind. We could pay you handsomely.'
   'I regret to say no,' hastened to answer Anita. She had the decency to add, 'I'm sorry, madam. The duke is our main customer, we can't fail him. I'm really very sorry, but ...'
   'All right, then,' replied the lady quietly. Then her gaze moved inside the house and she said, 'Oh, what a nice baby!'
   Anita involuntarily looked behind her. When she turned her head back, the lady flicked something shiny before her eyes, first from bottom to top, then from left to right. A searing pain, as if her face were flayed, made Anita close her eyes. When she recovered, there was no one in the doorway. The woman lunged to the mirror, but there was nothing wrong with her face. The pain was gone, as if she had never had it.
   Her worries only made Peter laugh, 'You've been seeing things, my dear. They are... um... weird, indeed, but highly regarded people, the Mayor's friends, not some riff raff.'
   The next evening there was a knock upon the door in the Musician's house, and the maid let in knight Harald and a young girl, almost a teenager. Anita was stunned--the girl was looking exactly as herself at the age of seventeen. With the only exception--the girl's eyes were not blue, but pale green and transparent.
   'Well, since you don't want to help us with the carnival, won't you accept to teach my daughter music? She's been pestering me ever since she heard your music at the carnival, haven't you, Iseborg?'
   Without a slightest embarrassment, the girl looked straight in Peter's eyes and gave a smile. A beckoning smile of a grown-up woman it was, but only Anita took note of that. For a moment Peter felt a sting his chest, like it had been with Ermengard, but then his breath was taken away with the girl's fresh beauty.
   Harald tossed a heavy purse on the table with a thud.
   'Here you go, the advance pay for six months. See, I'm well aware of your skill's price. I heard that when you're playing, one can forget everything in the world, ready to forfeit one's soul to Devil.'
   'Certainly, certainly,' answered the Musician lamely. 'I mean, not a soul to Devil, but... I'll do my best.'
   'Peter, you've got two commissions to finish, and you've also been advanced for them,' reminded him Anita in an undertone.
   In a sudden fit of anger, the Musician turned to his wife, 'No one's asking you. It's up to me to decide what to do and when.'
   The knight carried on, as if nothing happened, 'My wife and I are leaving today. We've rented an apartment for Iseborg in a house nearby.'
   'Don't worry, sir Harald,' replied Peter excitedly. 'I'll try to teach your daughter everything I know. And Anita will take care of her.'
   'Hasn't he forgotten that I barely have time to look after our own daughter?' thought Anita resentfully.
   To head off possible objections, Peter shot a severe glance at his wife. That was how Peter became a music master.
  On her way back home from the market, Anita and her maid were accosted by an unknown plainly dressed young girl.
  'Would you be Madam Anita, Master Musician's wife?'
  The girl was speaking with a heavy accent.
  'Yes, I would. Why?'
  The girl broke off, biting her lips, casting uneasy looks at Anita's maid. Seeing that, Anita dismissed her maid.
  As they stood alone beside the door, the girl asked anxiously, 'Will you promise not to tell anyone?'
  'What it's all about? Come out with it.'
  'Well, it's like this.' The girl paused hesitantly. 'You're facing a great danger. Just a word to anyone, and I'm dead.'
  'Okay, I promise you. Please, do speak.'
  'My mistress ...,' at that moment the girl noticed somebody in the distance, let out a scared scream and pelted away.
  Anita shrugged uncomprehendingly, and went home.
  In the small hours of the morning, Peter and Anita were woken by screams in the street and flashes of red glow in their windows. Then the door knocker tapped.
  There was Iseborg standing in the doorway, pale and quivering, draped in a soot-blackened blanket, her bare feet poking from under it.
  'The h-h-house ... all the first floor ... ashes ...'
  Her numbed lips barely moved. She gave a sob.
  'A rafter came t-tumbling down ... straight on the maid. A trickle of blood ... from her mouth ... Her eyes wide open ... unblinking ... How horrible!'
  She set down a small leather case, all that was left from her belongings.
  Peter gave the girl a paternal hug.
  'Come now, stop crying. We'll send a letter to you parents, and in the meantime you'll stay with us. Give her some clothing, Anita, will you?'
  Anita swallowed past the lump in her throat and nodded silently. It would be unfair not to offer shelter to the hapless girl. Why did she feel so revolted?
  'Oh, Martina,' complained Anita to her sister. 'She's been staying with us for a solid week, and Peter's spending all his time with her. Not that I feel jealous, but it's rather disconcerting.'
  'And what does Peter say?' asked Martina.
  'He says, that he's long dreamt of having students, he says, teaching allows him to better understand his own ideas... And she seems to be not that adept at music, if you ask me. She hasn't chosen yet the instrument to play.'
  'And what does Peter say?' asked Martina.
  'He says that he's long dreamed of having students, he says teaching allows him to better understand his own ideas ... And she seems to be not that adept at music, if you ask me. She hasn't chosen yet the instrument to play. He spends hours playing for her. The violin, flute, harp. Just fancy, she says that she'd like to choose the instrument which can best render the feelings of a man for the woman he loves.'
  'The idea of it!'
  'These are her very words! And when he was playing the piece he had composed for the duke's wedding, she said, 'How amazing is the way you show the anticipation of the pleasure his bride will bestow on him!' She said she was all atwitter as she heard it.'
