by Raphael Sabatini
Being a narrative excerpted from the chronicles of Urbino during the
dominion of the High and Mighty Messer Guidobaldo da Montefeltro
"Le donne, i cavalier', l'arme, gli amori,
Le cortesie, l'audace imprese io canto."
CHAPTER I. VOX
CHAPTER II. ON A
CHAPTER V. GIAN
CHAPTER VI. THE
AMONG THE DREGS
CHAPTER IX. THE
"TRATTA DI CORDE"
CHAPTER X. THE
BRAYING OF AN
CHAPTER XII. THE
GIAN MARIA MAKES
CHAPTER XV. THE
CHAPTER XX. THE
CHAPTER XXI. THE
CHAPTER XXII. A
IN THE ARMOURY
CHAPTER XXV. THE
CHAPTER I. VOX POPULI
From the valley, borne aloft on the wings of the evening breeze,
rose faintly the tolling of an Angelus bell, and in a goat-herd's hut
on the heights above stood six men with heads uncovered and bowed,
obeying its summons to evening prayer. A brass lamp, equipped with
three beaks, swung from the grimy ceiling, and, with more smoke than
flame, shed an indifferent light, and yet a more indifferent smell,
throughout the darkening hovel. But it sufficed at least to reveal in
the accoutrements and trappings of that company a richness that was
the more striking by contrast with the surrounding squalor.
As the last stroke of the Ave Maria faded on the wind that murmured
plaintively through the larches of the hillside, they piously crossed
themselves, and leisurely resuming their head-gear, they looked at one
another with questioning glances. Yet before any could voice the
inquiry that was in the minds of all, a knock fell upon the rotten
timbers of the door.
"At last!" exclaimed old Fabrizio da Lodi, in a voice charged with
relief, whilst a younger man of good shape and gay garments strode to
the door in obedience to Fabrizio's glance, and set it wide.
Across the threshold stepped a tall figure under a wide,
featherless hat, and wrapped in a cloak which he loosened as he
entered, revealing the very plainest of raiment beneath. A leather
hacketon was tightened at the waist by a girdle of hammered steel,
from which depended on his left a long sword with ringed, steel
quillons, whilst from behind his right hip peeped the hilt of a stout
Pistoja dagger. His hose of red cloth vanished into boots of untanned
leather, laced in front and turned down at the knees, and completed in
him the general appearance of a mercenary in time of peace, in spite
of which the six nobles, in that place of paradoxes, bared their heads
anew, and stood in attitudes of deferential attention.
He paused a moment to throw off his cloak, of which the young man
who had admitted him hastened to relieve him as readily as if he had
been born a servitor. He next removed his hat, and allowed it to
remain slung from his shoulders, displaying, together with a still
youthful countenance of surpassing strength and nobility, a mane of
jet-black hair coiffed in a broad net of gold thread--the only article
of apparel that might have suggested his station to be higher than at
first had seemed.
He stepped briskly to the coarse and grease-stained table, about
which the company was standing, and his black eyes ran swiftly over
the faces that confronted him.
"Sirs," he said at last, "I am here. My horse went lame a
half-league beyond Sant' Angelo, and I was constrained to end the
journey on foot."
"Your Excellency will be tired," cried Fabrizio, with that ready
solicitude which is ever at the orders of the great. "A cup of Puglia
wine, my lord. Here, Fanfulla," he called, to the young nobleman who
had acted as usher. But the new-comer silenced him and put the matter
aside with a gesture.
"Let that wait. Time imports as you little dream. It may well be,
illustrious sirs, that had I not come thus I had not come at all."
"How?" cried one, expressing the wonder that rose in every mind,
even as on every countenance some consternation showed. "Are we
"If you are in case to fear betrayal, it may well be, my friends.
As I crossed the bridge over the Metauro and took the path that leads
hither, my eyes were caught by a crimson light shining from a tangle
of bushes by the roadside. That crimson flame was a reflection of the
setting sun flashed from the steel cap of a hidden watcher. The path
took me nearer, and with my hat so set that it might best conceal my
face, I was all eyes. And as I passed the spot where that spy was
ambushed, I discerned among the leaves that might so well have
screened him, but that the sun had found his helmet out, the evil face
of Masuccio Torri." There was a stir among the listeners, and their
consternation increased, whilst one or two changed colour. "For whom
did he wait? That was the question that I asked myself, and I found
the answer that it was for me. If I was right, he must also know the
distance I had come, so that he would not look to see me afoot, nor
yet, perhaps, in garments such as these. And so, thanks to all this
and to the hat and cloak in which I closely masked myself, he let me
"By the Virgin!" exclaimed Fabrizio hotly, "I'll swear your
conclusions were wrong. In all Italy it was known to no man beyond us
six that you were to meet us here, and with my hand upon the Gospels I
could swear that not one of us has breathed of it."
He looked round at his companions as if inviting them to bear out
his words, and they were not slow to confirm what he had sworn, in
terms as vehement as his own, until in the end the new-comer waved
them into silence.
"Nor have I breathed it," he assured them, "for I respected your
injunction, Messer Fabrizio. Still--what did Masuccio there, hidden
like a thief, by the roadside? Sirs," he continued, in a slightly
altered tone, "I know not to what end you have bidden me hither, but
if aught of treason lurks in your designs, I cry you beware! The Duke
has knowledge of it, or at least, suspicion. If that spy was not set
to watch for me, why, then, he was set to watch for all, that he may
anon inform his master what men were present at this meeting."
Fabrizio shrugged his shoulders in a contemptuous indifference
which was voiced by his neighbour Ferrabraccio.
"Let him be informed," sneered the latter, a grim smile upon his
rugged face. "The knowledge will come to him too late."
The new-comer threw back his head, and a look that was half wonder,
half enlightenment gleamed in the black depths of his imperious eyes.
He took a deep breath.
"It would seem, sirs, that I was right," said he, with a touch of
sternness, "and that treason is indeed your business."
"My Lord of Aquila," Fabrizio answered him, "we are traitors to a
man that we may remain faithful and loyal to a State."
"What State?" barked the Lord of Aquila contemptuously.
"The Duchy of Babbiano," came the answer.
"You would be false to the Duke that you may be faithful to the
Duchy?" he questioned, scorn running ever stronger in his voice.
"Sirs, it is a riddle I'll not pretend to solve."
There fell a pause in which they eyed one another, and their
glances were almost as the glances of baffled men. They had not
looked for such a tone from him, and they questioned with their eyes
and minds the wisdom of going further. At last, with a half-sigh,
Fabrizio da Lodi turned once more to Aquila.
"Lord Count," he began, in a calm, impressive voice, "I am an old
man; the name I bear and the family from which I spring are honourable
alike. You cannot think so vilely of me as to opine that in my old age
I should do aught to smirch the fair fame of the one or of the other.
To be named a traitor, sir, is to be given a harsh title, and one, I
think, that could fit no man less than it fits me or any of these my
companions. Will you do me the honour, then, to hear me out,
Excellency; and when you have heard me, judge us. Nay, more than
judgment we ask of you, Lord Count. We ask for guidance that we may
save our country from the ruin that threatens it, and we promise you
that we will take no step that has not your sanction--that is not
urged by you."
Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila, eyed the old noble with a
glance that had changed whilst he spoke, so that from scornful that it
had been, it had now grown full of mild wonder and inquiry. He
slightly inclined his head in token of acquiescence.
"I beg that you will speak," was all he said, and Fabrizio would
forthwith have spoken but that Ferrabraccio intervened to demand that
Aquila should pass them his knightly word not to betray them in the
event of his rejection of the proposals they had to make. When he had
given them his promise, and they had seated themselves upon such rude
stools as the place afforded, Fabrizio resumed his office of
spokesman, and unfolded the business upon which he had invited the
Count among them.
In a brief preamble he touched upon the character of Gian Maria
Sforza, the reigning Duke of Babbiano--seated upon its throne by his
powerful uncle, Lodovico Sforza, Lord of Milan. He exposed the man's
reckless extravagances, his continued self-indulgence, his
carelessness in matters of statecraft, and his apparent disinclination
to fulfil the duties which his high station imposed upon him. On all
this Fabrizio touched with most commendable discretion and restraint,
as was demanded by the circumstance that in Francesco del Falco he was
addressing the Duke's own cousin.
"So far, Excellency," he continued, "you cannot be in ignorance of
the general dissatisfaction prevailing among our most illustrious
cousin's subjects. There was the conspiracy of Bacolino, a year ago,
which, had it succeeded, would have cast us into the hands of
Florence. It failed, but another such might not fail again. The
increased disfavour of his Highness may bring more adherents to a
fresh conspiracy of this character, and we should be lost as an
independent state. And the peril that menaces us is the peril of
being so loSt. Not only by defection of our own, but by the force of
arms of another. That other is Caesar Borgia. His dominion is
spreading like a plague upon the face of this Italy, which he has
threatened to eat up like an artichoke--leaf by leaf. Already his
greedy eyes are turned upon us, and what power have we--all unready as
we are--wherewith successfully to oppose the overwhelming might of the
Duke of Valentinois? All this his Highness realises, for we have made
it more than clear to him, as we have, too, made clear the remedy.
Yet does he seem as indifferent to his danger as to his salvation.
His time is spent in orgies, in dancing, in hawking and in shameful
dalliance, and if we dare throw out a word of warning, threats and
curses are the only answer we receive."
Da Lodi paused, as if growing conscious that his manner was
becoming over-vehement. But of this, his companions, at least, were
all unconscious, for they filled the pause with a murmur of angry
confirmation. Francesco wrinkled his brow, and sighed.
"I am--alas!--most fully conscious of this danger you speak of.
But-- what do you expect of me? Why bear me your grievance? I am no
"Here is no statesman needed, lord. It is a soldier Babbiano
requires; a martial spirit to organise an army against the invasion
that must come-- that is coming already. In short, Lord Count, we
need such a warrior as are you. What man is there in all Italy--or,
indeed, what woman or what child--that has not heard of the prowess of
the Lord of Aquila? Your knightly deeds in the wars 'twixt Pisa and
Florence, your feats of arms and generalship in the service of the
Venetians, are matters for the making of epic song."
"Messer Fabrizio!" murmured Paolo, seeking to restrain his
eulogistic interlocutor, what time a faint tinge crept into his
bronzed cheeks. But Da Lodi continued, all unheeding:
"And shall you, my lord, who have borne yourself so valiantly as a
condottiero in the service of the stranger, hesitate to employ your
skill and valour against the enemies of your own homeland? Not so,
Excellency. We know the patriotic soul of Francesco del Falco, and we
count upon it."
"And you do well," he answered firmly. "When the time comes you
shall find me ready. But until then, and touching such preparation as
must be made--why do you not address his Highness as you do me?"
A sad smile crossed the noble face of Lodi, whilst Ferrabraccio
laughed outright in chill contempt, and with characteristic roughness
"Shall we speak to him," he cried, "of knightly deeds, of prowess,
and of valour? I would as lief enjoin Roderigo Borgia to fulfil the
sacred duties of his Vicarship; I might as profitably sprinkle incense
on a dunghill. What we could say to Gian Maria we have said, and
since it had been idle to have appealed to him as we have appealed to
you, we have shown him yet another way by which Babbiano might be
saved and Valentino's onslaught averted."
"Ah! And this other way?" inquired the Count, his glance wandering
back to Fabrizio.
"An alliance with the house of Urbino," answered Lodi. "Guidobaldo
has two nieces. We have sounded him, and we have found him well
disposed towards such a marriage as we suggested. Allied thus to the
house of Montefeltro, we should receive not only assistance from
Guidobaldo, but also from the lords of Bologna, Perugia, Camerino, and
some smaller states whose fortunes are linked already to that of
Urbino. Thus we should present to Cesar Borgia a coalition so strong
that he would never dare to bring a lance into our territory."
"I heard some talk of it," said Paolo. "It would have been a wise
step indeed. Pity that the negotiations came to naught!"
"But why did they come to naught? Body of Satan!--why?" roared the
impetuous Ferrabraccio, as with his mighty fist he smote the table a
blow that well-nigh shattered it. "Because Gian Maria was not in a
marrying mood! The girl we proposed to him was beautiful as an angel;
but he would not so much as look. There was a woman in Babbiano
"My lord," cut in Fabrizio hastily, fearing the lengths to which
the other might go, "it is as Ferrabraccio says. His Highness would
not marry. And this it is has led us to invite you to meet us here
to-night. His Highness will do nothing to save the Duchy, and so we
turn to you. The people are with us; in every street of Babbiano are
you spoken of openly as the duke they would have govern them and
defend their homes. In the sacred name of the people, then," the old
man concluded, rising, and speaking in a voice shaken by emotion, "and
with the people's voice, of which we are but the mouthpiece, we now
offer you the crown of Babbiano. Return with us to-night, my lord,
and to-morrow, with but twenty spears for escort, we shall ride into
Babbiano and proclaim you Duke. Nor need you fear the slightest
opposition. One man only of Babbiano--that same Masuccio whom you
tell us that you saw to-night-- remains faithful to Gian Maria;
faithful because he and the fifty Swiss mercenaries at his heels are
paid to be so. Up, my lord! Let your own good sense tell you whether
an honest man need scruple to depose a prince whose throne knows no
defence beyond the hired protection of fifty foreign spears."
A silence followed that impassioned speech. Lodi remained
standing, the others sat, their eager glances turned upon the Count,
their ears anxiously alert for his reply. Thus they remained for a
brief spell, Aquila himself so still that he scarcely seemed to
He sat, gripping the arms of his chair, his head fallen forward
until his chin rested on his breast, a frown darkening his lofty brow.
And whilst they waited for his answer, a mighty battle was fought out
within his soul. The power so suddenly, so unexpectedly, thrust
within his reach, and offered him if he would but open his hands to
grasp it, dazzled him for one little moment. As in a flash he saw
himself Lord of Babbiano. He beheld a proud career of knightly deeds
that should cause his name and that of Babbiano to ring throughout the
length and breadth of Italy. From the obscure state that it was, his
patriotism and his skill as a condottiero should render it one of the
great Italian powers--the rival of Florence, of Venice or Milan. He
had a vision of widened territories, and of neighbouring lords
becoming vassals to his might. He saw himself wresting Romagna mile
by mile from the sway of the ribald Borgia, hunting him to the death
as he was wont to hunt the boar in the marshes of Commachio, or
driving him into the very Vatican to seek shelter within his father's
gates--the last strip of soil that he would leave him to lord it over.
He dreamt of a Babbiano courted by the great republics, and the
honour of its alliance craved by them that they might withstand the
onslaughts of French and Spaniard. All this he saw in that fleeting
vision of his, and Temptation caught his martial spirit in a grip of
steel. And then another picture rose before his eyes. What would he
do in times of peace? His was a soul that pined in palaces. He was
born to the camp, and not to the vapid air of courts. In exchange for
this power that was offered him what must he give? His glorious
liberty. Become their lord in many things, to be their slave in more.
Nominally to rule, but actually to be ruled, until, should he fail to
do his rulers' will, there would be some night another meeting such as
this, in which men would plot to encompass his downfall and to
supplant him as he was invited to supplant Gian Maria. Lastly, he
bethought him of the man whose power he was bidden to usurp. His own
cousin, his father's sister's son, in whose veins ran the same blood
as in his own.
He raised his head at last, and met those anxious faces on which
the fitful light was casting harsh shadows. The pale ghost of a smile
hovered for a second on the corners of his stern mouth.
"I thank you, sirs, for the honour you have done me," he made
answer slowly, "an honour of which I fear I am all unworthy."
In strenuous chorus their voices rose to contradict him.
"At least, then, an honour which I cannot accept."
There was a moment's silence, and their faces from eager that they
had been, grew downcast to the point of sullenness.
"But why, my lord?" cried old Fabrizio at last, his arms
outstretched towards the Count, his voice quivering with intensity.
"Santissima Vergine! Why?"
"Because--to give you but one reason out of many--the man you ask
me to overthrow and supplant is of my own blood." And but that his
tone was calm they might have held that he rebuked them.
"I had thought," hazarded seriously the gay Fanfulla, "that with
such a man as your Excellency, patriotism and the love of Babbiano
would have weighed even more than the ties of blood."
"And you had thought well, Fanfulla. Did I not say that the reason
I gave you was but one of many? Tell me, sirs, what cause have you to
believe that I should rule you wisely and well? It so chances that in
the crisis now threatening Babbiano a captain is needed for its ruler.
But let not this delude you, for there may come a season in the
fortunes of the State when such a man might be as unfitted for
dominion as is the present Duke in this. What then? A good
knight-errant is an indifferent courtier and a bad statesman. Lastly,
my friends--since you must know all that is in my heart--there remains
the fact that I love myself a little. I love my liberty too well, and
I have no mind to stifle in the scented atmosphere of courts. You see
I am frank with you. It is my pleasure to roam the world, my harness
on my back, free as the blessed wind of heaven. Shall a ducal crown
and a cloak of purple----" He broke off sharply with a laugh.
"There, my friends! You have had reasons and to spare. Again I
thank you, and deplore that being such as I am, I may not become such
as you would have me."
He sank back in his chair, eyeing them with a glance never so
wistful, and after a second's silence, Da Lodi's voice implored him,
in accents that trembled with pathetic emphasis, to reconsider his
resolve. The old man would have proceeded to fresh argument, but
Aquila cut him short.
"I have already so well considered it, Messer Fabrizio," he
answered resolutely, "that nothing now could sway me. But this, sirs,
I will promise you: I will ride with you to Babbiano, and I will seek
to reason with my cousin. More will I do; I will seek at his hands
the office of Gonfalonier, and if he grant it me; I will so reorganise
our forces, and enter into such alliances with our neighbours as shall
ensure, at least in some degree, the safety of our State."
