The Devil's Ball.
IT was of Hallowe'en.
Sidonia, the witch's daughter, blew out the sickly flame of the lantern, and the loft was in darkness, save for the faint, pink phosphorescence of the hearth and a greenish rumour of moonlight struggling through the thick glass lozenges of one small leaded window.
Quickly the girl stripped herself to the skin. Wan as a ghost she stood before the hearth between the embers and the moon. She shuddered, and the quailing sensation of gooseflesh came over her. But she was determined to fly, and equally convinced that she was about to do so.
With her forefinger she began, gingerly, to rub upon her body a little of a foetid-smelling salve. Over and over she repeated the names of the four aerial demons, adding, "Help me to fly! Help me to fly!" Her whispering voice was insistent, though her teeth chattered. Her faith was absolute.
The dim figure of the naked girl, that had stood for a number of seconds rigid as a figure of wood or a person hypnotised, gave at the knees and fell suddenly to the floor, lying crumpled before the chilling hearth. The yellow cat disturbed by the thump of the fall, started awake, stood up, stretched, and settled down again. The black cat slept on. The strengthless, diffused ray of livid moonlight was the only thing that moved in the loft.
“UP! Up! ‑ Look, little sister!”
Sidonia opened her eyes which she seemed only to have closed for a minute.
Moonlight, wide, feathered pinions, height, hurtling speed ‑ and company. The shock was as though a pail of cold water had been flung over her. She nearly lost her balance on the back of the winged sable horse whose sides her thighs gripped, and she caught at the mane to steady herself.”
"Don't fall, little sister! If you fall, and are afraid, you will instantly return.
"Where‑where?"‑‑Sidonia did not know who it was that had spoken to her, nor why she questioned. Her mind whirled: it was like a swarm of gyrating silver sparks.
A wonderful wild laugh answered her. It was inhuman, beautiful, terrible. There was the whoop of the wind in it, the chime of water, the scarlet of fire, the sonorousness of earth. Her body, borne dizzily upward, seemed itself light as a wing ‑ she could race on the air, she could run with the winds! Her hair streamed about her like a mermaid's in the swirl of the tide.
Moonlight, beating pinions, faces and swift shapes. Faces that had in them, something of the eagle‑wide golden eyes that were soulless; arched brows and noses. Hair like tongues of fire, limbs flaked with golden scales or feathers. There were four ‑ two upon either hand. Straight‑standing in the air, they bore her steadfast company as the black horse rose. Oh, but the others! They darted like swallows, they circled, they poised, they drifted ‑ they were uncountable. Black imp-things, wickedly grinning, that whizzed and somersaulted; translucent maiden-shapes, linked hand to hand and dancing wreath-wise in the void; bird-like creatures, sapphire-blue, white, rosy or sable ‑ men's thoughts, plumaged in accordance with the emotion that had shaped and speeded them; the naked selves of men, women and children, sleep-released, drifting like vapour, dreaming, half-conscious; wandering flames, bat-thoughts ghosts. Overhead the full moon, an inexhaustible, round lake of blinding silver, drenched everything in light.
Sidonia looked down. The town was a patch of darkness from which the needle points of a couple of moon-touched spires rose. She had no giddiness, just as she had no sensation of cold. But she wanted to descend ‑ to sweep above the roofs that had witnessed her sad, trudging fatigues. Like a bolt from a cross-bow aimed at the zenith the black horse with his mighty raven-feathered wings still hurtled upward.
“You shall fly down, little sister. Speak to the horse which your desire has shaped for you."
It was one of the four beautiful demons who spoke.
"Down, down!" breathed Sidonia, leaning forward and again twisting her bands in the lavish blue-black mane. The mad upward rush instantaneously ceased. The horse hung for a second on pulseless wings, and then plunged earthward down the dizzy lapis lazuli precipice of the night.
It was heart-stopping ‑ a swoop of utter horror if a grain of fear remained. But Sidonia shrieked with the pure joy of it.
Oh, the wind of the cloven air!