  'It's just not on! You should have told him later that it doesn't befit a young lady to speak like this before a married man.'
  'I won't even try. The moment I start telling him that she's misbehaving, he takes to bawling at me. He says, it's all my imagination; he says, it's out of jealousy that I'm slandering the innocent girl. Know what is her favourite conversation topic? Such and such count is smitten with her, such and such baron has proposed to her, such and such knight has jumped off a cliff after she'd turned him down.'
  'Did you talk to his mother? His brothers?'
  'I did, but to no avail. They're only laughing. They say, don't be jealous, they say, in their family men are always loyal to their wives.'
  'Poor you, my dear! If I were you I would have torn her to pieces!'
  'If I do so,' Anita shook her head wistfully, 'I'm certain to loose him forever. Nights are most painful--there we are, lying in bed side by side--and he's away. All strained, burning with desire, but it's not me he's longing for.'
  'Oh, my poor thing, how can you stand all this? Drop it all, take your daughter and move to me!'
  'Then it will look like I've given up, like I've relinquished him to her. Sorry for dumping my troubles on you, sister, but it's all so upsetting.'
  'Who but me will pity you, sister?'
  Late at night Lisa wasn't asleep yet. At last her mother managed to settle her. Hearing bursts of Iseborg's laughter coming from the dining room, Anita went downstairs. The dining room was brightly lit with candles; Peter and Iseborg were sitting at the cluttered table -- half-empty wine-glasses, two bottles of wine already empty and one just uncorked.
  'Peter,' gasped Anita, 'have your forgotten of the tomorrow morning's rehearsal with the duke's musicians?'
  'Of course I haven't, dear. We'll be having classes for a little while. You'd better go to bed, sweetheart, it's late!'
  'How can I sleep with all this noise?'
  'You'd better shut the door, honey. Go to bed, it's late.'
  Every half an hour indignant Anita tried to reason the revelers, and every time they nonchalantly told her to go to bed.
  At two o'clock in the morning, when Peter was so befuddled, that he was no more in command of his tongue, Iseborg looked at the musician's wife with absolutely sober pale green eyes and said in a low voice:
  'I'm the one to take what I desire.'
  What was she up to? Unnerved, Anita remained silent and headed for the baby's room. She stayed beside her sleeping daughter, then cooled down and returned to her bedroom.
  Peter was already in bed, drunken and snoring. Anita didn't feel like sleeping at all. She was pacing the corridor excitedly. How in the world could she get rid of her rival? Peter, her baby's father, Peter, with whom she'd shared misery as well as celebrity and well-being, Peter, whom she adored, was betraying her. Bitter thoughts were whirling in her head. All of a sudden the woman ran downstairs into the kitchen, seized a carving knife and sprinted back upstairs, to Iseborg's bedroom.
  Anita tiptoed to the bed, the knife leveled. The young girl was snuffling in her sleep, a whiff of alcohol about her.
  Anita came to her senses.
  'Oh my, what's got into me? Lisa could become a murderer's daughter!'
  Again on tiptoes, she brought the knife back down into the kitchen. Too agitated to stay at home any longer, Anita put on her clothes and went outdoors. She was trudging through the nighttime town, burning with the sense of injustice, talking aloud to Peter as though he were there. Her heart was all bitter and gloomy, overwhelmed with humiliation, with no solution in sight.
  She barely noticed where her feet were carrying her. The houses she passed by were getting older and poorer, the streets became darker and sleazier, and finally narrowed down to an overgrown forest path.
  Anita was wondering across the forest, muttering to herself, as suddenly she heard a voice, soft but commanding.
  Anita looked around. She found herself amid the forest, all alone. She stepped forward, and a distant voice said, 'Don't move!'
  Anita tried to find out where the voice came from and peered over the treetops. She saw the Church of Our Lady silhouetted against the sky, faintly lit by a full moon. The church was easy to recognize - on the tower below the spire there were green bronze figures of winged angels, their hands folded in prayer, one statue for each point of compass. Oh my God, where am I, thought the woman.
  Two hundred years ago, the river Tynnu, on which the town stood, had changed its bed. It has been long since anybody saw the church's eastern façade, as well as the eastern angel, since a strip of impassable forest came to the very eastern side of the edifice, and beyond the forest a swamp was stretching up to the river. Apparently, the woman was the first person to see fourth angel after two centuries.
  Anita looked intently into the darkness. Little by little she could make out reed stalks and water glittering ahead in the moonlight. She was on the brink of a quagmire when the voice had stopped her.
  'Who's that?' called Anita apprehensively.
  A dark shape separated from the church tower and coursed down, slowly waving its wings. It hit the ground with a dull thud. Dazed Anita caught a glimpse of a winged figure with its hands folded against the chest, then a wave of light ran over the statue, - and the woman saw in front of her a good-looking, long-haired young man, dressed in an ancient fashion.
  'Hallo!' said the young man holding out his hand. 'My name is Caspar. Do you know that you've narrowly escaped the swamp?'
  'Yes, were it not for you.' replied Anita shaking the outstretched hand. 'How did you know I was here?'
  'One can see far from above. I couldn't stay put while you were walking to the quagmire.'