Still they endeavoured to cajole him, but he held firm against
their efforts, until in the end, with a sorrowful mien, Da Lodi
thanked him for his promise to use his influence with Gian Maria.
"For this, at least, we thank your Excellency, and on our part we
shall exert such power as we still wield in Babbiano to the end that
the high office of Gonfalonier be conferred upon you. We had
preferred to see you fill with honour a position higher still, and
should you later come to consider----"
"Dismiss your hopes of that," put in the Count, with a solemn shake
of his head. And then, before another word was uttered, young
Fanfulla degli Arcipreti leapt of a sudden to his feet, his brows
knit, and an expression of alarm spreading upon his comely face. A
second he remained thus; then, going swiftly to the door, he opened
it, and stood listening, followed by the surprised glances of the
assembled company. But it needed not the warning cry with which he
turned, to afford them the explanation of his odd behaviour. In the
moment's tense silence that had followed his sudden opening of the
door they had caught from without the distant fall of marching feet.
CHAPTER II. ON A MOUNTAIN PATH
"Armed men, my lords!" had been Fanfulla's cry. "We are betrayed!"
They looked at one another with stern eyes, and with that grimness
that takes the place which fear would hold in meaner souls.
Then Aquila rose slowly to his feet, and with him rose the others,
looking to their weapons. He softly breathed a name--"Masuccio
"Aye," cried Lodi bitterly, "would that we had heeded your warning!
Masuccio it will be, and at his heels his fifty mercenaries."
"Not less, I'll swear, by the sound of them," said Ferrabraccio.
"And we but six, without our harness."
"Seven," the Count laconically amended, resuming his hat and
loosening his sword in its scabbard.
"Not so, my lord," exclaimed Lodi, laying a hand upon the Count's
arm. "You must not stay with us. You are our only hope--the only hope
of Babbiano. If we are indeed betrayed--though by what infernal means
I know not--and they have knowledge that six traitors met here
to-night to conspire against the throne of Gian Maria, at least, I'll
swear, it is not known that you were to have met us. His Highness may
conjecture, but he cannot know for sure, and if you but escape, all
may yet he well-- saving with us, who matter not. Go, my lord!
Remember your promise to seek at your cousin's hand the gonfalon, and
may God and His blessed Saints prosper your Excellency."
The old man caught the young man's hand, and bending his head until
his face was hidden in his long white hair, he imprinted a kiss of
fealty upon it. But Aquila was not so easily to be dismissed.
"Where are your horses?" he demanded.
"Tethered at the back. But who would dare ride them at night adown
"I dare for one," answered the young man steadily, "and so shall
you all dare. A broken neck is the worst that can befall us, and I
would as lief break mine on the rocks of Sant' Angelo as have it
broken by the executioner of Babbiano."
"Bravely said, by the Virgin!" roared Ferrabraccio. "To horse,
"But the only way is the way by which they come," Fanfulla
remonstrated. "The rest is sheer cliff."
"Why, then, my sweet seducer, we'll go to meet them," rejoined
Ferrabraccio gaily. "They are on foot, and we'll sweep over them like
a mountain torrent. Come, sirs, hasten! They draw nigh."
"We have but six horses, and we are seven," another objected.
"I have no horse," said Francesco, "I'll follow you afoot."
"What?" cried Ferrabraccio, who seemed now to have assumed command
of the enterprise. "Let our St. Michael bring up the rear! No, no.
You, Da Lodi, you are too old for this work."
"Too old?" blazed the old man, drawing himself up to the full
height of what was still a very imposing figure, and his eyes seeming
to take fire at this reflection upon his knightly worth. "Were the
season other, Ferrabraccio, I could crave leave to show you how much
of youth there is still left in me. But----" He paused. His angry
eyes had alighted upon the Count, who stood waiting by the door, and
the whole expression of his countenance changed. "You are right,
Ferrabraccio, I grow old indeed--a dotard. Take you my horse, and
"But you?" quoth the Count solicitously.
"I shall remain. If you do your duty well by those hirelings they
will not trouble me. It will not occur to them that one was left
behind. They will think only of following you after you have cut
through them. Go, go, sirs, or all is lost."
They obeyed him now with a rush that seemed almost to partake of
panic. In a frenzied haste Fanfulla and another tore the tetherings
loose, and a moment later they were all mounted and ready for that
fearful ride. The night was dark, yet not too dark. The sky was
cloudless and thickly starred, whilst a minguant moon helped to
illumine the way by which they were to go. But on that broken and
uncertain mountain path the shadows lay thickly enough to make their
Ferrabraccio claiming a better knowledge than his comrades of the
way, placed himself at their head, with the Count beside him. Behind
them, two by two, came the four others. They stood on a small ledge
in the shadow of the great cliff that loomed on their left. Thence
the mountain-side might be scanned--as well as in such a light it was
to be discerned. The tramp of feet had now grown louder and nearer,
and with it came the clank of armour. In front of them lay the path
which sloped, for a hundred yards or more, to the first corner. Below
them, on the right, the path again appeared at the point where it
jutted out for some half-dozen yards in its zigzag course, and there
Fanfulla caught the gleam of steel, reflecting the feeble moonlight.
He drew Ferrabraccio's attention to it, and that stout warrior at
once gave the word to start. But Francesco interposed.
"If we do so," he objected," we shall come upon them past the
corner, and at that corner we shall be forced to slacken speed to
avoid being carried over the edge of the cliff. Besides, in such a
strait our horses may fail us, and refuse the ground. In any event,
we shall not descend upon them with the same force as we shall carry
if we wait until they come into a straight line with us. The shadows
here will screen us from them meanwhile."
"You are right, Lord Count. We will wait," was the ready answer.
And what time they waited he grumbled lustily.
"To be caught in such a trap as this! Body of Satan! It was a
madness to have met in a hut with but one approach."
"We might perhaps have retreated down the cliff behind," said
"We might indeed--had we been sparrows or mountain cats. But being
men, the way we go is the only way--and a mighty bad way it is. I
should like to be buried at Sant' Angelo, Lord Count," he continued
whimsically. "It will be conveniently near; for once I go over the
mountain-side, I'll swear naught will stop me until I reach the
valley--a parcel of broken bones."
Steady, my friends," murmured the voice of Aquila. "They come."
And round that fateful corner they were now swinging into view--a
company in steel heads and bodies with partisan on shoulder. A moment
they halted now, so that the waiting party almost deemed itself
observed. But it soon became clear that the halt was to the end that
the stragglers might come up. Masuccio was a man who took no chances;
every knave of his fifty would he have before he ventured the assault.
"Now," murmured the Count, tightening his hat upon his brow, so
that it might the better mask his features. Then rising in his
stirrups, and raising his sword on high, he let his voice be heard
again. But no longer in a whisper. Like a trumpet-call it rang,
echoed and re-echoed up the mountain-side.
"Forward! St. Michael and the Virgin!"
That mighty shout, followed as it was by a thunder of hooves, gave
pause to the advancing mercenaries. Masuccio's voice was heard,
calling to them to stand firm; bidding them kneel and ward the charge
with their pikes; assuring them with curses that they had but to deal
with half- dozen men. But the mountain echoes were delusive, and that
thunder of descending hooves seemed to them not of a half-dozen but of
a regiment. Despite Masuccio's imprecations the foremost turned, and
in that moment the riders were upon them, through them and over them,
like the mighty torrent of which Ferrabraccio had spoken.
A dozen Swiss went down beneath that onslaught, and another dozen
that had been swept aside and over the precipice were half-way to the
valley before that cavalcade met any check. Masuccio's remaining men
strove lustily to stem this human cataract, now that they realised how
small was the number of their assailants. They got their partisans to
work, and for a few moments the battle raged hot upon that narrow way.
The air was charged with the grind and ring of steel, the stamping of
men and horses and the shrieks and curses of the maimed.
The Lord of Aquila, ever foremost, fought desperately on. Not only
with his sword fought he, but with his horse as well. Rearing the
beast on its hind legs, he would swing it round and let it descend
where least it was expected, laying about him with his sword at the
same time. In vain they sought to bring down his charger with their
pikes; so swift and furious was his action, that before their design
could be accomplished, he was upon those that meditated it, scattering
them out of reach to save their skins.
In this ferocious manner he cleared a way before him, and luck
served him so well that what blows were wildly aimed at him as he
dashed by went wide of striking him. At last he was all but through
the press, and but three men now fronted him. Again his charger
reared, snorting, and pawing the air like a cat, and two of the three
knaves before him fled incontinently aside. But the third, who was of
braver stuff, dropped on one knee and presented his pike at the
horse's belly. Francesco made a wild attempt to save the roan that
had served him so gallantly, but he was too late. It came down to
impale itself upon that waiting partisan. With a hideous scream the
horse sank upon its slayer, crushing him beneath its mighty weight,
and hurling its rider forward on to the ground. In an instant he was
up and had turned, for all that he was half-stunned by his fall and
weakened by the loss of blood from a pike- thrust in the shoulder--of
which he had hitherto remained unconscious in the heat of battle. Two
mercenaries were bearing down upon him--the same two that had been the
last to fall back before him. He braced himself to meet them,
thinking that his last hour was indeed come, when Fanfulla degli
Arcipreti, who had followed him closely through the press, now
descended upon his assailants from behind, and rode them down. Beside
the Count he reined up, and stretched down his hand.
"Mount behind me, Excellency," he urged him.
"There is not time," answered Francesco, who discerned a half-dozen
figures hurrying towards them. "I will cling to your stirrup-leather,
thus. Now spur!" And without waiting for Fanfulla to obey him, he
caught the horse a blow with the flat of his sword across the hams,
which sent it bounding forward. Thus they continued now that perilous
descent, Fanfulla riding, and the Count half-running, half-swinging
from his stirrup. At last, when they had covered a half-mile in this
fashion, and the going had grown easier, they halted that the Count
might mount behind his companion, and as they now rode along at an
easier pace Francesco realised that he and Fanfulla were the only two
that had come through that ugly place. The gallant Ferrabraccio, hero
of a hundred strenuous battles, had gone to the ignoble doom which
half in jest he had prophesied himself. His horse had played him
false at the outset of the charge, and taking fright it had veered
aside despite his efforts to control it, until, losing its foothold,
man and beast had gone hurtling over the cliff. Amerini, Fanfulla had
seen slain, whilst the remaining two, being both unhorsed, would
doubtless be the prisoners of Masuccio.
Some three miles beyond Sant' Angelo, Fanfulla's weary horse
splashed across a ford of the Metauro, and thus, towards the second
hour of night, they gained the territory of Urbino, where for the time
they might hold themselves safe from all pursuit.
CHAPTER III. SACKCLOTH AND MOTLEY
The fool and the friar had fallen a-quarrelling, and--to the shame
of the friar and the glory of the fool be it spoken--their subject of
contention was a woman. Now the friar, finding himself no match for
the fool in words, and being as broad and stout of girth and limb as
the other was puny and misshapen, he had plucked off his sandal that
with it he might drive the full force of his arguments through the
jester's skull. At that the fool, being a very coward, had fled
incontinently through the trees.
Running, like the fool he was, with his head turned to learn
whether the good father followed him, he never saw the figure that lay
half-hidden in the bracken, and might never have guessed its presence
but that tripping over it he shot forward, with a tinkle of bells, on
to his crooked nose.
He sat up with a groan, which was answered by an oath from the man
into whose sides he had dug his flying feet. The two looked at one
another in surprise, tempered with anger in the one and dismay in the
"A good awakening to you, noble sir," quoth the fool politely; for
by the mien and inches of the man he had roused, he thought that
courtesy might serve him best.
The other eyed him with interest, as well he might; for an odder
figure it would be hard to find in Italy.
Hunched of back, under-sized, and fragile of limb, he was arrayed
in doublet, hose and hood, the half of which was black the other
crimson, whilst on his shoulders fell from that same hood--which
tightly framed his ugly little face--a foliated cape, from every point
of which there hung a tiny silver bell that glimmered in the sunlight,
and tinkled as he moved. From under bulging brows a pair of bright
eyes, set wide as an owl's, took up the mischievous humour of his
"A curse on you and him that sent you," was the answering greeting
he received. Then the man checked his anger and broke into a laugh at
sight of the fear that sprang into the jester's eyes.
"I crave your pardon--most humbly do I crave it, Illustrious," said
the fool, still in fear. "I was pursued."
"Pursued?" echoed the other, in a tone not free from a sudden
uneasiness. "And, pray, by whom?"
"By the very fiend, disguised in the gross flesh and semblance of a
"Do you jest?" came the angry question.
"Jest? Had you caught his villainous sandal between your
shoulders, as did I, you would know how little I have a mind to jest."
"Now answer me a plain question, if you have the wit to answer
with," quoth the other, anger ever rising in his voice. "Is there
hereabouts a monk?"
"Aye, is there--may a foul plague rot him!--lurking in the bushes
yonder. He is over-fat to run, or you had seen him at my heels,
arrayed in that panoply of avenging wrath that is the cognisance of
the Church Militant."
"Go bring him hither," was the short answer.
"Gesù!" gasped the fool, in very real affright. "I'll not go near
him till his anger cools--not if you made me straight and bribed me
with the Patrimony of St. Peter."
The man turned from him impatiently, and rising his voice:
"Fanfulla!" he called over his shoulder, and then, after a moment's
pause, again: "Olá, Fanfulla!"
"I am here, my lord," came an answering voice from behind a clump
of bushes on their right, and almost immediately the very splendid
youth who had gone to sleep in its shadow stood up and came round to
them. At sight of the fool he paused to take stock of him, what time
the fool returned the compliment with wonder-stricken interest. For
however much Fanfulla's raiment might have suffered in yesternight's
affray, it was very gorgeous still, and in the velvet cap upon his
head a string of jewels was entwined. Yet not so much by the richness
of his trappings was the fool impressed, as by the fact that one so
manifestly noble should address by such a title, and in a tone of so
much deference, this indifferently apparelled fellow over whom he had
stumbled. Then his gaze wandered back to the man who lay supported on
his elbow, and he noticed now the gold net in which his hair was
coiffed, and which was by no means common to mean folk. His little
twinkling eyes turned their attention full upon the face before him,
and of a sudden a gleam of recognition entered them. His countenance
underwent a change, and from grotesque that it had been, it became
more grotesque still in its hasty assumption of reverence.
"My Lord of Aquila!" he murmured, scrambling to his feet.
Scarcely had he got erect when a hand gripped him by the shoulder,
and Fanfulla's dagger flashed before his startled eyes.
"Swear on the cross of this, never to divulge his Excellency's
presence here, or take you the point of it in your foolish heart."
"I swear, I swear!" he cried, in fearful haste, his hand upon the
hilt, which Fanfulla now held towards him.
"Now fetch the priest, good fool," said the Count, with a smile at
the hunchback's sudden terror. "You have nothing to fear from us."
When the jester had left them to go upon his errand, Francesco
turned to his companion.
"Fanfulla, you are over-cautious," he said, with an easy smile.
"What shall it matter that I am recognised?"
"I would not have it happen for a kingdom while you are so near
Sant' Angelo. The six of us who met last night are doomed--those of
us who are not dead already. For me, and for Lodi if he was not
taken, there may be safety in flight. Into the territory of Babbiano
I shall never again set foot whilst Gian Maria is Duke, unless I be
weary of this world. But of the seventh--yourself--you heard old Lodi
swear that the secret could not have transpired. Yet should his
Highness come to hear of your presence in these parts and in my
company, suspicion might set him on the road that leads to knowledge."
"Ah! And then?"
"Then?" returned the other, eyeing Francesco in surprise. "Why,
then, the hopes we found on you--the hopes of every man in Babbiano
worthy of the name--would be frustrated. But here comes our friend
the fool, and, in his wake, the friar."
Fra Domenico--so was he very fitly named, this follower of St.
Dominic-- approached with a solemnity that proceeded rather from his
great girth than from any inflated sense of the dignity of his
calling. He bowed before Fanfulla until his great crimson face was
hidden, and he displayed instead a yellow, shaven crown. It was as if
the sun had set, and the moon had risen in its place.
"Are you skilled in medicine?" quoth Fanfulla shortly.
"I have some knowledge, Illustrious."
"Then see to this gentleman's wounds."
"Eh? Dio mio! You are wounded, then?" he began, turning to the
Count, and he would have added other questions as pregnant, but that
Aquila, drawing aside his hacketon at the shoulder, answered him
"Here, sir priest."
His lips pursed in solicitude, the friar would have gone upon his
knees, but that Francesco, seeing with what labour the movement must
be fraught, rose up at once.
"It is not so bad that I cannot stand," said he, submitting himself
to the monk's examination.
The latter expressed the opinion that it was nowise dangerous,
however much it might be irksome, whereupon the Count invited him to
bind it up. To this Fra Domenico replied that he had neither unguents
nor linen, but Fanfulla suggested that he might get these things from
the convent of Acquasparta, hard by, and proffered to accompany him
This being determined, they departed, leaving the Count in the
company of the jester. Francesco spread his cloak, and lay down
again, whilst the fool, craving his permission to remain, disposed
himself upon his haunches like a Turk.
"Who is your master, fool?" quoth the Count, in an idle spirit.
"There is a man who clothes and feeds me, noble sir, but Folly is
my only master."
"To what end does he do this?"
"Because I pretend to be a greater fool than he, so that by
contrast with me he seems unto himself wise, which flatters his
conceit. Again, perhaps, because I am so much uglier than he that,
again by contrast, he may account himself a prodigy of beauty."
"Odd, is it not?" the Count humoured him.
"Not half so odd as that the Lord of Aquila should lie here,
roughly clad, a wound in his shoulder, talking to a fool."
Francesco eyed him with a smile.