Now the shingled roofs rushed up to meet them, and the church spires were like cross-tipped javelins thrown at them from the earth. Now swept with a train of attendant sylphs, spectres and globular, will-o-the-wisplike flames over the gables and the winding clefts of the streets. Weathercocks crowed shrilly at them. Gargoyles yelped like dogs. A stone griffen clasping a stone coat of arms between its claws hissed out fire and lashed its forked tail, unable to join the flight. Cats clinging to thatch or shingles glowered with flattened ears. But one ‑ a black wer-cat ‑ leapt into the air with a of joy and followed the fleeing rout. The figures of saints enshrined in niches along the front of the Cathedral glowed with a soft, bluish light. The wer-cat sheered widely away from them, its fur bristling, its swollen tail as stiff as a ramrod. But Sidonia felt only the innocent interest of a kitten in church. She was elemental, and therefore in perfect accord with the aerial demons, who might harry the soul that feared them in sheer sport, but were the strong playmates of their own kind, and would fawn like gentle and puzzled hounds at the passage of an angel or a discarnate saint.
A nude, red-haired young woman astride of a bearded he-goat, whose horns she gripped, came hurtling over the roofs. She waved to Sidonia, and in a moment was flying with her. Her green eyes were elfish and had an irresistible sidelong shine. Her mouth, wide and laughing, was of a ripe, animal fullness.
"You're new!" said she. "I often fly, but I haven't seen you before. Do you live in this town?"
"Yes," said Sidonia, "near the Street of the Martyrs."
"How funny! My father is the head of the Goldsmiths' Guild, and we have a house that faces the
. Yet you and I are really good friends because we do the same
thing." Church of St. Saviour
They smiled unreservedly at each other.
“How did you learn to fly?" asked Sidonia.
“Oh, I heard a wandering friar preach a sermon in the market place against witchcraft. He described the devils, the broomstick rides, and the wild times they had at the witches' Sabbath. It all sounded so exciting, and I was feeling so dull, that I thought I'd try to do what they did ‑ just for fun! So I stripped naked at and called on all the devils I could think of ... and now it's easy."
There was something infectious in the sidelong twinkle of her. She was bubbling with life-joy, and utterly candid. But several of the creatures that followed her were unpalatable. There was a hog, a leering faun with furry cars, and a thick-lipped, hermaphrodite thing with woman's breasts and the hindquarters of a dog.
“Up! Up! Let's see the world, and then dance with the others at the Devil's Ball!" cried the red-haired daughter of the godly master goldsmith.
“Let's see the world!" echoed Sidonia. She was wild with the excitement of speed and freedom.
The winged horse and the he-goat, with their clinging riders, shot upward, The unhindered moon drenched them with its arctic silver. Forests unrolled below them like the undulations of a sable cloak, rivers resembled shimmering girdles, mountains lifted their snowfields, like peaked canopies of blue-white satin, and the blue shadows of the fliers flitted across the printless snow. Continually they were joined by others ‑ solitary beldames with thinly streaming white hair, whizzing on broomsticks, young girls riding sows or goats, and a sprinnkling of renegade monks, and of students of the forbidden sciences, mounted on hay forks, staves, or black dogs. One man ‑ an aged wizard ‑ rode a dragon with peacock-coloured scales.
The company was mixed, indeed! ‑ and Sidonia was so interested that she wanted to look two ways at once. The red-haired girl cried shrilly to this or that one, with whom it seemed that she was acquainted.
Now the moonlit sea glittered beneath them. Huge sable shapes towered and weltered, spasmodically shutting out the moon – cloud-giants. A hurricane wind arose; thunder bellowed, lighting glared, and to the right and left of them the thunderous torches of volcanoes painted the rolling vapours with auburn light.
"The Earth wakes, little sister! The Earth is alive as we are!" cried the demons of the air, and they darted hither and thither like summer swallows through the chaos of storm and speed.
"Yes!" shrieked Sidonia.
Everything lived, everything was in motion. How could one be afraid of that of which one was a part?