  'You...? Where do you come from?'
  The Angel's finger pointed toward the church.
  'From the eastern side of the tower, like the angels you can see on the other three sides. And who are you? Your voice sounds familiar. Oh, I know now, you sing in the choir. What are you doing here, in the marshland, in the dead of night? You're in distress? I see. Talking of it gives you pain? I see. Stay silent then, I can find it out on my own.'
  The angel placed his chilly hand on the woman's forehead. One by one, the scenes of the girl's stay in their house began flashing in Anita's inner sight. The last flash presented herself, a knife in her hand swung over the unwelcome guest.
  The angel took off his hand and muttered to himself, 'So much alike ... But it's not her ... That may be a simple coincidence.'
  Anita felt relieved, as if she had confided in her sister.
  'Will you help me?' she asked hopefully. 'Can you do anything to make her ...' Oh, God, she'd barely said 'die'!
  'Leave?' the angel finished her phrase. 'No, that's beyond my power. What I can do is to pray for you and teach you a good prayer.'
  'Will she be punished for what she's done to me?'
  'Would you rather punish her or relieve yourself? Look, God won't meddle in your petty love affairs. What you can ask Him is clarity of mind, serenity of soul, and enough force to stand the ordeal. You know, no ordeal lasts forever. Now it's about time for you to go back home.'
  In an easy swing of his hand the angel caught something in midair, then whispered a few words into his fist, and released a tiny blob of light.
  'This firefly will show you the shortest way home,' said the angel. 'Good bye now.'
  With these words the angel turned back into the statue and soared upwards.
  The firefly started bobbing up and down along the forest path, and the woman followed it.
  'Oh, Lord,' prayed Anita, her eyes fixed on the quivering light, 'I know, there's so much poverty, so many diseases in the world that you don't have time to spare on my pains of jealousy. Lord, I'm not asking for a miracle; please give me smartness to understand my rival's intent, give me cunning to cope with her, give me cold-bloodedness to prevent me from committing evil, give me strength to stand firm in this struggle!'
  She kept intoning these words without taking her eyes off the small light ahead of her, till she found herself at the door of her house.
  Now, every time she was about to burst from yet another Iseborg's vagary, Anita silently uttered that prayer.
  In the meantime, Peter's student fell into a new habit. Every evening, while Peter and Anita were sitting by the fireplace in the living room, she would sit down on the sofa beside Peter in a most offhand manner, snuggling up to him, shooting sly glances at Anita.
  'Absolutely scandalous!' exclaimed Martina, having learned about it. 'How can you stand it, dear? Just take Lisa and move over to me! We'll be a bit cramped, but it's still better than that.'
  'That's just what she's seeking!' demurred Anita. 'And if that is what she wants, then I should never do it. There's another thing that's worrying me, Martina. Young, pretty, rich, and noble as she is, why would she try to take my husband from me? There must be another motive. What about him could be of interest to her? We haven't got anything special apart from Peter's talent.'
  'That's really strange,' conceded the dressmaker. 'Listen, what if you come to her room and look around? Maybe, you'll find anything that will reveal her secret, if there's any.'
  'Come, come, I've never snooped in other people's things!'
  'No one has ever treated you this way before. I reckon, there's no other way.'
  The opportunity was not long in coming. Over breakfast, as Peter was about to leave for a rehearsal with the duke's musicians, Anita feigned a disgruntled sigh and mumbled under her nose, but quite audibly to Iseborg, 'Good thing too. He'd better take a leave from her.'
  Anita struggled to fight down a smile, as the girl asked immediately, 'May I come along, sir?'
  Peter's reply to all requests the impertinent girl was the same, 'Certainly, certainly!'
  The moment the duke's coach carrying away the Musician and his student was out of sight, Anita went to Iseborg's room. A raucous cry made the woman shudder--it was a caw of a sea-gull with a red ribbon on its leg, flapping its wings in a cage on the window sill. Anita stumbled on a small stool before a gilded harp. The room, strewn with sheets of notes, was a usual teenager mess. The woman's gaze took in a bulging drawstring leather pouch stuck in a half-closed drawer, flint and steel, and a vase full of ruddy apples on the table. How come, ripe apples now that the trees are still in bloom? On a bedside table Anita found a quaint-shaped, violet glass phial, covered in strange gold and white writings. Next to the phial, a small mirror in a mother-of-pearls rim reflected the ceiling. Anita bent forward to have a closer look at the phial, when her eye caught the image in the mirror, and her insides became glacial. It was not hers but Lady Ermengard's still, stern face staring at her unblinkingly. Their last meeting came shooting up from Anita's memory. So that's it, the noble lady is in fact a witch. What is she seeking? Is it possible to overcome her witchcraft? Who will believe Anita, who will help her uncover the mystery? Oblivious to the sea-gull's agitated cawing, Anita slid the mirror into her pocket. If this young hussy tries her tricks again I'll show Peter the mirror, and this time he's going to believe me!
  The woman was not slow to run to the place where the forest met the marshland.
  'Caspar,' she called, 'please come and see, what I've found in her room!'
  The statue broke free off the tower and flew down, waving heavily its bronze wings. A thud on the ground, a wave of light--and again Anita was facing the handsome young man, again he put his hand on her forehead. In the inner flashes of light she saw the girl's room, Ermengard's face frozen in the mirror, and finally, the memories of the first Ermengard's visit to her house.