"Give thanks to God that Fanfulla is not here to hear you, or they
had been your last words for pretty though he be, Messer Fanfulla is a
very monster of bloodthirstiness. With me it is different. I am a
man of very gentle ways, as you may have heard, Messer Buffoon. But
see that you forget at once my station and my name, or you may realise
how little they need buffoons in the Court of Heaven."
"My lord, forgive. I shall obey you," answered the hunchback, with
a stricken manner. And then through the glade came a voice--a woman's
voice, wondrous sweet and rich--calling: "Peppino! Peppino!"
"It is my mistress calling me," quoth the fool, leaping to his
"So that you own a mistress, though Folly be your only master,"
laughed the Count. "It would pleasure me to behold the lady whose
property you have the honour to be, Ser Peppino."
"You may behold her if you but turn your head," Peppino whispered.
Idly, with a smile upon his lips that was almost scornful, the Lord
of Aquila turned his eyes in the direction in which the fool was
already walking. And on the instant his whole expression changed.
The amused scorn was swept from his countenance, and in its place
there sat now a look of wonder that was almost awe.
Standing there, on the edge of the clearing, in which he lay, he
beheld a woman. He had a vague impression of a slender, shapely
height, a fleeting vision of a robe of white damask, a camorra of
green velvet, and a choicely wrought girdle of gold. But it was the
glory of her peerless face that caught and held his glance in such
ecstatic awe; the miracle of her eyes, which, riveted on his, returned
his glance with one of mild surprise. A child she almost seemed,
despite her height and womanly proportions, so fresh and youthful was
Raised on his elbow, he lay there for a spell, and gazed and gazed,
his mind running on visions which godly men have had of saints from
At last the spell was broken by Peppino's voice, addressing her,
his back servilely bent. Francesco bethought him of the deference due
to one so clearly noble, and leaping to his feet, his wound forgotten,
he bowed profoundly. A second later he gasped for breath, reeled, and
swooning, collapsed supine among the bracken.
CHAPTER IV. MONNA VALENTINA
In after years the Lord of Aquila was wont to aver in all solemnity
that it was the sight of her wondrous beauty set up such a disorder in
his soul that it overcame his senses, and laid him swooning at her
feet. That he, himself, believed it so, it is not ours to doubt, for
all that we may be more prone to agree with the opinion afterwards
expressed by Fanfulla and the friar--and deeply resented by the
Count--that in leaping to his feet in over-violent haste his wound
re-opened, and the pain of this, combining with the weak condition
that resulted from his loss of blood, had caused his sudden faintness.
"Who is this, Peppe?" she asked the fool, and he, mindful of the
oath he had sworn, answered her brazenly that he did not know, adding
that it was--as she might see---some poor wounded fellow.
"Wounded?" she echoed, and her glorious eyes grew very pitiful.
"There was a gentleman here, tending him, Madonna; but he is gone
with Fra Domenico to the Convent of Acquasparta to seek the
necessaries to mend his shoulder."
"Poor gentleman," she murmured, approaching the fallen figure.
"How came he by his hurt?"
"That, Madonna, is more than I can tell."
"Can we do nothing for him until his friends return?" was her next
question, bending over the Count as she spoke. "Come, Peppino," she
cried, "lend me your aid. Get me water from the brook, yonder."
The fool looked about him for a vessel, and his eye falling upon
the Count's capacious hat, he snatched it up, and went his errand.
When he returned, the lady was kneeling with the unconscious man's
head in her lap. Into the hatful of water that Peppe brought her she
dipped a kerchief, and with this she bathed the brow on which his long
black hair lay matted and disordered.
"See how he has bled, Peppe," said she. "His doublet is drenched,
and he is bleeding still! Vergine Santa!" she cried, beholding now
the ugly wound that gaped in his shoulder, and turning pale at the
sight. "Assuredly he will die of it--and he so young, Peppino, and so
comely to behold!"
Francesco stirred, and a sigh fluttered through his pallid lips.
Then he raised his heavy lids, and their glances met and held each
other. And so, eyes that were brown and tender looked down into
feverish languid eyes of black, what time her gentle hand held the
moist cloth to his aching brow.
"Angel of beauty!" he murmured dreamily, being but half-awake as
yet to his position. Then, becoming conscious of her ministrations,
"Angel of goodness!" he added, with yet deeper fervour.
She had no answer for him, saving such answer--and in itself it was
eloquent enough--as her blushes made, for she was fresh from a convent
and all innocent of worldly ways and tricks of gallant speech.
"Do you suffer?" she asked at last.
"Suffer?" quoth he, now waking more and more, and his voice
sounding a note of scorn. "Suffer? My head so pillowed and a saint
from Heaven ministering to my ills? Nay, I am in no pain, Madonna,
but in a joy more sweet than I have ever known."
"Gesù! What a nimble tongue!" gibed the fool from the background.
"Are you there, too, Master Buffoon?" quoth Francesco. "And
Fanfulla? Is he not here? Why, now I bethink me; he went to
Acquasparta with the friar." He thrust his elbow under him for more
"You must not move," said she, thinking that he would essay to
"I would not, lady, if I must," he answered solemnly. And then,
with his eyes upon her face, he boldly asked her name.
"My name," she answered readily, "is Valentina della Rovere, and I
am niece to Guidobaldo of Urbino."
His brows shot up.
"Do I indeed live," he questioned, "or do I but dream the memories
of some old romancer's tale, in which a wandering knight is tended
thus by a princess?"
"Are you a knight?" she asked, a wonder coming now into her eyes,
for even into the seclusion of her convent-life had crept strange
stories of these mighty men-at-arms.
"Your knight at least, sweet lady," answered he, "and ever your
poor champion if you will do me so much honour."
A crimson flush stole now into her cheeks, summoned by his bold
words and bolder glances, and her eyes fell. Yet, resentment had no
part in her confusion. She found no presumption in his speech, nor
aught that a brave knight might not say to the lady who had succoured
him in his distress. Peppe, who stood listening and marking the
Count's manner, knowing the knight's station, was filled now with
wonder, now with mockery; yet never interfered.
"What is your name, sir knight?" she asked, after a pause.
His eyes looked troubled, and as they shot beyond her to the fool,
they caught on Peppe's face a grin of sly amusement.
"My name," he said at last, "is Francesco." And then, to prevent
that she should further question him--"But tell me, Madonna," he
inquired, "how comes a lady of your station here, alone with that poor
fraction of a man?" And he indicated the grinning Peppe.
"My people are yonder in the woods, where we have halted for a
little space. I am on my way to my uncle's court, from the Convent of
Santa Sofia, and for my escort I have Messer Romeo Gonzaga and twenty
spears. So that, you see, I am well protected, without counting Ser
Peppe here and the saintly Fra Domenico, my confessor."
There was a pause, ended at length by Francesco.
"You will be the younger niece of his Highness of Urbino?" said he.
"Not so, Messer Francesco," she answered readily. "I am the
At that his brows grew of a sudden dark.
"Can you be she whom they would wed to Gian Maria?" he exclaimed,
at which the fool pricked up his ears, whilst she looked at the Count
with a gaze that plainly showed how far she was from understanding
"You said?" she asked.
"Why, nothing," he answered, with a sigh, and in that moment a
man's voice came ringing through the wood.
"Madonna! Madonna Valentina!"
Francesco and the lady turned their eyes in the direction whence
the voice proceeded, and they beheld a superbly dazzling figure
entering the glade. In beauty of person and richness of apparel he
was well worthy of the company of Valentina. His doublet was of grey
velvet, set off with scales of beaten gold, and revealing a
gold-embroidered vest beneath; his bonnet matched his doublet, and was
decked by a feather that sparkled with costly gems; his gold-hilted
sword was sheathed in a scabbard also of grey velvet set with jewels.
His face was comely as a damsel's, his eyes blue and his hair golden.
"Behold," announced Peppino gravely, "Italy's latest translation of
the Golden Ass of Apuleius."
Upon seeing the noble niece of Guidobaldo kneeling there with
Francesco's head still pillowed in her lap, the new-comer cast up his
arms in a gesture of dismay.
"Saints in Heaven!" he exclaimed, hurrying towards them. "What
occupation have you found? Who is this ugly fellow?"
"Ugly?" was all she answered him, in accents of profound surprise.
"Who is he?" the young man insisted, his tone growing heated. "And
what does he here and thus, with you? Gesù! What would his Highness
say? How would he deal with me were he to learn of this? Who is the
"Why, as you see, Messer Gonzaga," she answered, with some heat, "a
"A knight he?" gibed Gonzaga. "A thief more likely, a prowling
masnadiero. What is your name?" he roughly asked the Count.
Drawing himself a little away from Valentina, and reclining
entirely upon his elbow, Francesco motioned him with a wave of the
hand to come no nearer.
"I beg, lady, that you will bid your pretty page stand back a
little. I am still faint, and his perfumes overpower me."
Under the mask of the polite request Gonzaga detected the mocking,
contemptuous note, and it gave fuel to his anger.
"I am no page, fool," he answered, then clapping his hands
together, he raised his voice to shout--"Olá, Beltrame! To me!"
"What would you do?" cried the lady, rising to confront him.
"Carry this ruffian in bonds to Urbino, as is my duty."
"Sir, you may wound your pretty hands in grasping me," replied the
Count, in chill indifference.
"Ah! You would threaten me with violence, vassal?" cried the
other, retreating some paces farther as he spoke. Beltrame!" he
called again. "Are you never coming? A voice answered him from the
thicket, and with a clank of steel a half-dozen men flung themselves
into the glade.
"Your orders, sir?" craved he that led them, his eyes wandering to
the still prostrate Count.
"Tie me up this dog," Gonzaga bade him. But before the fellow
could move a foot to carry out the order Valentina barred his way.
"You shall not," she commanded, and so transformed was she from the
ingenuous child that lately had talked with him, that Francesco gaped
in pure astonishment. "In my uncle's name, I bid you leave this
gentleman where he lies. He is a wounded knight whom I have been
pleased to tend-- a matter which seems to have aroused Messer
Gonzaga's anger against him."
Beltrame paused, and looked from Valentina to Gonzaga, undecided.
"Madonna," said Gonzaga, with assumed humility, "your word is law
with us. But I would have you consider that, what I bid Beltrame do
is in the interest of his Highness, whose territory is infested by
these vagabonding robbers. It is a fact that may not have reached you
in your convent retreat, no more than has sufficient knowledge reached
you yet-- in your incomparable innocence--to distinguish between
rogues and honest men. Beltrame, do my bidding."
Valentina's foot tapped the ground impatiently, and into her eyes
there came a look of anger that heightened her likeness to her martial
uncle. But Peppe it was who spoke.
"For all that there seem to be fools enough, already, meddling in
this business," he said, in tones of mock lament, "permit that I join
their number, Ser Romeo, and listen to my counsel."
"Out, fool," cried Gonzaga, cutting at him with his riding-switch,
"we need not your capers."
"No, but you need my wisdom," retorted Ser Peppe, as he leapt
beyond Gonzaga's reach. "Hear me, Beltrame! For all that we do not
doubt Messer Gonzaga's keen discrimination in judging 'twixt a rogue
and an honest man, I do promise you, as surely as though I were Fate
herself, that if you obey him now and tie up that gentleman, you will
yourself be tied up for it, later on, in a yet uglier fashion."
Beltrame looked alarmed, Gonzaga incredulous. Valentina thanked
Peppe with her eyes, thinking that he had but hit upon a subterfuge to
serve her wishes, whilst Francesco, who had now risen to his feet,
looked on with an amused smile as though the matter concerned him
nowise personally. And then, in the very crux of the situation,
Fanfulla and Fra Domenico appeared upon the scene.
"You are, well-returned, Fanfulla!" the Count called to him, "This
pretty gentleman would have had me bound."
"Have you bound?" echoed Fanfulla, in angry horror. "Upon what
grounds, pray?" he demanded, turning fiercely upon Gonzaga.
Impressed by Fanfulla's lordly air, Romeo Gonzaga grew amazingly
humble for one that but a moment back had been so overbearing.
"It would seem, sir, that my judgment was at fault in esteeming his
condition," he excused himself.
"Your judgment?" returned the hot Fanfulla. "And who bade you
judge? Go cut your milk-teeth, boy, and meddle not with men if you
would live to be a man yourself some day."
Valentina smiled, Peppe laughed outright, whilst even Beltrame and
his followers grinned, all of which added not a little to Gonzaga's
choler. But scant though his wisdom might be, it was yet enough to
"The presence of Madonna here restrains me," he answered, with
elaborate dignity. "But should we meet again, I shall make bold to
show you what manhood means."
"Perhaps--if by then you shall have come to it." And with a shrug
Fanfulla turned to give his attention to the Count, whom Fra Domenico
was already tending.
Valentina, to relieve the awkwardness of the moment, proposed to
Gonzaga that he should get his escort to horse, and have her litter in
readiness, so that they might resume their journey as soon as Fra
Domenico should have concluded his ministrations.
Gonzaga bowed, and with a vicious glance at the strangers and an
angry "Follow me!" to Beltrame and the others, he departed with the
men-at-arms at his heels.
Valentina remained with Fanfulla and Peppe, whilst Fra Domenico
dressed Francesco's wound, and, presently, when the task was
accomplished, they departed, leaving Fanfulla amid the Count alone.
But ere she went she listened to Francesco's thanks, and suffered him
to touch her ivory fingers with his lips.
There was much he might have said but that the presence of the
other three restrained him. Yet some little of that much she may have
seen reflected in his eyes, for all that day she rode pensive, a fond,
wistful smile at the corners of her lips. And although to Gonzaga she
manifested no resentment, yet did she twit him touching that mistake
of his. Sore in his dignity, he liked her playful mockery little yet
he liked the words in which she framed it less.
"How came you into so grievous an error, Ser Romeo?" she asked him,
more than once. "How could you deem him a rogue--he with so noble a
mien and so beautiful a countenance?" And without heeding the
sullenness of his answers, she would lapse with a sigh once more into
reflection--a thing that galled Gonzaga more, perhaps, than did her
CHAPTER V. GIAN MARIA
It was a week after the meeting 'twixt the niece of Guidobaldo and
the Count of Aquila, when the latter--his wound being wellnigh
healed--rode one morning under the great archway that was the main
entrance to the city of Babbiano. The Captain of the Gate saluted him
respectfully as he rode by, and permitted himself to marvel at the
pallor of his Excellency's face. And yet, the cause was not very far
to seek. It stood upon four spears, among a noisy flock of circling
crows, above that very Gate---called of San Bacolo--and consisted of
four detruncated human heads.
The sight of those dead faces grinning horribly, their long, matted
hair fluttering like rags in the April breeze, had arrested
Francesco's attention as he drew nigh. But when presently he came
nearer and looked with more intentness, a shudder of recognition ran
through him, and a great horror filled his soul and paled his cheek.
The first of those heads was that of the valiant and well-named
Ferrabraccio; the next that of Amerino Amerini; and the other two,
those of his captured companions on that night at Sant' Angelo.
So it would seem that Gian Maria had been busy during the week that
was sped, and that there, on the walls of Babbiano, lay rotting the
only fruits which that ill-starred conspiracy was likely to bear.
For a second it entered his mind to turn back. But his stout and
fearless nature drove him on, all unattended as he was, and in despite
of such vague forebodings as beset him. How much, he wondered, might
Gian Maria know of his own share in that mountain meeting, and how
would it fare with him if his cousin was aware that it had been
proposed to the Count of Aquila to supplant him?
He was not long, however, in learning that grounds were wanting for
such fears as he had entertained. Gian Maria received him with even
more than wonted welcome, for he laid much store by Francesco's
judgment and was in sore need of it at present.
Francesco found him at table, which had been laid for him amidst
the treasures of art and learning that enriched the splendid Palace
library. It was a place beloved by Gian Maria for the material
comforts that it offered him, and so he turned it to a score of vulgar
purposes of his own, yet never to that for which it was equipped,
being an utter stranger to letters and ignorant as a ploughboy.
Ensconced in a great chair of crimson leather, at a board overladen
with choice viands and sparkling with crystal flagons and with vessels
and dishes of gold and enamel, Francesco found his cousin, and the air
that had been heavy once with the scholarly smell of parchments and
musty tomes was saturated now with pungent odours of the table.
In stature Gian Maria was short and inclining, young though he was,
to corpulency. His face was round and pale and flabby; his eyes blue
and beady; his mouth sensual and cruel. He was dressed in a suit of
lilac velvet, trimmed with lynx fur, and slashed, Spanish fashion, in
the sleeves, to show the shirt of fine Rheims linen underneath. About
his neck hung a gold chain, bearing an Agnus Dei, which contained a
relic of the True Cross--for Gian Maria pushed his devoutness to great
His welcome of Francesco was more effusive than its wont. He bade
the two servants who attended him to lay a plate for his illustrious
cousin, and when Aquila shortly yet courteously declined, with the
assurance that he had dined already, the Duke insisted that, at least,
he should drink a Cup of Malvasia. When out of a vessel of beaten
gold they had filled a goblet for the Count, his Highness bade the
servants go, and relaxed--if, indeed, so much may be said of one who
never knew much dignity--before his visitor.
"I hear," said Aquila, when the first compliments were spent,
"strange stories of a conspiracy in your Duchy, and on the walls at
the Gate of San Bacolo I beheld four heads, of men whom I have known
"And who dishonoured themselves ere their heads were made a banquet
for the crows. There, Francesco!" He shuddered, and crossed himself.
"It is unlucky to speak of the dead at table."
"Let us speak, then, of their offence alone," persisted Francesco
subtly. "In what did it lie?
"In what?" returned the Duke amusedly. His voice was thin and
inclining to shrillness. "It is more than I can say. Masuccio knew.