Higher and higher rose the blast of the hurricane. The moon was gone, Sidonia, clinging to her horse's mane, was whirled like a grain of dust, through a roaring blackness that had swallowed witches, wizards, neophytes, wer-cats, and all the strung-out train of following devils created by gross, lascivious malicious or hateful thoughts. . . . Then sudden silence. Stillness that was dizzying. . . . A gradual greenish light, grateful and limpid. Sidonia saw that she was astride of a smooth tree trunk, sunk in grass, and that as she lay forward upon it, it was two tufts of grass that her hands clutched.
She sat up straight. Great trees surrounded her. Water fell in crystal sheets from cool cavern mouths. Everywhere there was movement – goat-legged fauns peeped; a young female centaur trotted close, her mare's body cream. white. Here were play‑fellows! But the light was dimming, the tree shapes became obscure. An intense red flame shot up and pulsated, nearly blinding her. Red! She had always loved it. It was, after all, a better colour than green. It was excitement.
Oh! what a blare of sound! ‑ mewing, yelping, howling, screaming, laughing, grunting neighing, whooping. Sheets of fierce fire beat upward‑a breathless conflagration, and against the scarlet, dark shapes pranced, mingled, or were swept pell‑mell by veering currents of the maddest confusion.
Someone caught her arm. By the fiery light Sidonia saw that it was the daughter of the master goldsmith.
"The Devil's Ball! Dance with us at the Devil's Ball!" she screamed, her voice barely audible above the babel.
Hogs capered upon their hind legs. There were horned and beaked things, sealed things, bloated things smooth as slugs, obscene things with the shrivelled breasts of a hog, things with the heads of skulls, cocks, baboons or dogs. Stripped girls danced with man-shaped devils. Shaven-headed monks ‑ glimpsed for a moment between the red-lit eddies of the dance-parodied the sacred rites of Christendom with the assistance of grotesque acolytes, long-tailed and cloven-hoofed. Flutes made of dead men's bones were being played upon, with bag-pipes and drums. Soft mouths were nuzzled by the loathly snouts they hid desired. White arms embraced the metallically glistening bodies of tall demon-husbands. The whistling flames that streamed up like broad banners illumined a cauldron of chaos.
Sidonia was amazed. The noise deafened her, the glare dazzled her. She was horrified yet attracted. Something urged her to plunge into the fantastic debauch and mix herself with it ‑ her starving hunger for excitement, perhaps. . . . Shrinkingly, like a bather stepping into water, she made a slight forward movement. . . . Oh! they were all round her ‑ they surged, and jostled. Feelers touched her, whiskers tickled, sleek fur rubbed. She had no feeling of kinship with these monstrosities‑these obscenities. She shuddered, with arms crossed over her bosom.
"Dance! Take a partner!" came the high-pitched, laughing voice of the red-haired girl. She herself had been grappled by a shaggy satyr, and they reeled together, breast to breast.
"You shall dance with me, Sidonia."
Whose voice was that?
The tangle of creatures parted and a tall man was before her. He was masked. He was all in black. Red‑lit, the height and the proportions of him seemed of a strange splendour.
"Are you afraid, Sidonia?”
"No!" she said.
He caught her to him. Together they moved through the seethe of Hell. Premonitions of abandonment thrilled through the girl's body. They seemed be descending. The furnace-glare was above them. Below was a sullen flame the colour of dragon's blood. Thick tentacles reached, and appeared to
beckon. But Sidonia, with closed eyes embraced the Master.
His.. .,Yes.. . .But she was suffocating! Strangling smoke enveloped them. Her flesh encountered the touch of tentacles, slimy as snails. The quick grunt of hogs came from every side ‑ surely a herd surrounded them! An unhuman leathery hand was laid on her.
"Give me air! Let me go!"
“Never, Sidonia." And he laughed.
In the loft where the livid moonlight moved imperceptibly the yellow tom cat, disturbed a minute or two before by the collapse of a girl's stripped body, had just begun to doze comfortably with his front paws tucked in beneath his chest. The girl, lying upon her back, twitched, shuddered, moaned. Then there was the sound of a long relaxing sigh, and her breathing became gentle and regular. The mother of the girl, patch-work-shrouded, drowsed upon the three-legged stool. A pallid pumpkin hung from the rafters. The pot containing the noisome unguent had rolled into a corner. It was about ten minutes past the hour of .