  'She used the mirror to borrow your looks in order to ensure your husband's affection for her. You know, men usually fall for the same type of women. And the apples rejuvenated her.' explained the angel.
  'I'm afraid you must give up trying to save your husband,' he added sadly, 'or you'll die.'
  'It's a long story. Let's take a seat.'
  They cautiously seated themselves on a root that stuck off the ground.
  'This church was built three hundred years ago, and I was the author of some of its wall paintings.'
  'You ...?'
  'I used to be a painter. 'Mary's Betrothal', 'Annunciation', 'The Flight into Egypt', 'The Hermit'--all of these pictures are mine. And 'Massacre of Innocents', 'Descent from the Cross', and Martyrs had been done by another painter.'
  'So you aren't an angel?'
  'I was young and the sculptor found me handsome enough to serve as a model for the Eastern Angel. The church was a success, everyone admired it, and pilgrims poured from far and wide.
  'Once knight Harald and lady Ermengard arrived to suggest that my fellow painter and I go to the Rocky Island to paint the murals in their church. I was inundated with commissions at the moment, so I refused. My comrade took the offer. Six months later he was back, boasting on his fees and his happy stay on the Rocky Island. He talked of having acquired the gift of understanding art from within, he dropped some hints that he was no more afraid of getting old, and with these words he showed me a red apple, like those you've seen in your Iseborg's room. He also talked of witchcraft. But I thought it was just an artistic manner of speaking. Then, over a bottle of wine he cut loose and began to complain that he was good only at depicting suffering, while the customer required something more cheerful. He tried to persuade me to go to the Island to finish the paintings. At the time my son was just born, and leaving my family was the last thing I felt like.
  'Next came Ermengard. In those days she looked about thirty. I disregarded the rumors that twenty years ago she'd looked equally young and beautiful. Imagine a woman in the prime of her beauty, but with the experience of a fifty-year-old, who had seen a lot, who possessed a lot, who desired a lot, and knew how to fulfill her desires. I was absolutely smitten with her. Next to her my wife looked silly and plain. Every day that I spent with Ermengard discovered a new world to me. And to crown it all, her magic potion enabled me to understand what people mean without listening to their words and to talk to animals.'
  'Like this?' interrupted him Anita, putting her hand on his forehead.
  The angel gave a silent nod and went on.
  'She asked me to teach her painting, which in truth was only a excuse to get closer to me. But she couldn't do anything while my wife was staying under the same roof with me. Once a disaster struck--my wife gave our baby vinegar to drink instead of water and the baby died. Now I know that it was Ermengard's trick, but at that moment I drove my wife out of the house and she took her life away. That very night Ermengard came to console me in my bereavement. She was so beautiful that I forgot everything in the world, even my grief. Over and over again she swore eternal love, asking me to do the same, until she elicited from me the fateful words, 'I'd love to give you everything I have.' Right away she lifted a violet phial to my mouth and said an incantation. Sparkling mist escaped from my mouth with a hiss and poured into the phial.
  'At first I felt relieved; contentedness and serenity came over me. Then I noticed colors fading around me; sounds that had echoed in wonderful tunes in my heart became ordinary noise; my soul was void of any desire. Unable to stir a little finger, I was watching Ermengard to cork the phial, pick up her possessions and leave. Later I was told that my comrade had painted an astounding Virgin and Child for the church on the Rocky Island, and I understood who'd gotten my painting talent.
  'I went to the mayor demanding his help to retrieve my talent, but everyone took me for a madman. From then on, I couldn't create a single painting, my life became hollow, nothing could give me pleasure, and one day I climbed the church's belfry to put an end to my senseless existence. I was standing in front of my bronze effigy, dithering over the idea of jumping down, going over in my mind all that had happened to me. How come that I had betrayed my loving wife, allowed for the witch to murder my son? How could I have taken for love the witch's yearn of possession of all that pleased her? How could I, who had been so proud of my ability to convey most sublime feelings, make such tragic mistakes? And then I recalled of one of her presents.'
  The angel rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a small paintbrush.
  'Ermengard wanted me to learn by old masters' paintings,' he explained. 'To enter a picture you direct the paintbrush at it; and to go out it's enough to touch yourself. This is how I became The Eastern Angel. The only thing that remained to me was my memories of the past, when I'd been so happy with my family and my art. Now that you know the risk you're running, get out of her way, or you'll die.'
  'How can I abandon my husband in danger? He's all I hold dear! And all that he holds dear is music.'
  'You could find your happiness with me. If you accept to stay by day in one of my paintings in the church you will remain young and beautiful forever. You will live forever, at least while my pictures exist. And by night, when no one can see us, we'll be together. I promise to love you no less than your husband does.'
  'Thank you, Caspar, but ... No, I must try to save him.'
  'I see. And yet, take this,' the angel held out the paintbrush.
  Anita gave him a surprised look.
  'But what about you? Will you stay here?'
  The angel plucked a few hairs from the brush.
  'That's enough for me to return. By the way, my paintings might have survived elsewhere. I remember having painted a boy with a dog for a seafront inn. The inn's name appears to be ... something like The White Sail. Maybe in that picture you'll feel more comfortable. Do take the brush, dear, you'll come to me anyway.'