But the dog would not disclose his secret nor the names of the
conspirators until his task should be accomplished and he had taken
them at the treason he knew they had gathered to ripen. But," he
continued, an olive poised 'twixt thumb and forefinger, "it seems they
were not to be captured as easily as he thought. He told me the
traitors numbered six, and that they were to meet a seventh there.
The men who returned from the venture tell me too, and without shame,
that there were but some six or seven that beset them. Yet they gave
the Swiss trouble enough, and killed some nine of them besides a
half-score of more or less grievously wounded, whilst they but slew
two of their assailants and captured another two. Those were the four
heads you saw at the Porta San Bacolo."
"And Masuccio?" inquired Francesco. "Has he not told you since who
were those others that escaped?"
His Highness paused to masticate the olive.
"Why, there lies the difficulty," said he at length. "The dog is
dead. He was killed in the affray. May he rot in hell for his
obstinate reticence. No, no!" he checked himself hastily. "He's
dead, and the secret of this treason, as well as the names of the
traitors, have perished with him. Yet I am a clement man, Francesco,
and sorely though that dog has wronged me by his silence, I thank
Heaven for the grace to say--God rest his vile soul!"
The Count flung himself into a chair, as much to dissemble such
signs of relief as might show upon his face, as because he wished to
"But surely Masuccio left you some information!" he exclaimed.
"The very scantiest," returned Gian Maria, in chagrined accents.
"It was ever the way of that secretive vassal. Damn him! He frankly
told me that if I knew, I would talk. Heard you ever of such
insufferable insolence to a prince? All that he would let me learn
was that there was a conspiracy afoot to supplant me, and that he was
going to capture the conspirators, together with the man whom they
were inviting to take my place. Ponder it, Francesco! Such are the
murderous plans my loving subjects form for my undoing--I who rule
them with a rod of gold, the most clement, just and generous prince in
Italy. Cristo buono! Do you marvel that I lost patience and had
their hideous heads set upon spears?"
"But did you not say that two of these conspirators were brought
The Duke nodded, his mouth too full for words.
"Then, at their trial, what transpired?"
"Trial? There was no trial." Gian Maria chewed vigorously for a
moment. "I tell you I was so heated with anger at this base
ingratitude, that I had not even the wit to have the names of their
associates tortured out of them. Within a half-hour of their arrival
in Babbiano, the heads of these men whom it had pleased Heaven to
deliver up to me were where you saw them to-day."
"You sent them thus to their death?" gasped Francesco, rising to
his feet and eyeing his cousin with mingled wonder and anger. "You
sent men of such families as these to the headsman, without a trial?
I think, Gian Maria, that you must be mad if so rashly you can shed
such blood as this."
The Duke sank back in his chair to gape at his impetuous cousin.
Then, in sullen anger: "To whom do you speak?" he demanded.
"To a tyrant who calls himself the most clement, just and generous
prince in Italy, and who lacks the wisdom to see that he is
undermining with his own hands, and by his own rash actions, a throne
that is already tottering. Can you not think that this might mean a
revolution? It amounts to murder, and though dukes resort to it
freely enough in Italy, it is not openly and defiantly wrought, as is
Anger there was in the Duke's soul, but there was still more
fear--so much, that it shouldered the anger aside.
"I have provided against rebellion," he announced, with an ease
that he vainly strove to feel. "I have given the command of my guards
to Martino Armstadt, and he has engaged for me a company of five
hundred Swiss lanzknechte that were lately in the pay of the Baglioni
"And you deem this security?" rejoined Francesco, with a smile of
scorn. "To hedge your throne with foreign spears commanded by a
"This and God's grace," was the pious answer.
"Bah!" answered Francesco, impatient at the hypocrisy. "Win the
hearts of your people. Let that be your buckler."
"Hush!" whispered Gian Maria. "You blaspheme. Does not every act
of my self-sacrificing life point to such an aim? I live for my
people. But, by my soul, they ask too much when they ask that I
should die for them. If I serve those who plot against my life, as I
have served these men you speak of, who shall blame me? I tell you,
Francesco, I wish I might have those others who escaped, that I might
do as much by them. By the living God, I do! And as for the man who
was to have supplanted me----" He paused, a deadly smile on his
sensual mouth completing the sentence more effectively than lay within
the power of words. "Who could it have been?" he mused. "I've vowed
that if Heaven will grant me that I discover him, I'll burn a candle
to Santa Fosca every Saturday for a twelvemonth and go fasting on the
Vigil of the Dead. Who--who could it have been, Franceschino?"
"How should I know?" returned Francesco, evading the question.
"You know so much, Checco mio. Your mind is so quick to fathom
matters of this kind. Think you, now, it might have been the Duca
Francesco shook his head.
"When Caesar Borgia comes he will know no need to resort to such
poor means. He will come in arms to reduce you by his might."
"God and the saints protect me!" gasped the Duke. "You talk of it
as if he were already marching."
"Then I talk of it advisedly. The event is none so remote as you
would make yourself believe. Listen, Gian Maria! I have not ridden
from Aquila for just the pleasure of passing the time of day with you.
Fabrizio da Lodi and Fanfulla degli Arcipreti have been with me of
"With you?" cried the Duke, his little eyes narrowing themselves as
they glanced up at his cousin. "With you--eh?" He shrugged his
shoulders and spread his palms before him. "Pish! See into what
errors even so clear a mind as mine may fall. Do you know, Francesco,
that marking their absence since that conspiracy was laid, I had a
half-suspicion they were connected with it." And he devoted his
attention to a honeycomb.
"You have not in all your Duchy two hearts more faithful to
Babbiano," was the equivocal reply. "It was on the matter of this
very peril that threatens you that they came to me."
"Ah!" Gian Maria's white face grew interested.
And now the Count of Aquila talked to the Duke of Babbiano much as
Fabrizio da Lodi had talked to the Count that night at Sant' Angelo.
He spoke of the danger that threatened from the Borgia, of the utter
lack of preparation, and of Gian Maria's contempt of the counsels
given him. He alluded to the discontent rife among his subjects at
this state of things, and to the urgent need to set them right. When
he had done, the Duke sat silent a while, his eyes bent thoughtfully
upon his platter, on which the food lay now unheeded.
"An easy thing, is it not, Francesco, to say to a man: this is
wrong, and that is wrong. But who is there, pray, to set it right for
"That, if you will say but the word, I will attempt to do."
"You?" cried the Duke, and far from manifesting satisfaction at
having one offer himself to undertake to right this very crooked
business, Gian Maria's face reflected an incredulous anger and some
little scorn. "And how, my marvellous cousin, would you set about
it?" he inquired, a sneer lurking in his tone.
"I would place such matters as the levying of money by taxation in
the hands of Messer Despuglio, and at whatever sacrifice to your own
extravagance, I would see that for months to come the bulk of these
moneys is applied to the levying and arming of suitable men. I have
some skill as a condottiero--leastways, so more than one foreign
prince has been forced to acknowledge. I will lead your army when I
have raised it, and I will enter into alliances for you with our
neighbouring States, who, seeing us armed, will deem us a power worthy
of their alliance. And so, what man can do to stem the impending
flood of this invasion, that will I do to defend your Duchy. Make me
your gonfalonier, and in a month I will tell you whether it lies in my
power or not to save your State."
The eyes of Gian Maria had narrowed more and more whilst Francesco
spoke, and into his shallow face had crept an evil, suspicious look.
As the Count ceased, he gave vent to a subdued laugh, bitter with
"Make you my gonfalonier?" he muttered, in consummate amusement.
"And since when has Babbiano been a republic--or is it your aim to
make it one, and establish yourself as its chief magistrate?"
"If you misapprehend me so----" began Francesco, but his cousin
interrupted him with heightening scorn.
"Misapprehend you, Messer Franceschino? No, no. I understand you
but too well." He rose suddenly from his interrupted meal, and came a
step nearer his cousin. "I hear rumours of this growing love my
people are manifesting for the Count of Aquila, and I have let them go
unheeded. That rogue Masuccio warned me ere he died, and I answered
him with my whip across his face. But I am by no means sure that I
have been proceeding wisely. I had a dream two nights ago---- But
let that be! When it so happens that in any State there is a man whom
the people prefer to him who rules them, and when it so happens that
this man is of as good blood and high birth as are you, he becomes a
danger to him that sits the throne. I need scarce remind you," he
added, with a horrid grin, "of how the Borgias deal with such
individuals, nor need I add that a Sforza may see fit to emulate those
very conclusive measures of precaution. The family of Sforza has bred
as yet no fools, nor shall I prove myself the first by placing in
another's hands the power to make himself my master. You see, my
gentle cousin, how transparent your aims become under my eyes. I am
keen of vision, Franceschino, keen of vision!" He tapped his nose and
chuckled a malicious appreciation of his own acute perceptions.
Francesco regarded him with an eye of stony scorn. He might have
answered, had he been so disposed, that the Duchy of Babbiano was his
to take whenever he pleased. He might have told him that, and defied
him. But he went more slowly than did this man of a family that bred
"Do you know me, then, so little, Gian Maria," said he, not without
bitterness, "that you think I hunger for so empty a thing as this
ducal pomp you clutch so fearfully? I tell you, man, that I prefer my
liberty to an imperial throne. But I waste breath with you. Yet,
some day, when your crown shall have passed from you and your power
have been engulfed in the Borgia's rapacious maw, remember my offer
which might have saved you and which with insults you disregarded, as
you disregarded the advice your older counsellors gave you."
Gian Maria shrugged his fat shoulders.
"If by that other advice you mean the counsel that I should take
Guidobaldo's niece to wife, you may give ease unto your patriotic
soul. I have consented to enter into this alliance. And now," he
ended, with another of his infernal chuckles, "you see how little I
need dread this terrible son of Pope Alexander. Allied with Urbino
and the other States that are its friends, I can defy the might of
Caesar Borgia. I shall sleep tranquil of nights beside my beauteous
bride, secure in the protection her uncle's armies will afford me, and
never needing so much as my valiant cousin's aid as my gonfalonier."
The Count of Aquila changed colour despite himself, and the Duke's
suspicious eyes were as quick to observe it as was his mind to
misinterpret its meaning. He registered a vow to set a watch on this
solicitous cousin who offered so readily to bear his gonfalon.
"I felicitate you, at least," said Francesco gravely, "upon the
wisdom of that step. Had I known of it I had not troubled you with
other proposals for the safety of your State. But, may I ask you,
Gian Maria, what influences led you to a course which, hitherto, you
have so obstinately refused to follow?"
The Duke shrugged his shoulders.
"They plagued me so," he lamented, with a grimace, "that in the end
I consented. I could withstand Lodi and the others, but when my
mother joined them with her prayers--I should say, her commands--and
pointed out again my peril to me, I gave way. After all a man must
wed. And since in my station he need not let his marriage weigh too
much upon him, I resolved on it for the sake of security and peace."
Since it was the salvation of Babbiano that he aimed at, the Count
of Aquila should have rejoiced at Gian Maria's wise resolve, and no
other consideration should have tempered so encompassing a thing as
that joy of his should have been. Yet, when later he left his
cousin's presence, the only feeling that he carried with him was a
deep and bitter resentment against the Fate that willed such things,
blent with a sorrowing pity for the girl that was to wed his cousin
and a growing hatred for the cousin who made him pity her.
CHAPTER VI. THE AMOROUS DUKE
From a window of the Palace of Babbiano the Lord of Aquila watched
the amazing bustle in the courtyard below, and at his side stood
Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, whom he had summoned from Perugia with
assurances that, Masuccio being dead, no peril now menaced him.
It was a week after that interview at which Gian Maria had made
known his intentions to his cousin, and his Highness was now upon the
point of setting out for Urbino, to perform the comedy of wooing the
Lady Valentina. This was the explanation of that scurrying of
servitors and pages, that parading of men-at-arms, and that stamping
of horses and mules in the quadrangle below. Francesco watched the
scene with a smile of some bitterness, his companion with one of
"Praised be Heaven for having brought his Highness at last to a
sense of his duty," remarked the courtier.
"It has often happened to me," said Francesco, disregarding his
companion's words, "to malign the Fates for having brought me into the
world a count. But in the future I shall give them thanks, for I see
how much worse it might have been--I might have been born a prince,
with a duchy to rule over. I might have been as that poor man, my
cousin, a creature whose life is all pomp and no real dignity, all
merrymaking and no real mirth--loveless, isolated and vain."
"But," cried the amazed Fanfulla, "assuredly there are
"You see that bustle. You know what it portends. What
compensation can there be for that?"
"It is a question you should be the last to ask, my lord. You have
seen the niece of Guidobaldo, and having seen her, can you still ask
what compensation does this marriage offer Gian Maria?"
"Do you, then, not understand?" returned Aquila, with a wan smile.
"Do you not see the tragedy of it? Is it nothing that two States,
having found that this marriage would be mutually advantageous, have
determined that it shall take place? That meanwhile the chief
actors--the victims, I might almost call them--have no opportunity of
selecting for themselves. Gian Maria goes about it resignedly. He
will tell you that he has always known that some day he must wed and
do his best to beget a son. He held out long enough against this
alliance, but now that necessity is driving him at last, he goes about
it much as he would go about any other State affair--a coronation, a
banquet, or a ball. Can you wonder now that I would not accept the
throne of Babbiano when it was offered me? I tell you, Fanfulla, that
were I at present in my cousin's shoes, I would cast crown and purple
at whomsoever had a fancy for them ere they crushed the life out of me
and left me a poor puppet. Sooner than endure that hollow mockery of
a life I would become a peasant or a vassal; I would delve the earth
and lead a humble life, but lead it in my own way, and thank God for
the freedom of it; choose my own comrades; live as I list, where I
list; love as I list, where I list, and die when God pleases with the
knowledge that my life had not been altogether barren. And that poor
girl, Fanfulla! Think of her. She is to be joined in loveless union
to such a gross, unfeeling clod as Gian Maria. Have you no pity for
Fanfulla sighed, his brow clouded.
"I am not so dull but that I can see why you should reason thus
to-day," said he. "These thoughts have come to you since you have
Franceseo sighed deeply.
"Who knows?" he made answer wistfully. "In the few moments that we
talked together, in the little time that I beheld her, it may be that
she dealt me a wound far deeper than the one to which she so
mercifully sought to minister."
Now for all that in what the Lord of Aquila said touching the
projected union there was a deal of justice, yet when he asserted that
the chief actors were to have no opportunity of selecting for
themselves, he said too much. That opportunity they were to have. It
occurred three days later at Urbino, when the Duke and Valentina were
brought together at the banquet of welcome given by Guidobaldo to his
intended nephew-in-law. The sight of her resplendent beauty came as a
joyful shock to Gian Maria, and filled him with as much impatience to
possess her as did his own gross ugliness render him offensive in her
eyes. Averse had she been to this wedding from the moment that it had
been broached to her. The sight of Gian Maria completed her loathing
of the part assigned her, and in her heart she registered a vow that
sooner than become the Duchess of Babbiano, she would return to her
Convent of Santa Sofia and take the veil.
Gian Maria sat beside her at the banquet, and in the intervals of
eating --which absorbed him mightily--he whispered compliments at
which she shuddered and turned pale. The more strenuously did he
strive to please, in his gross and clumsy fashion, the more did he
succeed in repelling and disgusting her, until, in the end, with all
his fatuousness, he came to deem her oddly cold. Of this, anon, he
made complaint to that magnificent prince, her uncle. But Guidobaldo
scoffed at his qualms.
"Do you account my niece a peasant girl?" he asked. "Would you
have her smirk and squirm at every piece of flattery you utter? So
that she weds your Highness what shall the rest signify?"
"I would she loved me a little," complained Gian Maria foolishly.
Guidobaldo looked him over with an eye that smiled inscrutably, and
it may have crossed his mind that this coarse, white-faced Duke was
"I doubt not that she will," he answered, in tones as inscrutable
as his glance. "So that you woo with grace and ardour, what woman
could withstand your Highness? Be not put off by such modesty as
becomes a maid."
Those words of Guidobaldo's breathed new courage into him. Nor
ever after could he think that her coldness was other than a cloak, a
sort of maidenly garment behind which modesty bade her conceal the
inclinations of her heart. Reasoning thus, and having in support of
it his wondrous fatuity, it so befell that the more she shunned and
avoided him, the more did he gather conviction of the intensity of her
affection; the more loathing she betrayed, the more proof did it
afford him of the consuming quality of her passion. In the end, he
went even so far as to applaud and esteem in her this very maidenly
There were hunting-parties, hawking-parties, water-parties,
banquets, comedies, balls, and revels of every description, and for a
week all went well at Urbino. Then, as suddenly as if a cannon had
been fired upon the Palace, the festivities were interrupted. The
news that an envoy of Caesar Borgia's was at Babbiano with a message
from his master came like a cold douche upon Gian Maria. It was borne
to him in a letter from Fabrizio da Lodi, imploring his immediate
return to treat with this plenipotentiary of Valentino's.
No longer did he disregard the peril that threatened him from the
all- conquering Borgia, no longer deem exaggerated by his advisers the
cause for fear. This sudden presence of Valentino's messenger,
coming, too, at a time when it would almost seem as if the impending
union with Urbino had spurred the Borgia to act before the alliance
was established, filled him with apprehension.
In one of the princely chambers that had been set aside for his use
during his visit to Urbino he discussed the tragic news with the two
nobles who had accompanied him--Alvaro de Alvari and Gismondo
Santi--and both of them, whilst urging him to take the advice of Lodi
and return at once, urged him, too, to establish his betrothal ere he
"Bring the matter to an issue at once, your Highness," said Santi,
"and thus you will go back to Babbiano well-armed to meet the Duca
Readily accepting this advice, Gian Maria went in quest of
Guidobaldo, and laid before him his proposals, together with the news
which had arrived and which was the cause of the haste he now
manifested. Guidobaldo listened gravely. In its way the news affected
him as well, for he feared the might of Caesar Borgia as much as any
man in Italy, and he was, by virtue of it, the readier to hasten
forward an alliance which should bring another of the neighbouring
states into the powerful coalition he was forming.