  Anita was hurrying home, feeling elated. At least it was clear whom she was dealing with. If only Peter listened to her! It will be easier to make him believe now, that she has the evidence of Iseborg's witchcraft.
  Hardly had Anita opened the door, her husband charged at her furiously.
  'What's this? I'm asking you!' he shouted, thrusting a leather pouch squarely in her face. It was ... Iseborg's purse.
  'Thief! How dare you bring such disgrace on me! Even didn't bother to hide it, just tucked under the pillow! Get out of my house! Get out of my sight, you, thief!'
  Thoughts were racing through Anita's head. So that was it, the witch had noticed the disappearance of the mirror and hit a preemptive blow.
  'Peter, that's not true, she's planted the purse to frame me ... Yes, I've been to her room, see, what I've found there.'
  Anita was absolutely certain that once Peter saw the mirror everything would clear up. But he even didn't look at it.
  'Slandering the poor innocent girl again, you bitch!' and he punched his wife full in the face, so that she fell onto the floor.
  The shocked woman could not believe that these things occurred to her. Her kind, intelligent, tender, and loving husband, who valued beauty most of all, had raised his hand against her, wanted to oust her from their house! It must be a mistake, misunderstanding; he's going to regret it, to apologize ... Yes, that's it, he's holding out his hand to her ...
  Peter yanked his wife to her feet, not to take her tenderly in his arms, his intention being not to help her up, but to shove her out of the house despite her futile resistance. The last thing to meet Anita's eye before the door slammed behind her, was the sight of the triumphant witch on top of the staircase. Anita could lip-read the words:
  'Haven't I told you that I always get what I desire?'
  Anita was weeping helplessly as she heard the bolt locking the door of her own house.
  'What shall I do?' she thought. Seek refuge with Martina? Yes, we'll shed tears over my sorrow, but can she be of any help? Shall I ask the angel for advice? Is there enough time? The fact that the witch got rid of me means that today she'll strip Peter of his talent, and there's no one to stop her. What will come next? She'll leave for her island to grant Peter's talent to one of her servants. Which means she must embark on a ship, which means she could be intercepted in the port ... But how can I get back the phial? Well, I'll see to it later, and now -- rush to the port.
  Anita's eyes swept her home in a farewell glance. At this moment the window of Iseborg's bedroom sprang open and a sea-gull flew out of it. Was it a signal from the witch? It might well be a request to send a ship for her. Anita sprinted to the port. There she was told that none of the anchored ships were bound for the Rocky Island. That meant she had some time. How in the world could she take away the phial from the witch? She wouldn't brawl for it, would she? Though she was ready even for a brawl.
  As Anita was walking along the quay, her eye paused on an inn sign board, The White Sail. Something made her stop in her tracks. It was the name Caspar had mentioned. She wondered whether his painting had survived through three centuries and after a moment's hesitation, opened the oak door. Yes, A Boy With A Dog, was still here, in an antique frame, on the hallway wall. The picture showed a performance by itinerant actors. There was a boy who made an enormous white dog, twice as big as himself, dance on its hinder legs, a clown playing the flute, and spectators crowding around. The painting, although blackened with age, hadn't lost any of its lively charm. Each character had a specific appearance and expression. On closer examination, Anita singled out two ragamuffins from the crowd. One of them, a white-blond boy had just picked a wallet from a pocket of a gaping gentleman and was about to pass it over to his ginger-haired accomplice. Anita looked around. The entry hall was empty but for an old man snoring in his sleep at the reception desk. She reached for the paintbrush and entered the picture.
  If anyone looked at the painting at that moment, he would see Anita sneak unobtrusively to the little pickpockets and get a tight grip on the hand holding the wallet, while signaling the urchins to silence with a finger to her lips. She dropped the wallet into the pocket from which it had been extracted, led the boys aside and showed them Caspar's paintbrush, which made the boys grin contentedly. Anita bent toward their unkempt heads, and the three of them started conferring in a lively whisper. The boys asked something, pointing out of the painting. After Anita's affirmative nod, their eyes gleamed cunningly.
  Having arranged it with the boys, the woman wondered what to do next. If Ermengard recognizes her, she would be in immediate danger. And what if? ...
  Anita returned to the pickpockets to warn them that next time they would see her disguised as somebody else and with a heavy make-up. Then she chose among the audience a young girl, watching the dog's tricks mouth agape, inwardly apologized to the girl, and quickly ran the magic mirror before the girl's face. Just the way the witch had done, from bottom to top and from right to left. Before the girl could recover she touched herself with the paintbrush and found herself in the inn.
  Now the mirror was showing a motionless pug-nosed face of the girl from the picture. It looked like she'd guessed right. To make the face hers, reckoned Anita, she had to run it in the opposite direction, from left to right and from top to bottom. She had no choice but to take the risk. This time there was no pain, only a fleeting feeling of being covered with wet clay all over. Anita saw her expensive silk dress turn into faded cheap cotton. Her hands became weather-beaten and her body was sensing its clumsiness and plumpness. Now it was her own face staring blankly from the mirror.
  Till dark was Anita prowling, now along the piers, now past port area inns, now up and down the street leading to the port from the town. She had not had even a crumb of bread since morning, nor a minute of rest for her battered feet, but some strange force kept her up and moving, her weary eyes alert.
  When the sky and the sea merged into deep blueness, she spotted twinkling lights in the distance. As the lights approached, one could make out the ship's prow with a sinister dragon's head on a long curved neck. The woman asked a passing seaman what ship it was.
  'It's Drakkar from the Rocky Island'
  The answer made Anita's heart thud.
  The ship was coming closer and closer; there, on the bridge, she made out the knight's tall figure, letting out a seagull from its cage. The bird flew in a circuit over the masts and headed for the town.
  Back at the inn, Anita entered the painting. A minute later she was out, accompanied by the two pickpockets. Once outside, they saw a coach drawn by a gray horse driving toward the pier. The coach stopped, letting out Iseborg, a small leather case in her hand. In the darkness no one except Anita noticed the coach melt into thin air and the horse turn into a seagull and fly to Drakkar. Harald was marching down the gangway in measured strides.
  The knight and Iseborg were approaching each other at a deliberate walk. All of a sudden, the blond boy cropped up between them. He deftly turned a cartwheel, did an easy split, jumped to his feet again, executed a back-over flip and flung out his hand squarely into the young girl's face.
  'My fee for the show, m'am!'
  'Get off, you, nasty beggar!' snapped Iseborg harshly.
   In the meantime, the red-headed pickpocket snatched the case from her and tossed it over to Anita. Anita and the boys rushed to the inn and dived into the painting.
   The witch and the knight dashed after them. Perplexed, they were examining the empty entry hall, when the knight's eyes caught the picture. Grinning balefully, Harald and Iseborg headed to the painting.
   All that transpired outside the picture was blurred as if visible through a veil of fog.
   Iseborg produced a box from her pocket.
   In the picture, the clown kept playing the flute, and over the melody came the witch's vicious hiss: 'See here, you, cheek snotrag! Looks like simple flint and steel, doesn't it? But it was enough to burn down an entire house; this daub won't take more. Not relishing on burning alive? Then give back my case, and move on!'
   The witch stroke a piece of flint with steel. The spark didn't die out, a steady flame was shining at the tip of the flint, ominously close to the gilt frame.
   'That's not what we agreed for, m'am!' shrieked the frightened boys.
   Anita told them something, then, with an enormous exertion, thrust her hand through the fog, separating the picture from reality, touched Harald and Iseborg with the paintbrush, then rapidly touched the boys and herself.
   Now she and the boys were outside, as well as the leather case, while the knight and witch found themselves in the picture.
   Anita opened the case, her hands trembling. Red apples spilled out of the case and rolled across the entry hall. Anita seized the violet phial, full of billowing sparkly mist, and gave a sigh of relief.
   The boys kept tugging her skirt.
   'And what about us? At our place we knew all the nincompoops and their pockets as the back of our hands, but there's no way back now. Who will keep us in bread? Who will take care of us?'
   'I will. I promise you not only bread and clothes, but also to teach you earn your living honestly. No pocket-picking any more. Well, now we'll go home, it's time to go to bed.'
   Home. Did she still have any? What if Peter won't listen to her? Will he let her in? Most certainly not. Oh my, what will she do with the boys? No way to leave them alone in the street. She'll have to wake Martina in the small hours of the morning.
  Shivering from the night chill and excitement, Anita led the urchins to the town along a dark, deserted road. Her joy from the victory over the witch gave way to anxiety. As the witch took away Caspar's talent, she recited an incantation. Therefore, Anita needed an incantation to undo the charm. How could she find it out? One could not really expect the witch to reveal it.
  At first Anita did not understand why on her knock upon the window her sister looked out and left without opening the window. Then she reached for the magic mirror and reversed to her own shape, leaving the small pickpockets dumb with astonishment. Her face screwed up in disgust as Ermengard reemerged on the shining surface. She slipped the mirror back into the pocket, and knocked once again.
   Once the urchins in bed, Anita ignored Martina's efforts to persuade her to rest and was off to the forest, dead on her feet.
   In vain was she calling the angel at their usual place. Anita panicked, since she got used to depend on him, but then she remembered that it was she who had the magic paintbrush now.
   Hobbling painfully on her sore feet, Anita went out of the forest and headed for the church entry. Three angels could be seen on the tower in pre-dawn gray sky. Was the fourth angel, facing the forest, still there? Exhausted, the young woman slumped on the porch in front of the locked door and fell fast asleep.
   She was woken by the noise of the parishioners, who had arrived for the morning service. Anita entered the church with the crowd, but instead of joining the choir went upstairs to the belfry. She plucked a hair from the paintbrush and carefully blew on it so that the hair fell on the statue.
   The angel came to life and put his hand on the woman's forehead. All she had been through started flashing before her eyes. Anita expected the painter to be happy about her, but he stayed sad.
   'I know you must be angry with me for having spoiled your picture. But I've won against the witch. Now that I have the phial, what I need is the incantation. Don't you remember what she was saying as she took away your talent?'
   The painter thought for a while.
   'I'm really very sorry, there's nothing I can do. I was out of my mind, stupefied, and she was speaking some strange language. Although ... hang on ...'