"It shall be as you wish," answered him the gracious Lord of
Urbino, "and the betrothal shall be proclaimed to-day, so that you can
hear news of it to Valentino's messenger. When you have heard this
envoy, deliver him an answer of such defiance or such caution as you
please. Then return in ten days' time to Urbino, and all shall be
ready for the nuptials. But, first of all, go you and tell Monna
Confident of success, Gian Maria obeyed his host, and went in quest
of the lady. He gained her ante-chamber, and thence he despatched an
idling page to request of her the honour of an audience.
As the youth passed through the door that led to the room beyond,
Gian Maria caught for a moment the accents of an exquisite male voice
singing a love-song to the accompaniment of a lute.
"Una donna più bella assai che 'l sole...
came the words of Petrarch, and he heard them still, though
muffled, for a moment or two after the boy had gone. Then it ceased
abruptly, and a pause followed, at the end of which the page returned.
Raising the portière of blue and gold, he invited Gian Maria to
It was a room that spoke with eloquence of the wealth and
refinement of Montefeltro, from the gilding and ultramarine of the
vaulted ceiling with its carved frieze of delicately inlaid woodwork,
to the priceless tapestries beneath it. Above a crimson prie-dieu
hung a silver crucifix, the exquisite workmanship of the famous
Anichino of Ferrara. Yonder stood an inlaid cabinet, surmounted by a
crystal mirror and some wonders of Murano glass. There was a picture
by Mantegna, some costly cameos and delicate enamels, an abundance of
books, a dulcimer which a fair-haired page was examining with
inquisitive eyes, and by a window on the right stood a very handsome
harp that Guidobaldo had bought his niece in Venice.
In that choice apartment of hers the Duke found Valentina
surrounded by her ladies, Peppe the fool, a couple of pages, and a
half-dozen gentlemen of her uncle's court. One of these--that same
Gonzaga who had escorted her from the Convent of Santa Sofia--most
splendidly arrayed in white taby, his vest and doublet rich with gold,
sat upon a low stool, idly fingering the lute in his lap, from which
Gian Maria inferred that his had been the voice that had reached him
in the ante-chamber.
At the Duke's advent they all rose saving Valentina and received
him with a ceremony that somewhat chilled his ardour. He advanced;
then halted clumsily, and in a clumsy manner framed a request that he
might speak with her alone. In a tired, long-suffering way she
dismissed that court of hers, and Gian Maria stood waiting until the
last of them had passed out through the tall windows that abutted on
to a delightful terrace, where, in the midst of a green square, a
marble fountain flashed and glimmered in the sunlight.
"Lady," he said, when they were at last alone, "I have news from
Babbiano that demands my instant return." And he approached her by
In truth he was a dull-witted fellow or else too blinded by fatuity
to see and interpret aright the sudden sparkle in her eye, the sudden,
unmistakable expression of relief that spread itself upon her face.
"My lord," she answered, in a low, collected voice, "we shall
grieve at your departure."
Fool of a Duke that he was! Blind, crass and most fatuous of
wooers! Had he been bred in courts and his ears attuned to words that
meant nothing, that were but the empty echoes of what should have been
meant; was he so new to courtesies in which the heart had no share,
that those words of Valentina's must bring him down upon his knees
beside her, to take her dainty fingers in his fat hands, and to become
transformed into a boorish lover of the most outrageous type?
"Shall you so?" he lisped, his glance growing mighty amorous.
"Shall you indeed grieve?"
She rose abruptly to her feet.
"I beg that your Highness will rise," she enjoined him coldly, a
coldness which changed swiftly to alarm as her endeavours to release
her hand proved vain. For despite her struggles he held on stoutly.
This was mere coyness, he assured himself, mere maidenly artifice
which he must bear with until he had overcome it for all time.
"My lord, I implore you!" she continued. "Bethink you of where you
are-- of who you are."
"Here will I stay until the crack of doom," he answered, with an
odd mixture of humour, ardour and ferocity, "unless you consent to
listen to me."
"I am ready to listen, my lord," she answered, without veiling a
repugnance that he lacked the wit to see. "But it is not necessary
that you should hold my hand, nor fitting that you should kneel."
"Not fitting?" he exclaimed. "Lady, you do not apprehend me
rightly. Is it not fitting that all of us--be we princes or
vassals--shall kneel sometimes?"
"At your prayers, my lord, yes, most fitting."
"And is not a man at his prayers when he woos? What fitter shrine
in all the world than his mistress's feet?"
"Release me," she commanded, still struggling. "Your Highness
grows tiresome and ridiculous."
His great, sensual mouth fell open. His white cheeks grew mottled,
and his little eyes looked up with a mighty evil gleam in their cruel
blue. A moment he stayed so, then he rose up. He released her hands
as she had bidden him, but he clutched her arms instead, which was yet
"Valentina," he said, in a voice that was far from steady, "why do
you use me thus unkindly?"
"But I do not," she protested wearily, drawing back with a shudder
from the white face that was so near her own, inspiring her with a
loathing she could not repress. "I would not have your Highness look
foolish, and you cannot conceive how----"
"Can you conceive how deeply, how passionately I love you?" he
broke in, his grasp tightening.
"My lord, you are hurting me!"
"And are you not hurting me?" he snarled. "What is a pinched arm
when compared with such wounds as your eyes are dealing me? Are you
She had twisted from his grasp, and in a bound she had reached the
window-door through which her attendants had passed.
"Valentina!" he cried, as he sprang after her, and it was more like
the growl of a beast than the cry of a lover. He caught her, and with
scant ceremony he dragged her back into the room.
At this, her latent loathing, contempt and indignation rose up in
arms. Never had she heard tell of a woman of her rank being used in
this fashion. She abhorred him, yet she had spared him the
humiliation of hearing it from her lips, intending to fight for her
liberty with her uncle. But now, since he handled her as though she
had been a serving- wench; since he appeared to know nothing of the
deference due to her, nothing of the delicacies of people well-born
and well-bred, she would endure his odious love-making no further.
Since he elected to pursue his wooing like a clown, the high-spirited
daughter of Urbino promised herself that in like fashion would she
deal with him.
Swinging herself free from his grasp a second time, she caught him
a stinging buffet on the ducal cheek which--so greatly did it take him
by surprise--all but sent him sprawling.
"Madonna!" he panted. "This indignity to me!"
"And what indignities have not I suffered at your hands?" she
retorted, with a fierceness of glance before which he recoiled. And
as she now towered before him, a beautiful embodiment of wrath, he
knew not whether he loved her more than he feared her, yet the desire
to possess her and to tame her was strong within him.
"Am I a baggage of your camps," she questioned furiously, "to be so
handled by you? Do you forget that I am the niece of Guidobaldo, a
lady of the house of Rovere, and that from my cradle I have known
naught but the respect of all men, be they born never so high? That
to such by my birth I have the right? Must I tell you in plain words,
sir, that though born to a throne, your manners are those of a groom?
And must I tell you, ere you will realise it, that no man to whom
with my own lips I have not given the right, shall set hands upon me
as you have done?"
Her eyes flashed, her voice rose, and higher raged the storm; and
Gian Maria was so tossed and shattered by it that he could but humbly
sue for pardon.
"What shall it signify that I am a Duke," he pleaded timidly,
"since I am become a lover? What is a Duke then? He is but a man,
and as the meanest of his subjects his love must take expression. For
what does love know of rank?"
She was moving towards the window again, and for all that he dared
not a second time arrest her by force, he sought by words to do so.
"Madonna," he exclaimed, "I implore you to hear me. In another
hour I shall be in the saddle, on my way to Babbiano."
"That, sir," she answered him, "is the best news I have heard since
your coming." And without waiting for his reply, she stepped through
the open window on to the terrace.
For a second he hesitated, a sense of angry humiliation oppressing
his wits. Then he started to follow her; but as he reached the window
the little crook-backed figure of Ser Peppe stood suddenly before him
with a tinkle of bells, and a mocking grin illumining his face.
"Out of the way, fool," growled the angry Duke. But the odd figure
in its motley of red and black continued where it stood.
"If it is Madonna Valentina you seek," said he, "behold her
And Gian Maria, following the indication of Peppe's lean finger,
saw that she had rejoined her ladies and that thus his opportunity of
speaking with her was at an end. He turned his shoulder upon the
jester, and moved ponderously towards the door by which he had
originally entered the room. It had been well for Ser Peppe had he
let him go. But the fool, who loved his mistress dearly, and had many
of the instincts of the faithful dog, loving where she loved and
hating where she hated, could not repress the desire to send a gibe
after the retreating figure, and inflict another wound in that much
"You find it a hard road to Madonna's heart, Magnificent," he
called after him. "Where your wisdom is blind be aided by the keen
eyes of folly."
The Duke stood still. A man more dignified would have left that
treacherous tongue unheeded. But Dignity and Gian Maria were
strangers. He turned, and eyed the figure that now followed him into
"You have knowledge to sell," he guessed contemptuously.
"Knowledge I have--a vast store--but none for sale, Lord Duke.
Such as imports you I will bestow if you ask me, for no more than the
joy of beholding you smile."
"Say on," the Duke bade him, without relaxing the grimness that
tightened his flabby face.
"It were an easy thing, most High and Mighty, to win the love of
Madonna if----" He paused dramatically.
"Yes, yes. E dunque! If----?"
"If you had the noble countenance, the splendid height, the shapely
limbs, the courtly speech and princely manner of one I wot of."
"Are you deriding me?" the Duke questioned, unbelieving.
"Ah, no, Highness! I do but tell you how it were possible that my
lady might come to love you. Had you those glorious attributes of him
I speak of, and of whom she dreams, it might be easy. But since God
fashioned you such as you are--gross of countenance, fat and stunted
of shape, boorish of----"
With a roar the infuriated Duke was upon him. But the fool, as
nimble of legs as he was of tongue, eluded the vicious grasp of those
fat hands, and leaping through the window, ran to the shelter of his
CHAPTER VII. GONZAGA THE INSIDIOUS
Well indeed had it been for Ser Peppe had he restrained his
malicious mood and curbed the mocking speech that had been as vinegar
to Gian Maria's wounds. For when Gian Maria was sore he was wont to
be vindictive, and on the present occasion he was something even more.
There abode with him the memory of the fool's words, and the
suggestion that in the heart of Valentina was framed the image of some
other man. Now, loving her, in his own coarse way, and as he
understood love, the rejected Duke waxed furiously jealous of this
other at whose existence Peppe had hinted. This unknown stood in his
path to Valentina, and to clear that path it suggested itself to Gian
Maria that the simplest method was to remove the obstacle. But first
he must discover it, and to this he thought, with a grim smile, the
fool might--willy-nilly--help him.
He returned to his own apartments, and whilst the preparations for
his departure were toward, he bade Alvaro summon Martin Armstadt--the
captain of his guard. To the latter his orders were short and secret.
"Take four men," he bade him, "and remain in Urbino after I am
gone. Discover the haunts of Peppe the fool. Seize him, and bring him
after me. See that you do it diligently, and let no suspicion of your
The bravo--he was little better, for all that he commanded the
guards of the Duke of Babbiano--bowed, and answered in his foreign,
guttural voice that his Highness should be obeyed.
Thereafter Gian Maria made shift to depart. He took his leave of
Guidobaldo, promising to return within a few days for the nuptials,
and leaving an impression upon the mind of his host that his interview
with Valentina had been very different from the actual.
It was from Valentina herself that Guidobaldo was to learn, after
Gian Maria's departure, the true nature of that interview, and what
had passed between his niece and his guest. She sought him out in his
closet, whither he had repaired, driven thither by the demon of gout
that already inhabited his body, and was wont to urge him at times to
isolate himself from his court. She found him reclining upon a couch,
seeking distraction in a volume of the prose works of Piccinino. He
was a handsome man, of excellent shape, scarce thirty years of age.
His face was pale, and there were dark circles round his eyes, and
lines of pain about his strong mouth.
He sat up at her advent, and setting his book upon the table beside
him, he listened to her angry complaints.
At first, the courtly Montefeltro inclined to anger upon learning
of the roughness with which Gian Maria had borne himself. But
presently he smiled.
"When all is said, I see in this no great cause for indignation,"
he assured her. "I acknowledge that it may lack the formality that
should attend the addresses of a man in the Duke's position to a lady
in yours. But since he is to wed you, and that soon, why be angered at
that he seeks to pay his court like any other man?"
"I have talked in vain, then," she answered petulantly, "and I am
misunderstood. I do not intend to wed this ducal clod you have chosen
to be my husband."
Guidobaldo stared at her with brows raised, and wonder in his fine
eyes. Then he shrugged his shoulders a trifle wearily. This handsome
and well- beloved Guidobaldo was very much a prince, so schooled to
princely ways as to sometimes forget that he was a man.
"We forgive much to the impetuousness of youth," said he, very
coldly. "But there are bounds to the endurance of every one of us. As
your uncle and your prince, I claim a double duty from you, and you
owe a double allegiance to my wishes. By my twofold authority I have
commanded you to wed with Gian Maria."
The princess in her was all forgotten, and it was just the woman
who answered him, in a voice of protest:
"But, Highness, I do not love him."
A shade of impatience crossed his lofty face.
"I do not remember," he made answer wearily, "that I loved your
aunt. Yet we were wed, and through habit came to love each other and
to be happy together."
"I can understand that Monna Elizabetta should have come to love
you," she returned. "You are not as Gian Maria. You were not fat and
ugly, stupid and cruel, as is he."
It was an appeal that might have won its way to a man's heart
through the ever-ready channel of his vanity. But it did not so with
Guidobaldo. He only shook his head.
"The matter is not one that I will argue. It were unworthy in us
both. Princes, my child, are not as ordinary folk."
"In what are they different?" she flashed back at him. "Do they
not hunger and thirst as ordinary folk? Are they not subject to the
same ills; do they not experience the same joys? Are they not born,
and do they not die, just as ordinary folk? In what, then, lies this
difference that forbids them to mate as ordinary folk?"
Guidobaldo tossed his arms to Heaven, his eyes full of a
consternation that clearly defied utterance. The violence of his
gesture drew a gasp of pain from him. At last, when he had mastered
"They are different," said he, "in that their lives are not their
own to dispose of as they will. They belong to the State which they
were born to govern, and in nothing else does this become of so much
importance as in their mating. It behoves them to contract such
alliances as shall redound to the advantage of their people." A toss
of her auburn head was Valentina's interpolation, but her uncle
continued relentlessly in his cold, formal tones--such tones as those
in which he might have addressed an assembly of his captains:
"In the present instance we are threatened--Babbiano and Urbino--by
a common foe. And whilst divided, neither of us could withstand him,
united, we shall combine to his overthrow. Therefore does this
alliance become necessary--imperative."
I do not apprehend the necessity," she answered, in a voice that
breathed defiance. "If such an alliance as you speak of is desirable,
why may it not be made a purely political one--such a one, for
instance, as now binds Perugia and Camerino to you? What need to
bring me into question?"
"A little knowledge of history would afford you an answer. Such
political alliances are daily made, and daily broken when more profit
offers in another quarter. But cemented by marriage, the tie, whilst
continuing political, becomes also one of blood. In the case of
Urbino and Babbiano it enters also into consideration that I have no
son. It might well be, Valentina," he pursued, with a calculating
coldness that revolted her, "that a son of yours would yet more
strongly link the two duchies. In time both might become united under
him into one great power that might vie successfully with any in
Italy. Now leave me, child. As you see, I am suffering, and when it
is thus with me, and this evil tyrant has me in its clutches, I prefer
to be alone."
There was a pause, and whilst his eyes were upon hers, hers were
upon the ground in avoidance of his glance. A frown marred her white
brow, her lips were set and her hands clenched. Pity for his physical
ills fought a while with pity for her own mental torment. At last she
threw back her beautiful head, and the manner of that action was
instinct with insubordination.
"It grieves me to harass your Highness in such a season," she
assured him, "but I must beg your indulgence. These things may be as
you say. Your plans may be the noblest that were ever conceived, since
to their consummation would be entailed the sacrifice of your own
flesh and blood --in the person of your niece. But I will have no
part in them. It may be that I lack a like nobility of soul; it may
be that I am all unworthy of the high station to which I was born,
through no fault of my own. And so, my lord," she ended, her voice,
her face, her gesture, all imparting an irrevocable finality to her
words, "I will not wed this Duke of Babbiano--no, not to cement
alliances with a hundred duchies."
"Valentina!" he exclaimed, roused out of his wonted calm. "Do you
forget that you are my niece?"
"Since you appear to have forgotten it."
"These woman's whims----" he began, when she interrupted him.
"Perhaps they will serve to remind you that I am a woman, and
perhaps if you remember that, you may consider how very natural it is
that, being a woman, I should refuse to wed for--for political ends."
"To your chamber," he commanded, now thoroughly aroused. "And on
your knees beg Heaven's grace to help you to see your duty, since no
words of mine prevail."
"Oh, that the Duchess were returned from Mantua," she sighed. "The
good Monna Elizabetta might melt you to some pity."
"Monna Elizabetta is too dutiful herself to do aught but urge you
to dutifulness. There, child," he added, in a more wheedling tone,
"set aside this disobedient mood, which is unlike you and becomes you
ill. You shall be wed with a splendour and magnificence that will set
every princess in Italy green with envy. Your dowry is set at fifty
thousand ducats, and Giuliano della Rovere shall pronounce the
benediction. Already I have sent orders to Ferrara, to the
incomparable Anichino, for the majestate girdle; I will send to Venice
for gold leaf and----"
"But do you not heed me that I will not wed?" she broke in with
passionate calm, her face white, her bosom heaving.