   The angel took the phial from Anita and carefully examined the writings on it. For a moment it looked like he had a brainwave, but then he shook his head and kept a long brooding pause.
   'No, not a slightest idea,' he sighed. 'Look, anyway, your husband thinks you're a thief, and I can't see how you could ever set yourself right with him. I love you. I love you with all my heart. I promise to never make you suffer. If you enter one of my paintings, we could be together every night; and you'll live as long as my pictures exist, never getting older, never falling ill. Come and turn my solitude into eternal happiness!'
   'Thank you, Caspar, but ...'
   How on earth could she get it across to him, eternally young, eternally handsome, and eternally lonesome, that the more she had suffered together with Peter, and even from Peter, the stronger her affection was.
   But what if her husband's hatred proves stronger than her love?
   'Well, I'll see,' said Anita slowly. 'It may happen so that I'll come.'
   Yes, she had outwitted the witch. But she could not see the way to get her husband back. She's discredited in his eyes forever. How can she stay in the same town, how will she encounter him in the street? Maybe, accepting Caspar's offer would be a right thing to do.
   When she descended from the belfry the service was over, the parishioners had left.
   She was walking across the silent church, casting glances on the walls. Will she spend the rest of her life in this chilly semi-darkness? Where, in which painting?
   In the 'Flight into Egypt', on a glade suffused with the pre-dusk pinkish light? She could linger on the fragrant grass, stroke the donkey's warm flank, play with the cute baby and share dinner with his parents. How many years will it take to grow tired of it?
   Mixing with the crowd of guests in the temple of 'Mary's Betrothal'? Does she have anything to do with these people in ancient attire, with their ancient and foreign to her faith?
   Maybe here, in the golden glow of 'Annunciation'? No, she has no right to intrude on the sacrament.
   Is this picture also one of his? Yes, he had named it, 'The Hermit'. Things that the painter loved most--sunshine, spring and joy--were in the background, behind the grimy, cobwebbed window, where young girls were dancing on the flower-strewn meadow. In the foreground, a long-bearded old man was sitting in a dusty cell at a desk cluttered with manuscripts. The shelves beside the desk housed leather-bound volumes and parchment scrolls. Plugging his ears with gnarly fingers to muffle the girls' singing beyond the window, the hermit was staring fixedly at a scroll with a skull on its edge to prevent the parchment from rolling up.
  Anita's eyes swept over the shelves, and all of a sudden she realized what Caspar had withheld. On one of the parchment scrolls she identified angular writings similar to those on the phial. Caspar, it was you who had painted them, how come that you concealed it from me? Oh, my poor lonely angel, what shall I feel about you, anger or pity?
   Anita entered the hermit's cell.
  The old man turned to her sharply, mad gleam in his eyes.
  'Did you come to seduce me, you, devil's spawn? To divert me from my holy toil?' he croaked raucously, hauling back the skull.
  For a moment Anita imagined herself seducing the infirm old man in mouldering clothing and hardly managed to choke back laughs. In this picture the only place where she could exist was over there, on the meadow behind the window. She did her best to look serious.
  'Father, I came to pay tribute to your wisdom and to ask for advice. Evil witch Ermengard stole my husband's talent and hid it in this phial. I need the incantation to give the talent back to him. Could you kindly read the inscription on the phial? It could well be the incantation.'
  The old man mellowed.
  'So, your husband fell prey to Ermengard, like our dear Caspar?' he groaned with sympathy. 'You know, I detest these pagan writings that had been used by pirates and ruthless invaders. But for a good purpose ... I'll bend my rules. Show me the phial.'
  The old man chose a parchment from a heap of rolls on a shelf and set down to collating carefully the writings on the phial with those on the parchment, now holding the phial close to his eyes, now examining it at arm's length.
  'So, that's it. Listen and memorize. Fehu, naudhiz, mannaz, kalk, gebo.'
  'It's too complicated to remember, father. Could I have something to write?'
  The old man looked around, then, groaning and moaning, bent under his desk for a shred of parchment.
  'It's clean on the back,' he said, pushing the inkpot with a pen closer to Anita.
  'So, here we go. The incantation To Place A Talent Into The Phial.'
  'Oh, no, father, that's not what I need. What I need is to give the stolen talent back to its owner.'
  'Oh, yes, of course. Hold on,... here we go, then. Fehu, naudhiz, kalk, mannaz, gebo. Now repeat it. No, dear, that won't do.'
  The woman repeated the incantation several times, and the old man corrected her mistakes until she could pronounce it faultlessly. Then she gratefully bowed to the old man and came out of the picture. Now she knew the incantation.
  Now she knew the incantation. But how will she approach her husband? What if the angel was right and Peter will still be unwilling to learn the truth? I was able to outsmart the witch, I managed to find out the spell, will I fail to convince my husband? But what if ...? Is it really necessary to convince him? What do I prefer, to reveal the truth or to give him back his talent and regain his love?
  With these thoughts Anita went to her sister to catch up on sleep.
  On the following morning somebody knocked on the door of the musician's house. The maid was out for a walk with the baby, so Peter had to open the door himself.
  'Good morning, Master Musician!'
  Peter blushingly greeted back Lady Ermengard and invited her inside.