He rose, leaning heavily upon a gold-headed cane, and looked at her
a moment without speaking, his brows contracted. Then:
"Your betrothal to Gian Maria is proclaimed," he announced in a
voice cold with finality. "I have passed my word to the Duke, and
your marriage shall take place so soon as he returns. Now go. Such
scenes as these are wearisome to a sick man, and they are
"But, your Highness," she began, an imploring note now taking the
place that lately had been held by defiance.
"Go!" he blazed, stamping his foot, and then to save his
dignity--for he feared that she might still remain--he himself turned
on his heel and passed from the apartment.
Left to herself, she stood there a moment, allowed a sigh to escape
her, and brushed an angry tear from her brown eyes. Then, with a
sudden movement that seemed to imply suppression of her mood, she
walked to the door by which she entered, and left the chamber.
She went down the long gallery, whose walls glowed with the new
frescoes from the wonder-working brush of Andrea Mantegna; she crossed
her ante- chamber and gained the very room where some hours ago she
had received the insult of Gian Maria's odious advances. She passed
through the now empty room, and stepped out on to the terrace that
overlooked the paradise-like gardens of the Palace.
Close by the fountain stood a white marble seat, over which,
earlier that day, one of her women had thrown a cloak of crimson
velvet. There she now sat herself to think out the monstrous
situation that beset her. The air was warm and balmy and heavy with
the scent of flowers from the garden below. The splashing of the
fountain seemed to soothe her, and for a little while her eyes were
upon that gleaming water, which rose high in a crystal column, then
broke and fell, a shower of glittering jewels, into the broad marble
basin. Then, her eyes growing tired, they strayed to the marble
balustrade, where a peacock strode with overweening dignity; they
passed on to the gardens below, gay with early blossoms, in their
stately frames of tall, boxwood hedges, and flanked by myrtles and
tall cypresses standing gaunt and black against the deep saffron of
the vesper sky.
Saving the splashing of the fountain, and the occasional harsh
scream of the peacock, all was at peace, as if by contrast with the
tumult that raged in Valentina's soul. Then another sound broke the
stillness--a soft step, crunching the gravel of the walk. She turned,
and behind her stood the magnificent Gonzaga, a smile that at once
reflected pleasure and surprise upon his handsome face.
"Alone, Madonna?" he said, in accents of mild wonder, his fingers
softly stirring the strings of the lute he carried, and without which
he seldom appeared about the Court.
"As you see," she answered, and her tone was the tone of one whose
thoughts are taken up with other things.
Her glance moved away from him again, and in a moment it seemed as
if she had forgotten his presence, so absorbed grew the expression of
But Gonzaga was not easily discouraged. Patience was the one
virtue that Valentina more than any woman--and there had been many in
his young life --had inculcated into a soul that in the main was
anything but virtuous. He came a step nearer, and leant lightly
against the edge of her seat, his shapely legs crossed, his graceful
body inclining ever so slightly towards her.
"You are pensive, Madonna," he murmured, in his rich, caressing
"Why then," she reproved him, but in a mild tone, "do you intrude
upon my thoughts?"
"Because they seem sad thoughts, Madonna." he answered, glibly,
"and I were a poor friend did I not seek to rouse you out of them."
"You are that, Gonzaga?" she questioned, without looking at him.
"You are my friend?"
He seemed to quiver and then draw himself upright, whilst across
his face there swept a shade of something that may have been good or
bad or partly both. Then he leant down until his head came very near
"Your friend?" quoth he. "Ah, more than your friend. Count me
your very slave, Madonna."
She looked at him now, and in his countenance she saw a reflection
of the ardour that had spoken in his voice. In his eyes there was a
glance of burning intensity. She drew away from him, and at first he
accounted himself repulsed, but pointing to the space she had left:
"Sit here beside me, Gonzaga," she said quietly, and he, scarce
crediting his own good fortune that so much favour should be showered
upon him, obeyed her in a half-timid fashion that was at odd variance
with his late bold words.
He laughed lightly, perhaps to cover the embarrassment that beset
him, and dropping his jewelled cap, he flung one white-cased leg over
the other and took his lute in his lap, his fingers again wandering to
"I have a new song, Madonna," he announced, with a gaiety that was
obviously forced. "It is in ottava rima, a faint echo of the immortal
Niccolo Correggio, composed in honour of one whose description is
beyond the flight of human song."
"Yet you sing of her?"
"It is no better than an acknowledgment of the impossibility to
sing of her. Thus----" And striking a chord or two, he began, a
"Quando sorriderán' in ciel
Gli occhi tuoi ai santi--"
She laid a hand upon his arm to stay him.
"Not now, Gonzaga," she begged, "I am in no humour for your song,
sweet though I doubt not that it be."
A shade of disappointment and ruffled vanity crossed his face.
Women had been wont to listen greedily to his strambotti, enthralled
by the cunning of the words and the seductive sweetness of his voice.
"Ah, never look so glum," she cried, smiling now at his crestfallen
air. "If I have not hearkened now, I will again. Forgive me, good
Gonzaga," she begged him, with a sweetness no man could have resisted.
And then a sigh fluttered from her lips; a sound that was like a sob
came after it, and her hand closed upon his arm.
"They are breaking my heart, my friend. Oh, that you had left me
at peace in the Convent of Santa Sofia!"
He turned to her, all solicitude and gentleness, to inquire the
reason of her outburst.
"It is this odious alliance into which they seek to force me with
that man from Babbiano. I have told Guidobaldo that I will not wed
this Duke. But as profitably might I tell Fate that I will not die.
The one is as unheeding as the other."
Gonzaga sighed profoundly, in sympathy, but said nothing.
Here was a grief to which he could not minister, a grievance that
he could do nothing to remove. She turned from him with a gesture of
"You sigh," she exclaimed, "and you bewail the cruelty of the fate
in store for me. But you can do nothing for me. You are all words,
Gonzaga. You can call yourself more than my friend--my very slave.
Yet, when I need your help, what do you offer me? A sigh!"
"Madonna, you are unjust," he was quick to answer, with some heat.
"I did not dream--I did not dare to dream--that it was my help you
sought. My sympathy, I believed, was all that you invited, and so,
lest I should seem presumptuous, it was all I offered. But if my help
you need; if you seek a means to evade this alliance that you rightly
describe as odious, such help as it lies in a man's power to render
shall you have from me."
He spoke almost fiercely and with a certain grim confidence, for
all that as yet no plan had formed itself in his mind.
Indeed, had a course been clear to him, there had been perhaps less
confidence in his tone, for, after all, he was not by nature a man of
action, and his character was the very reverse of valiant. Yet so
excellent an actor was he as to deceive even himself by his acting,
and in this suggestion of some vague fine deeds that he would do, he
felt himself stirred by a sudden martial ardour, and capable of all.
He was stirred, too, by the passion with which Valentina's beauty
filled him--a passion that went nearer to making a man of him than
Nature had succeeded in doing.
That now, in the hour of her need, she should turn so readily to
him for assistance, he accepted as proof that she was not deaf to the
voice of this great love he bore her, but of which he never yet had
dared to show a sign. The passing jelousy that he had entertained for
that wounded knight they had met at Acquasparta was laid to rest by
her present attitude towards him, the knight, himself forgotten.
As for Valentina, she listened to his ready speech and earnest tone
with growing wonder both at him and at herself. Her own words had
been little more than a petulant outburst. Of actually finding a way
to elude her uncle's wishes she had no thought--unless it lay in
carrying out that threat of hers to take the veil. Now, however, that
Gonzaga spoke so bravely of doing what man could do to help her to
evade that marriage, the thought of active resistance took an inviting
A timid hope--a hope that was afraid of being shattered before it
grew to any strength--peeped now from the wondering eyes she turned on
"Is there a way, Gonzaga?" she asked, after a pause.
Now during that pause his mind had been very busy. Something of a
poet, he was blessed with wits of a certain quickness, and was a man
of very ready fancy. Like an inspiration an idea had come to him; out
of this had sprung another, and yet another, until a chain of events
by which the frustration of the schemes of Babbiano and Urbino might
be accomplished, was complete.
"I think," he said slowly, his eyes upon the ground, "that I know a
Her glance was now eager, her lip tremulous, and her face a little
pale. She leant towards him.
"Tell me," she besought him feverishly.
He set his lute on the seat beside him, and his eyes looked round
in apprehensive survey.
"Not here," he muttered. "There are too many ears in the Palace of
Urbino. Will it please you to walk in the gardens? I will tell you
They rose together, so ready was her assent. They looked at each
other for a second. Then, side by side, they passed down the wide
marble steps that led from the terrace to the box-flanked walks of the
gardens. Here, among the lengthening shadows, they paced in silence
for a while, what time Gonzaga sought for words in which to propound
his plan. At length, grown impatient, Valentina urged him with a
"What I counsel, Madonna," he answered her, "is open defiance."
"Such a course I am already pursuing. But whither will it lead
"I do not mean the mere defiance of words--mere protestations that
you will not wed Gian Maria. Listen, Madonna! The Castle of
Roccaleone is your property. It is perhaps the stoutest fortress in
all Italy, to-day. Lightly garrisoned and well-provisioned it might
withstand a year's siege."
She turned to him, having guessed already the proposal in his mind,
and for all that at first her eyes looked startled, yet presently they
kindled to a light of daring that augured well for a very stout
adventure. It was a wildly romantic notion, this of Gonzaga's, worthy
of a poet's perfervid brain, and yet it attracted her by its
"Could it be done?" she wondered, her eyes sparkling at the
anticipation of such a deed.
"It could, indeed it could," he answered, with an eagerness no whit
less than her own. "Immure yourself in Roccaleone, and thence hurl
defiance at Urbino and Babbiano, refusing to surrender until they
grant your terms--that you are to marry as you list."
"And you will help me in this?" she questioned, her mind--in its
innocence--inclining more and more to the mad project.
"With all my strength and wit," he answered, readily and gallantly.
"I will so victual the place that it shall be able to stand siege for
a whole year, should the need arise, and I will find you the men to
arm it --a score will, I should think, be ample for our needs, since
it is mainly upon the natural strength of the place that we rely."
"And then," said she, "I shall need a captain."
Gonzaga made her a low bow.
"If you will honour me with the office, Madonna, I shall serve you
loyally whilst I have life."
A smile quivered for a second on her lips, but was gone ere the
courtier had straightened himself from his bow, for far was it from
her wishes to wound his spirit. But the notion of this scented fop in
the role of captain, ruling a handful of rough mercenaries, and
directing the operations for the resistance of an assiduous siege,
touched her with its ludicrous note. Yet, if she refused him this, it
was more than likely he would deem himself offended, and refuse to
advance their plans. It crossed her mind--in the full confidence of
youth--that if he should fail her when the hour of action came, she
was of stout enough heart to aid herself. And so she consented,
whereat again he bowed, this time in gratitude. And then a sudden
thought occurred to her, and with it came dismay.
"But for all this, Gonzaga--for the men and the victualling--money
will be needed."
"If you will let my friendship be proven also in that----" he
But she interrupted him, struck suddenly with a solution to the
"No, no!" she exclaimed. His face fell a little. He had hoped to
place her in his debt in every possible way, yet here was one in which
she raised a barrier. Upon her head she wore a fret of gold, so
richly laced with pearls as to be worth a prince's ransom. This she
now made haste to unfasten with fingers that excitement set a-tremble.
"There!" she cried, holding it out to him. "Turn that to money, my
friend. It should yield you ducats enough for this enterprise."
It next occurred to her that she could not go alone into that
castle with just Gonzaga and the men he was about to enrol. His
answer came with a promptness that showed he had considered, also,
"By no means," he answered her. "When the time comes you must
select such of your ladies--say three or four--as appear suitable and
have your trust. You may take a priest as well, a page or two, and a
Thus, in the gloaming, amid the shadows of that old Italian garden,
was the plot laid by which Valentina was to escape alliance with his
Highness of Babbiano. But there was more than that in it, although
that was all that Valentina saw. It was, too, a plot by which she
might become the wife of Messer Romeo Gonzaga.
He was an exiled member of that famous Mantua family, which has
bred some scoundrels and one saint. With the money which, at parting,
a doting mother had bestowed upon him, he was cutting a brave figure
at the Urbino court, where he was tolerated by virtue of his kinship
with Guidobaldo's Duchess, Monna Elizabetta. But his means were
running low, and it behoved him to turn his attention to such quarters
as might yield him profit. Being poor-spirited, and--since his tastes
had not inclined that way--untrained in arms, it would have been
futile for him to have sought the career common to adventurers of his
age. Yet an adventurer at heart he was, and since the fields of Mars
were little suited to his nature, he had long pondered upon the
possibilities afforded him by the lists of Cupid. Guidobaldo--purely
out of consideration for Monna Elizabetta--had shown him a high degree
of favour, and upon this he had been vain enough to found great
hopes--for Guidobaldo had two nieces. High had these hopes run when
he was chosen to escort the lovely Valentina della Rovere from the
Convent of Santa Sofia to her uncle's court. But of late they had
withered, since he had learnt what were her uncle's plans for this
lady's future. And now, by her own action, and by the plot into which
she had entered with him, they rose once more.
To thwart Guidobaldo might prove a dangerous thing, and his life
might pay the forfeit if his schemes miscarried--clement and merciful
though Guidobaldo was. But if they succeeded, and if by love or by
force he could bring Valentina to wed him, he was tolerably confident
that Guidobaldo, seeing matters had gone too far--since Gian Maria
would certainly refuse to wed Gonzaga's widow--would let them be. To
this end no plan could be more propitious than that into which he had
lured her. Guidobaldo might besiege them in Roccaleone and might
eventually reduce them by force of arms--a circumstance, however,
which, despite his words, he deemed extremely remote. But if only he
could wed Valentina before they capitulated, he thought that he would
have little cause to fear any consequences of Guidobaldo's wrath.
After all, in so far as birth and family were concerned, Romeo
Gonzaga was nowise the inferior of his Highness of Urbino. Guidobaldo
had yet another niece, and he might cement with her the desired
alliance with Babbiano.
Alone in the gardens of the Palace, Gonzaga paced after night had
fallen, and with his eyes to the stars that began to fleck the violet
sky, he smiled a smile of cunning gratification. He bethought him how
well advised had been his suggestion that they should take a priest to
Roccaleone. Unless his prophetic sense led him deeply into error,
they would find work for that priest before the castle was
CHAPTER VIII. AMONG THE DREGS OF WINE
And so it befell that whilst by Guidobaldo's orders the
preparations for Valentina's nuptials went forward with feverish
haste--whilst painters, carvers, and artificers in gold and silver
applied themselves to their hurried tasks; whilst messengers raced to
Venice for gold leaf and ultramarine for the wedding-chests whilst the
nuptial bed was being brought from Rome and the chariot from Ferrara;
whilst costly stuffs were being collected, and the wedding-garments
fashioned--the magnificent Romeo Gonzaga was, on his side, as
diligently contriving to render vain all that toil of preparation.
On the evening of the third day of his conspiring he sat in the
room allotted to him in the Palace of Urbino, and matured his plans.
And so well pleased was he with his self-communion that, as he sat at
his window, there was a contented smile upon his lips.
He allowed his glance to stray adown the slopes of that arid waste
of rocks, to the River Metauro, winding its way to the sea, through
fertile plains, and gleaming here silver and yonder gold in the
evening light. Not quite so complacently would he have smiled had he
deemed the enterprise upon which he was engaging to be of that warlike
character which he had represented to Valentina. He did not want for
cunning, nor for judgment of the working of human minds, and he very
reasonably opined that once the Lady Valentina immured herself in
Roccaleone and sent word to her uncle that she would not wed Gian
Maria, nor return to the Court of Urbino until he passed her his ducal
word that she should hear no more of the union, the Duke would be the
first to capitulate.
He contended that this might not happen at once--nor did he wish it
to; messages would pass, and Guidobaldo would seek by cajolery to win
back his niece. This she would resist, and, in the end her uncle
would see the impassable nature of the situation, and agree to her
terms that it might be ended. That it should come to arms, and that
Guidobaldo should move to besiege Roccaleone, he did not for a moment
believe--for what manner of ridicule would he not draw upon himself
from the neighbouring States? At the worst, even if a siege there
was, it would never be carried out with the rigour of ordinary
warfare; there would be no assaults, no bombarding; it would be a
simple investment, with the object of intercepting resources, so as to
starve the garrison into submission-- for they would never dream of
such victualling as Gonzaga was preparing.
Thus communed Gonzaga with himself, and the smile enlivening the
corners of his weak mouth grew more thoughtful. He dreamed great
dreams that evening; he had wondrous visions of a future princely
power that should come to be his own by virtue of this alliance that
he was so skilfully encompassing--a fool in a fool's paradise, with
his folly for only company.
But for all that, his dreams were wondrous sweet to indulge and his
visions truly alluring to contemplate. There were plans to be formed
and means to be devised for the flight to Roccaleone. There were
calculations to be made; the estimating of victuals, arms, and men;
and once these calculations were complete, there were all these things
to be obtained. The victuals he had already provided for, whilst of
arms he had no need to think; Roccaleone should be well stocked with
them. But the finding of the men gave him some concern. He had
decided to enrol a score, which was surely the smallest number with
which he could make a fair show of being martially in earnest. But
even though the number was modest, where was he to find twenty fellows
who reeked so little of their lives as to embark upon such an
enterprise--even if lured by generous pay--and thereby incur the ducal
displeasure of Guidobaido?
He dressed himself with sober rigour for once in his foppish life,
and descended, after night had fallen, to a tavern in a poor street
behind the Duomo, hoping that there, among the dregs of wine, he might
find what he required.
By great good fortune he chanced upon an old freebooting captain,
who once had been a meaner sort of condottiero, but who was sorely
reduced by bad fortune and bad wine.
The tavern was a dingy, cut-throat place, which the delicate
Gonzaga had not entered without a tremor, invoking the saints'
protection, and crossing himself ere he set foot across the threshold.
Some pieces of goat were being cooked on the embers, in a great
fireplace at the end of the room farthest from the door. Before this,
Ser Luciano--the taverner --squatted on his heels and fanned so
diligently that a cloud of ashes rose ceiling high and spread itself,
together with the noisome smoke, throughout the squalid chamber. A
brass lamp swung from the ceiling, and shone freely through that
smoke, as shines the moon through an evening mist. So foully stank
the place that at first Gonzaga was moved to get him thence. Only the
reflection that nowhere in Urbino was he as likely as here to find the
thing he sought, impelled him to stifle his natural squeamishness and
remain. He slipped upon some grease, and barely saved himself from
measuring his length upon that filthy floor, a matter which provoked a
malicious guffaw from a tattered giant who watched with interest his
Perspiring, and with nerves unstrung, the courtier picked his way
to a table by the wall, and seated himself upon the coarse deal bench
before it, praying that he might be left its sole occupant.
On the opposite wall hung a blackened crucifix and a small
holy-water stoup that had been dry for a generation, and was now a
receptacle for dust and a withered sprig of rosemary. Immediately
beneath this--in the company of a couple of tatterdemalions worthy of
him--sat the giant who had mocked his escape from falling, and as
Gonzaga took his seat he heard the fellow's voice, guttural,
bottle-thickened and contentious.
"And this wine, Luciano? Sangue della Madonna! Will you bring it
before dropping dead, pig?"
Gonzaga shuddered and would have crossed himself again for
protection against what seemed a very devil incarnate, but that the
ruffian's blood- shot eye was set upon him in a stony stare.
"I come, cavaliere, I come," cried the timid host, leaping to his
feet, and leaving the goat to burn while he ministered to the giant's
The title caused Gonzaga to start, and he bent his eyes again on
the man's face. He found it villainous of expression, inflamed and
blotched; the hair hung matted about a bullet head, and the eyes
glared fiercely from either side of a pendulous nose. Of the knightly
rank by which the taverner addressed him the fellow bore no outward
signs. Arms he carried, it is true; a sword and dagger at his belt,
whilst beside him on the table stood a rusty steel-cap. But these
warlike tools served only to give him the appearance of a roving
masnadiero or a cut-throat for hire. Presently abandoning the
comtemplation of Gonzaga he turned to his companions, and across to
the listener floated a coarse and boasting tale of a plunderous
warfare in Sicily ten years agone. Gonzaga became excited. It seemed
indeed as if this were man who might be useful to him. He made
pretence to sip the wine Luciano had brought him, and listened avidly
to that swashbuckling story, from which it appeared that this knave
had once been better circumstanced and something of a leader. Intently
he listened, and wondered whether such men as he boasted he had led in
that campaign were still to be found and could be brought together.
At the end of perhaps a half-hour the two companions of that
thirsty giant rose and took their leave of him. They cast a passing
glance upon Gonzaga, and were gone.
A little while he hesitated. The ruffian seemed to have lapsed
into a reverie, or else he slept with open eyes. Calling up his
courage the gallant rose at last and moved across the room. All
unversed in tavern ways was the magnificent Gonzaga, and he who at
court, in ballroom or in antechamber, was a very mirror of all the
graces of a courtier, felt awkward here and ill at ease.
At length, summoning his wits to his aid:
"Good sir," said he, with some timidity, "will you do me the honour
to share a flagon with me?
The ruffian's eye, which but a moment back had looked vacuous and
melancholy, now quickened until it seemed ablaze. He raised his
bloodshot orbs and boldly encountered Gonzaga's uneasy glance. His
lips fell apart with an anticipatory smack, his back stiffened, and
his head was raised until his chin took on so haughty a tilt that
Gonzaga feared his proffered hospitality was on the point of suffering
a scornful rejection.
"Will I share a flagon?" gasped the fellow, as, being the sinner
that he was and knew himself to be, he might have gasped: "Will I go
to Heaven?" "Will I--will I----?" He paused, and pursed his lips.
His eyebrows were puckered and his expression grew mighty cunning as
again he took stock of this pretty fellow who offered flagons of wine
to down-at-heel adventurers like himself. He had all but asked what
was to be required of him in exchange for this, when suddenly he
bethought him--with the knavish philosophy adversity had taught
him--that were he told for what it was intended that the wine should
bribe him, and did the business suit him not, he should, in the
confession of it, lose the wine; whilst did he but hold his peace
until he had drunk, it would be his thereafter to please himself about
the business when it came to be proposed.
He composed his rugged features into the rude semblance of a smile.
"Sweet young sir," he murmured, "sweet, gentle and most illustrious
lord, I would share a hogshead with such a nobleman as you."
"I am to take it that you will drink?" quoth Gonzaga, who had
scarce known what to make of the man's last words.
"Body of Bacchus! Yes. I'll drink with you gentile signorino,
until your purse be empty or the world run dry." And he leered a
mixture of mockery and satisfaction.
Gonzaga, still half uncertain of his ground, called the taverner
and bade him bring a flagon of his best. While Luciano was about the
fetching of the wine, constraint sat upon that oddly discordant pair.
"It is a chill night," commented Gonzaga presently, seating himself
opposite his swashbuckler.
"Young sir, your wits have lost their edge. The night is warm.
"I said," spluttered Gonzaga, who was unused to contradiction from
his inferiors, and wished now to assert himself, "that the night is
"You lied, then," returned the other, with a fresh leer, "for, as I
answered you, the night is warm. Piaghe di Cristo! I am an ill man
to contradict, my pretty gallant, and if I say the night is warm, warm
it shall be though there be snow on Mount Vesuvius."
The courtier turned pink at that, and but for the arrival of the
taverner with the wine, it is possible he might have done an
unconscionable rashness. At sight of the red liquor the fury died out
of the ruffler's face.
"A long life, a long thirst, a long purse, and a short memory!" was
his toast, into whose cryptic meaning Gonzaga made no attempt to pry.
As the fellow set down his cup, and with his sleeve removed the
moisture from his unshorn mouth, "May I not learn," he inquired,
"whose hospitality I have the honour of enjoying?"
"Heard you ever of Romeo Gonzaga?"
"Of Gonzaga, yes; though of Romeo Gonzaga never. Are you he?"
Gonzaga bowed his head.
"A noble family yours," returned the swashbuckler, in a tone that
implied his own to be as good. "Let me name myself to you. I am
Ercole Fortemani," he said, with the proud air of one who announced
himself an emperor.
"A formidable name," said Gonzaga, in accents of surprise, "and it
bears a noble sound."
The great fellow turned on him in a sudden anger.
"Why that astonishment?" he blazed. "I tell you my name is both
noble and formidable, and you shall find me as formidable as I am
noble. Diavolo! Seems it incredible?"
"Said I so?" protested Gonzaga.
"You had been dead by now if you had, Messer Gonzaga. But you
thought so, and I may take leave to show you how bold a man it needs
to think so without suffering."
Ruffled as a turkey-cock, wounded in his pride and in his vanity,
Ercole hastened to enlighten Gonzaga on his personality.
"Learn, sir," he announced, "that I am Captain Ercole Fortemani. I
held that rank in the army of the Pope. I have served the Pisans and
the noble Baglioni of Perugia with honour and distinction. I have
commanded a hundred lances of Gianinoni's famous free-company. I have
fought with the French against the Spaniards, and with the Spaniards
against the French, and I have served the Borgia, who is plotting
against both. I have trailed a pike in the emperor's following, and I
have held the rank of captain, too, in the army of the King of Naples.
Now, young sir, you have learned something of me, and if my name is
not written in letters of fire from one end of Italy to the other, it
is--Body of God!--because the hands that hired me to the work garnered
the glory of my deeds."
"A noble record," said Gonzaga, who had credulously absorbed that
catalogue of lies, "a very noble record."
"Not so," the other contradicted, for the lust of contradiction
that was a part of him. "A great record, if you will, to commend me
to hireling service. But you may not call the service of a hireling
"It is a matter we will not quarrel over," said Gonzaga soothingly.
The man's ferocity was terrific.
"Who says that we shall not?" he demanded. "Who will baulk me if I
have a mind to quarrel over it? Answer me!" and he half rose from his
seat, moved by the anger into which he was lashing himself. "But
patience!" he broke off, subsiding on a sudden. "I take it, it was
not out of regard for my fine eyes, nor drawn by the elegance of my
apparel"--and he raised a corner of his tattered cloak--" nor yet
because you wish to throw a main with me, that you have sought my
acquaintance, and called for this wine. You require service of me?"
"You have guessed it."
"A prodigious discernment, by the Host!" He seemed to incline
rather tediously to irony. Then his face grew stern, and he lowered
his voice until it was no more than a growling whisper. "Heed me,
Messer Gonzaga. If the service you require be the slitting of a gullet
or some kindred foul business, which my seeming neediness leads you to
suppose me ripe for, let me counsel you, as you value your own skin,
to leave the service unmentioned, and get you gone."
In hasty, frantic, fearful protest were Gonzaga's hands outspread.
"Sir, sir--I--I could not have thought it of you," he spluttered,
with warmth, much of which was genuine, for it rejoiced him to see
some scruples still shining in the foul heap of this man's rascally
existence. A knave whose knavery knew no limits would hardly have
suited his ends. "I do need a service, but it is no dark-corner work.
It is a considerable enterprise, and one in which, I think, you
should prove the very man I need."
"Let me know more," quoth Ercole grandiloquently.
"I need first your word that should the undertaking prove unsuited
to you, or beyond you, you will respect the matter, and keep it
"Body of Satan! No corpse was ever half so dumb as I shall be."
"Excellent! Can you find me a score of stout fellows to form a
bodyguard and a garrison, who, in return for good quarters--perchance
for some weeks--and payment at four times the ordinary mercenaries'
rate, will be willing to take some risk, and chance even a brush with
the Duke's forces?"
Ercole blew out his mottled cheeks until Gonzaga feared that he
would burst them.
"It's outlawry!" he roared, when he had found his voice.
"Outlawry, or I'm a fool."
"Why, yes," confessed Gonzaga. "It is outlaw matter of a kind.
But the risk is slender."
"Can you tell me no more?"
"I dare not."
Ercole emptied his wine-cup at a draught and splashed the dregs on
to the floor. Then, setting down the empty vessel, he sat steeped in
thought awhile. Growing impatient:
"Well," cried Gonzaga at last, "can you help me? Can you find the
"If you were to tell me more of the nature of this service you
require, I might find a hundred with ease."
"As I have said--I need but a score."
Ercole looked mighty grave, and thoughtfully rubbed his long nose.
"It might be done," said he, after a pause. "But we shall have to
look for desperate knaves; men who are already under a ban, and to
whom it will matter little to have another item added to their
indebtedness to the law should they fall into its talons. How soon
shall you require this forlorn company?"
"By to-morrow night."
"I wonder----" mused Ercole. He was counting on his fingers, and
appeared to have lapsed into mental calculations. "I could get
half-a- score or a dozen within a couple of hours. But a score----"
Again he paused, and again he fell to thinking. At last, more
briskly: "Let us hear what pay you offer me, to thrust myself thus
blindfolded into this business of yours as leader of the company you
require?" he asked suddenly.
Gonzaga's face fell at that. Then he suddenly stiffened, and put
on an expression of haughtiness.
"It is my intent to lead this company myself," he loftily informed
"Body of God!" gasped Ercole, upon whose mind intruded a grotesque
picture of such a company as he would assemble, being led by this
mincing carpet-knight. Then recollecting himself: "If that be so,"
said he, "you had best, yourself, enrol it. Felicissima notte!" And
he waved him a farewell across the table.
Here was a poser for Gonzaga. How was he to go about such a
business as that? It was beyond his powers. Thus much he protested
"Now attend to me, young sir," was the other's answer. "The matter
stands thus: If I can repair to certain friends of mine with the
information that an affair is afoot, the particulars of which I may
not give them, but in which I am to lead them myself, sharing such
risk as there may be, I do not doubt but that by this time to-morrow I
can have a score of them enrolled--such is their confidence in Ercole
Fortemani. But if I take them to enter a service unknown, under a
leader equally unknown, the forming of such a company would be a
mighty tedious matter."
This was an argument to the force of which Gonzaga could not remain
insensible. After a moment's consideration, he offered Ercole fifty
gold florins in earnest of good faith and the promise of pay,
thereafter, at the rate of twenty gold florins a month for as long as
he should need his services and Ercole, who in all his free-lancing
days had never earned the tenth of such a sum, was ready to fall upon
this most noble gentleman's neck, and weep for very joy and brotherly
The matter being settled, Gonzaga produced a heavy bag which gave
forth a jangle mighty pleasant to the ears of Fortemani, and let it
drop with a chink upon the table.
"There are a hundred florins for the equipment of this company. I
do not wish to have a regiment of out-at-elbow tatterdemalions at my
heels." And his eye swept in an uncomplimentary manner over Ercole's
apparel. "See that you dress them fittingly."
"It shall be done, Magnificent," answered Ercole, with a show of
such respect as he had not hitherto manifested. "And arms?"
"Give them pikes and arquebuses, if you will; but nothing more.
The place we are bound for is well stocked with armour--but even that
may not be required."
"May not be required?" echoed the more and more astonished
swashbuckler. Were they to be paid on so lordly a scale, clothed and
fed, to induce them upon a business that might carry no fighting with
it? Surely he had never sold himself into a more likely or promising
service, and that night he dreamt in his sleep that he was become a
gentleman's steward, and that at his heels marched an endless company
of lacqueys in flamboyant liveries. On the morrow he awoke to the
persuasion that at last, of a truth, was his fortune made, and that
hereafter there would be no more piketrailing for his war-worn old
Conscientiously he set about enrolling the company, for, in his
way, this Ercole Fortemani was a conscientious man--boisterous and
unruly if you will; a rogue, in his way, with scant respect for
property; not above cogging dice or even filching a purse upon
occasion when hard driven by necessity--for all that he was gently
born and had held honourable employment; a drunkard by long habit, and
a swaggering brawler upon the merest provocation. But for all that,
riotous and dishonest though he might be in the general commerce of
life, yet to the hand that hired him he strove--not always
successfully, perhaps, but, at least, always earnestly--to be loyal.
CHAPTER IX. THE "TRATTA DI CORDE"
Whilst the bustle of preparation went on briskly in Urbino, Gian
Maria, on his side, was rapidly disposing of affairs in Babbiano, that
he might return to the nuptials for which he was impatient. But he
had chanced upon a deeper tangle than he had reckoned with, and more
to do than he had looked for.
On the day of his departure from Urbino, he had ridden as far as
Cagli, and halted at the house of the noble Messer Valdicampo. This
had been placed at his disposal, and there he proposed to lie the
night. They had supped--the Duke, de' Alvari, Gismondo Santi, Messér
Valdicampo, his wife and two daughters, and a couple of friends,
potential citizens of Cagli, whom he had invited, that they might
witness the honour that was being done his house. It waxed late, and
the torpor that ensues upon the generous gratification of appetite was
settling upon the company when Armstadt--Gian Maria's Swiss
captain--entered and approached his master with the air of a man who
is the bearer of news. He halted a pace or two from the Duke's
high-backed chair, and stood eyeing Gian Maria in stupid patience.
"Well, fool?" growled the Duke, turning his head.
The Swiss approached another step. "They have brought him,
Highness," he said in a confidential whisper.
"Am I a wizard that I must read your thoughts?" hectored Gian
Maria. "Who has brought whom?"
Armstadt eyed the company in hesitation. Then, stepping close to
the Duke, he murmured in his ear:
"The men I left behind have brought the fool--Ser Peppe."
A sudden brightening of the eye showed that Gian Maria understood.
Without apology to the board, he turned and whispered back to his
captain to have the fellow taken to his chamber, there to await him.
"Let a couple of your knaves be in attendance, and do you come too,
Martin bowed, and withdrew, whereupon Gian Maria found grace to
crave his host's pardon, with the explanation that the man had brought
him news he had been expecting. Valdicampo, who for the honour of
having a Duke sleep beneath his roof would have stomached
improprieties far more flagrant, belittled the matter and dismissed
it. And presently Gian Maria rose with the announcement that he had
far to journey on the morrow, and so, with his host's good leave,
would be abed.
Valdicampo, himself, then played the part of chamberlain, and
taking up one of the large candle branches, he lighted the Duke to his
apartments. He would have carried his good offices, and his candles,
as far as Gian Maria's very bed-chamber, but that in the ante-room his
Highness, as politely as might be, bade him set down the lights and
The Duke remained standing for a moment, deliberating whether to
afford knowledge to Alvari and Santi--who had followed him and stood
awaiting his commands--of what he was about to do. In the end he
decided that he would act alone and upon his sole discretion. So he
When they had gone and he was quite alone, he clapped his hands
together, and in answer to that summons the door of his bedroom
opened, revealing Martin Armstadt on the threshold.
"He is there?" inquired the Duke.
"Awaiting your Highness," answered the Swiss, and he held the door
for Gian Maria to enter.
The bedchamber apportioned the Duke in the Palazzo Valdicampo was a
noble and lofty room, in the midst of which loomed the great carved
bed of honour, with its upright pillars and funereal canopy.
On the overmantel stood two five-armed sconces with lighted tapers.
Yet Gian Maria did not seem to deem that there was light enough for
such purpose as he entertained, for he bade Martin fetch him the
candelabra that had been left behind. Then he turned his attention to
the group standing by the window, where the light from the overmantel
fell full upon it.