  'You know,' he mumbled at a loss, 'She's gone, and I've no idea where she is. Yesterday ... er, we took some wine and ... I've not the slightest recall of what has happened. Her clothes, her harp, everything is in place, but she, ... she's gone.'
  'Don't worry, Master Musician, everything is all right. Iseborg is onboard the ship. Oh, she is so very much ashamed about the purse. She meant just a practical joke, in fact, she's still a child, and she didn't think you could believe it. You certainly could not suspect your wife, could you?'
  'So, that was a joke!' cried Peter furiously, clenching his fists. 'And a good joke it was!' He was about to chuck Ermengard out of the door.
  The Lady hastened to calm him down. 'Don't worry, I've already straightened it out with your wife. She loves you and is ready to forgive you.'
  Peter unclenched his fists, still glowering the Lady in disbelief.
  'But what about you, are you all right?' went on the Lady in a matter-of-fact way.
  Her manner was so casual, so quiet, that he had nothing else to do but accept it.
  'I'm fine, madam. Yes, everything is fine, I'm quite content.'
  'Making headway with your music for the duke's wedding, I suppose?'
  The Musician looked embarrassed.
  'I ... can't hear music any longer,' he confessed. He paused a little and added calmly: 'Good thing too.'
  'It doesn't matter,' said the Lady. 'I've got a marvelous potion just for such an occasion.'
  'Oh, don't you worry, madam, I'm quite fine as I am. Even more comfortable than before.'
  'Let me help you, anyway,' insisted the Lady.
  Without waiting for Peter's consent she produced a violet bottle, unstoppered it, held it up to the Musician's mouth, and recited the incantation.
  She was watching dullness abandon Peter's eyes as if his world was regaining its colors and sounds.
  Ermengard gave a contented smile.
  'Well, I'll tell your wife that you're waiting for her. Farewell, Master Musician.'
  Peter was at a loss. He tried to understand what had happened to him, to Iseborg, to Anita. How was it possible that a decent man as he was could have badly hit his wife and throw her out for no reason at all. It's not his fault, someone had played him a bad trick ... But why did he believe it? Now he'll have to ask for forgiveness, to persuade her to come back. He's never done it before .... How humiliating! Before he could figure out what to do Anita emerged on the threshold.
  Peter tried his best to look indifferent, and only his wife, who had lived with him for years, could discern in the slight twitch of his brows, in his nervously curling mouth and in the unblinking eyes that were fixing hers,--guilt feeling, pride preventing him to admit his guilt, and fear of well-deserved reproach, to which he would be unable to respond without damaging his self-esteem.
  Anita, too, did her best to look impassive, and only her husband, who had lived with her for years, could read on her face the suffering she had endured, and expectation of contrite words, and knowing that she wouldn't hear them, and a desire to forgive and forget her grievances as soon as possible.
  They were inching towards each other very slowly, as though connected with a fragile thread, any moment ready to part from an inept word or a triumphant flash in the other's eyes.
   As they came face to face, Peter put his hand on his wife's shoulder, first tentatively, then firmly. Then he uttered the words she had been waiting for, I am sorry.
   Anita nodded curtly, and that nod stood for Yes, I'm back. I forgive you, I can't live without you. And it also meant Everything will be as it was before.
   Still unable to smile, they could already look at each other without pain.
   Later in the evening, the supper of the reconciled couple was interrupted by the arrival of the Mayor accompanied by a stranger.
   'Peter, Anita, let me introduce to you Olaf, the shipmaster of Drakkar, knight Harald's vessel. Um ..., we've got a minor question to ask you ... In fact, a big question ... Haven't you perchance seen the knight? You know, he disembarked the day before yesterday to pick up lady Ermengard, and no one has seen him since. Shipmaster Olaf is so worried. Do you know anything?'
   Peter was at a loss to find an answer. Anita calmly whispered in his ear: 'It's all right.' Then she turned to the Mayor: 'You can ask lady Ermengard for yourself.'
   She went upstairs, and in a couple of minutes there was none other than lady Ermengard descending to the living room.
   'Good evening, Mayor, good evening, Olaf. I'm so sorry for not informing you sooner. It's a very urgent matter that demanded sir Harald's immediate departure. All I'm going to tell you is very hush-hush. We ... I hope you can keep secrets, Mayor.' She gave a meaningful glance at the Mayor, who bowed respectfully in reply.
   'We learned about a hoard treasure of great wealth buried in the forests of Muskovia. Sir Harald had to leave immediately, and I'm going to join him tomorrow. You, captain, can set off home; I'll summon you when necessary. Well, good bye, then. I've got a lot of thing to do.' With these words she went upstairs.
   The Mayor and the shipmaster bowed good bye, and then Anita came back to the dining room. When asked where had lady Ermengard emerged from and where she had gone, Anita answered 'You'd rather ask the Lady herself.' But the Lady never turned up again, and there was no one to ask the question to.
   No one ever since saw the Knight or the Lady, except for The White Sail's innkeeper, who at times wondered, who and on what purpose had painted a stern-looking knight with grizzly shoulder-long hair and a young beauty with pale green eyes instead of two funny pickpockets.
   Sometimes, but very seldom, Anita withdrew the magic mirror from the bottom of a chest and the Lady's cool gaze reminded her of her struggle and victory.
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