This consisted of three men, two being mercenaries of Armstadt's
guard, in corselet and morion, and the third, who stood captive
between, the unfortunate Ser Peppe. The fool's face was paler than
its wont, whilst the usual roguery had passed from his eyes and his
mouth, fear having taken possession of its room. He met the Duke's
cruel glance with one of alarm and piteous entreaty.
Having assured himself that Peppe had no weapons, and that his arms
were pinioned behind him, Gian Maria bade the two guards withdraw, but
hold themselves in readiness in the ante-chamber with Armstadt. Then
he turned to Peppe with a scowl on his low brow.
"You are not so merry as you were this morning, fool," he scoffed.
Peppino squirmed a little, but his nature, schooled by the long
habit of jest, prompted a bold whimsicality in his reply.
"The circumstances are scarcely as propitious--to me. Your
Highness, though, seems in excellent goodhumour."
Gian Maria looked at him angrily a moment. He was a slow-witted
man, and he could devise no ready answer, no such cutting gibe as it
would have pleasured him to administer. He walked leisurely to the
fire-place, and leant his elbow on the overmantel.
"Your humour led you into saying some things for which I should be
merciful if I had you whipped."
"And, by the same reasoning, charitable if you had me hanged,"
returned the fool dryly, a pale smile on his lips.
"Ah! You acknowledge it?" cried Gian Maria, never seeing the irony
intended. "But I am a very clement prince, fool."
"Proverbially clement," the jester protested, but he did not
succeed this time in excluding the sarcasm from his voice.
Gian Maria shot him a furious glance.
"Are you mocking me, animal? Keep your venomous tongue in bounds,
or I'll have you deprived of it."
Peppe's face turned grey at the threat, as well it might--for what
should such a one as he do in the world without a tongue?
Seeing him dumb and stricken, the Duke continued:
"Now, for all that you deserve a hanging for your insolence, I am
willing that you should come by no hurt so that you answer truthfully
such questions as I have for you."
Peppino's grotesque figure was doubled in a bow.
"I await your questions, glorious lord," he answered.
"You spoke----" the Duke hesitated a moment, writhing inwardly at
the memory of the exact words in which the fool had spoken. "You
spoke this morning of one whom the Lady Valentina had met."
The fear seemed to increase on the jester's face. "Yes," he
answered, in a choking voice.
"Where did she meet this knight you spoke of, and in such wondrous
words of praise described to me?"
"In the woods at Acquasparta, where the river Metauro is no better
than a brook. Some two leagues this side of Sant' Angelo."
"Sant' Angelo!" echoed Gian Maria, starting at the very mention of
the place where the late conspiracy against him had been hatched.
"And when was this?"
"On the Wednesday before Easter, as Monna Valentina was journeying
from Santa Sofia to Urbino."
No word spake the Duke in answer. He stood still, his head bowed,
and his thoughts running again on that conspiracy. The mountain fight
in which Masuccio had been killed had taken place on the Tuesday
night, and the conviction--scant though the evidence might be--grew
upon him that this man was one of the conspirators who had escaped.
"How came your lady to speak with this man--was he known to her?"
he inquired at last.
"No, Highness; but he was wounded, and so aroused her compassion.
She sought to minister to his hurt."
"Wounded?" cried Gian Maria, in a shout. "Now, by God, it is as I
suspected. I'll swear he got that wound the night before at Sant'
Angelo. What was his name, fool? Tell me that, and you shall go
For just a second the hunchback seemed to hesitate. He stood in
awesome fear of Gian Maria, of whose cruelties some ghastly tales were
told. But in greater fear he stood of the eternal damnation he might
earn did he break the oath he had plighted not to divulge that
"Alas!" he sighed, "I would it might be mine to earn my freedom at
so light a price; yet it is one that ignorance will not let me pay. I
do not know his name."
The Duke looked at him searchingly and suspiciously.
Dull though he was by nature, eagerness seemed now to have set a
cunning edge upon his wits, and suspicion had led him to observe the
fool's momentary hesitation.
"Of what appearance was he? Describe him to me. How was he
dressed? What was the manner of his face?"
"Again, Lord Duke, I cannot answer you. I had but the most
fleeting glimpse of him."
The Duke's sallow countenance grew very evil-looking, and an ugly
smile twisted his lip and laid bare his strong white teeth.
"So fleeting that no memory of him is left you?" quoth he.
"You lie, you filth," Gian Maria thundered in a towering rage. "It
was but this morning that you said his height was splendid, his
countenance noble, his manner princely, his speech courtly, and--I
know not what besides. Yet now you tell me--you tell me--that your
glimpse of him was so fleeting that you cannot describe him. You know
his name, rogue, and I will have it from you, or else----"
"Indeed, indeed, most noble lord, be not incensed----" the fool
began, in fearful protestation. But the Duke interrupted him.
"Incensed?" he echoed, his eyes dilating in a sort of horror at the
notion. "Do you dare impute to me the mortal sin of choler? I am not
incensed; there is no anger in me." He crossed himself, as if to
exorcise the evil mood if it indeed existed, and devotedly bowing his
head and folding his hands--"Libera me a malo, Domine!" he murmured
audibly. Then, with a greater fierceness than before--"Now," he
demanded, "will you tell me his name?"
"I would I could," the terrified hunchback began. But at that the
Duke turned from him with a shrug of angry impatience, and clapping
his hands together:
"Olá! Martino!" he called. Instantly the door opened, and the
Swiss appeared. "Bring in your men and your rope."
The captain turned on his heel, and simultaneously the fool cast
himself at Gian Maria's feet.
"Mercy, your Highness!" he wailed. "Do not have me hanged. I
"We are not going to hang you," the Duke broke in coldly. "Dead
you would indeed be dumb, and avail us nothing. We want you alive,
Messer Peppino--alive and talkative; we find you very reserved for a
fool. But we hope to make you speak."
On his knees, Peppe raised his wild eyes to Heaven.
"Mother of the Afflicted," he prayed, at which the Duke broke into
a contemptuous laugh.
"What has the Heavenly Mother to do with such filth as you? Make
your appeals to me. I am the more immediate arbiter of your fate.
Tell me the name of that man you met in the woods, and all may yet be
well with you."
Peppino knelt in silence, a cold sweat gathering on his pale brow,
and a horrid fear tightening at his heart and throat.
And yet greater than this horror they were preparing for him was
the horror of losing his immortal soul by a breach of the solemn oath
he had sworn. Gian Maria turned from him, at last, to his bravi, who
now entered silently and with the air of men who knew the work
expected of them. Martino mounted the bed, and swung for an instant
from the framework of the canopy.
"It will hold, Highness," he announced.
Gian Maria bade him, since that was so, remove the velvet hangings,
whilst he despatched one of the men to see that the ante-chamber door
was closed, so that no cry should penetrate to the apartments of the
In a few seconds all was ready, and Peppino was rudely lifted from
his knees and from the prayers he had been pattering to the Virgin to
lend him strength in this hour of need.
"For the last time, sir fool," quoth the Duke, "will you tell us
"Highness, I cannot," answered Peppe, for all that terror was
freezing his very blood.
A light of satisfaction gleamed now in Gian Maria's eyes.
"So you know it!" he exclaimed. "You no longer protest your
ignorance, but only that you cannot tell me. Up with him, Martino."
In a last pitiable struggle against the inevitable, the fool broke
from his guards, and flung himself towards the door. One of the burly
Swiss caught him by the neck in a grip that made him cry out with
pain. Gian Maria eyed him with a sinister smile, and Martin proceeded
to fasten one end of the rope to his pinioned wrists. Then they led
him, shivering to the great bed. The other end of the cord was passed
over one of the bared arms of the canopy-frame. This end was grasped
by the two men-at- arms. Martin stood beside the prisoner. The Duke
flung himself into a great carved chair, an air of relish now
investing his round, pale face.
"You know what is about to befall you," he said, in tones of
chilling indifference. "Will you speak before we begin?"
"My lord," said the fool, in a voice that terror was throttling,
"you are a good Christian, a loyal son of Mother Church, and a
believer in the eternal fires of hell?"
A frown settled on Gian Maria's brow. Was the fool about to
intimidate him with talk of supernatural vengeance?
"Thus," Peppe continued, "you will perhaps be merciful when I
confess my position. I made most solemn oath to the man I met at
Acquasparta on that luckless day, that I would never reveal his
identity. What am I to do? If I keep my oath, you will torture me to
death perhaps. If I break it, I shall be damned eternally. Have
mercy, noble lord, since now you know how I am placed."
The smile broadened on Gian Maria's face, and the cruelty of his
mouth and eyes seemed intensified by it. The fool had told him that
which he would have given much to learn. He had told him that this
man whose name he sought, had so feared that his presence that day at
Acquasparta should become known, that he had bound the fool by oath
not to divulge the secret of it. Of what he had before suspected he
was now assured. The man in question was one of the conspirators;
probably the very chief of them. Nothing short of the fool's death
under torture would now restrain him from learning the name of that
unknown who had done him the double injury of conspiring against him,
and--if the fool were to be believed-- of capturing the heart of
"For the damnation of your soul I shall not be called to answer,"
he said at last. "Care enough have I to save my own--for temptations
are many and this poor flesh is weak. But it is this man's name I
need, and--by the five wounds of Lucia of Viterbo!--I will have it.
Will you speak?"
Something like a sob shook the poor fool's deformed frame. But
that was all. With bowed head he preserved a stubborn silence. The
Duke made a sign to the men, and instantly the two of them threw their
weight upon the rope, hoisting Peppe by his wrists until he was at the
height of the canopy itself. That done, they paused, and turned their
eyes upon the Duke for further orders. Again Gian Maria called upon
the fool to answer his questions; but Peppe, a writhing, misshapen
mass from which two wriggling legs depended, maintained a stubborn
"Let him go," snarled Gian Maria, out of patience. The men
released the rope, and allowed some three feet of it to run through
their hands. Then they grasped it again, so that Peppe's sudden fall
was as suddenly arrested by a jerk that almost wrenched his arms from
their sockets. A shriek broke from him at that exquisite torture, and
he was dragged once more to the full height of the canopy.
"Will you speak now?" asked Gian Maria coldly, amusedly almost.
But still the fool was silent, his nether lip caught so tightly in
his teeth that the blood trickled from it adown his chin. Again the
Duke gave the signal, and again they let him go. This time they
allowed him a longer drop, so that the wrench with which they arrested
it was more severe than had been the first.
Peppe felt his bones starting from their joints, and it was as if a
burning iron were searing him at shoulder, elbow and wrist.
"Merciful God!" he screamed. "Oh, have pity, noble lord."
But the noble lord had him hoisted anew to the canopy. Writhing
there in the extremity of his anguish, the poor hunchback poured forth
from frothing lips a stream of curses and imprecations, invoking
Heaven and hell to strike his tormentors dead.
But the Duke, from whose demeanour it might be inferred that he was
inured to the effect produced by this form of torture, looked on with
a cruel smile, as of one who watches the progress of events towards
the end that he desires and has planned. He was less patient, and his
signal came more quickly now. For a third time the fool was dropped,
and drawn up, now, a short three feet from the ground.
This time he did not so much as scream. He hung there, dangling at
the rope's end, his mouth all bloody, his face ghastly in its
glistening pallor, and of his eyes naught showing save the whites. He
hung there, and moaned piteously and incessantly. Martin glanced
questioningly at Gian Maria, and his eyes very plainly inquired
whether they had not better cease. But Gian Maria paid no heed to
"Will that suffice you?" he asked the fool. "Will you speak now?"
But the fool's only answer was a moan, whereupon again, at the
Duke's relentless signal, he was swung aloft. But at the terror of a
fourth drop, more fearful than any of its three predecessors, he awoke
very suddenly to the impossible horror of his position. That this
agony would endure until he died or fainted, he was assured. And
since he seemed incapable of either fainting or dying, suffer more he
could not. What was heaven or hell to him then that the thought of
either could efface the horror of this torture and strengthen him to
continue to endure the agony of it? He could endure no more--no, not
to save a dozen souls if he had had them:
"I'll speak," he screamed. "Let me down, and you shall have his
name, Lord Duke."
"Pronounce it first, or the manner of your descent shall be as the
Peppe passed his tongue over his bleeding lips, hung still and
"It was your cousin," he panted, " Francesco del Falco, Count of
The Duke stared at him a moment, with startled countenance and
"You are telling me the truth, animal?" he demanded, in a quivering
voice. "It was the Count of Aquila who was wounded and whom Monna
"I swear it," answered the fool. "Now, in the name of God and His
blessed saints, let me down."
For a moment yet he was held there, awaiting Gian Maria's signal.
The Duke continued to eye him with that same astonished look, what
time he turned over in his mind the news he had gathered. Then
conviction of the truth sank into his mind. It was the Lord of Aquila
who was the idol of the Babbianians. What, then, more natural than
that the conspirators should have sought to place him on the throne
they proposed to wrest from Gian Maria? He dubbed himself a fool that
he had not guessed so much before.
"Let him down," he curtly bade his men. "Then take him hence, and
let him go with God. He has served his purpose."
Gently they lowered him, but when his feet touched the ground he
was unable to stand. His legs doubled under him, and he lay--a little
crook- backed heap--upon the rushes of the floor. His senses had
At a sign from Armstadt the two men picked him up and carried him
out between them.
Gian Maria moved across the room to a tapestried priedieu, and
knelt down before an ivory crucifix to render thanks to God for the
signal light of grace, by which He had vouchsafed to show the Duke his
Thereafter, drawing from the breast of his doublet a chaplet of
gold and amber beads, he piously discharged his nightly devotions.
CHAPTER X. THE BRAYING OF AN ASS
When on the morrow, towards the twenty-second hour, the High and
Mighty Gian Maria Sforza rode into his capital at Babbiano, he found
the city in violent turmoil, occasioned, as he rightly guessed, by the
ominous presence of Caesar Borgia's envoy.
A dense and sullen crowd met him at the Porta Romana, and preserved
a profound silence as he rode into the city, accompanied by Alvari and
Santi, and surrounded by his escort of twenty spears in full armour.
There was a threat in that silence more ominous than any
vociferations, and very white was the Duke's face as he darted scowls
of impotent anger this way and that. But there was worse to come. As
they rode up the Borgo dell' Annunziata the crowd thickened, and the
silence was now replaced by a storm of hooting and angry cries. The
people became menacing, and by Armstadt's orders--the Duke was by now
too paralysed with fear to issue any--the men-at-arms lowered their
pikes in order to open a way, whilst one or two of the populace, who
were thrust too near the cavalcade by the surging human tide, went
down and were trampled under foot.
Satirical voices asked the Duke derisively was he wed, and where
might be his uncle-in-law's spears that were to protect them against
the Borgia. Some demanded to know whither the last outrageous levy of
taxes was gone, and where was the army it should have served to raise.
To this, others replied for the Duke, suggesting a score of vile uses
to which the money had been put.
Then, of a sudden, a cry of "Murderer!" arose, followed by angry
demands that he should restore life to the valiant Ferrabraccio, to
Amerini, the people's friend, and to those others whom he had lately
butchered, or else follow them in death. Lastly the name of the Count
of Aquila rang wildly in his ears, provoking a storm of "Evviva! Live
Francesco del Falco!" and one persistent voice, sounding loudly above
the others, styled him already "il Duca Francesco." At that the blood
mounted to Gian Maria's brain, and a wave of anger beat back the fear
from his heart. He rose in his stirrups, his eyes ablaze with the
jealous wrath that possessed him.
"Ser Martino!" he roared hoarsely to his captain. "Couch lances
and go through them at the gallop!"
The burly Swiss hesitated, brave man though he was. Alvaro de'
Alvari and Gismondo Santi looked at each other in alarm, and the
intrepid old statesman, in whose heart no pang of fear had been
awakened by the rabble's threatening bay, changed colour as he heard
that order given.
"Highness," he implored the Duke, "You cannot mean this."
"Not mean it?" flashed back Gian Maria, his eye travelling from
Santi to the hesitating captain. "Fool!" he blazed at the latter.
"Brute beast, for what do you wait? Did you not hear me?"
Without a second's delay the captain now raised his sword, and his
deep, guttural voice barked an order to his men which brought their
lances below the horizontal. The mob, too, had heard that fierce
command, and awakening to their peril, those nearest the cavalcade
would have fallen back but that the others, pressing tightly from
behind, held them in the death-tide that now swept by with clattering
arms and hoarse cries.
Shrieks filled the air where lately threats had been loudly tossed.
But some there were in that crowd that would be no passive witnesses
of this butchery. Half the stones of the borgo went after that
cavalcade, and fell in a persistent shower upon them, rattling like
giant hail upon their armour, dinting many a steel-cap to its wearer's
sore discomfort. The Duke himself was struck twice, and on Santi's
unprotected scalp an ugly wound was opened from which the blood flowed
in profusion to dye his snowy locks.
In this undignified manner they reached, at last, the Palazzo
Ducale, leaving a trail of dead and maimed to mark the way by which
they had come.
In a white heat of passion Gian Maria sought his apartments, and
came not forth again until, some two hours later, the presence was
announced him of the emissary from Caesar Borgia, Duke of Valentinois,
who sought an audience.
Still beside himself, and boiling with wrath at the indignities he
had received, Gian Maria--in no mood for an interview that would have
demanded coolness and presence of mind from a keener brain than his--
received the envoy, a gloomy, priestly-faced Spaniard, in the
throne-room of the Palace. The Duke was attended by Alvari, Santi,
and Fabrizio da Lodi, whilst his mother, Caterina Colonna, occupied a
chair of crimson velvet on which the Sforza lion was wrought in gold.
The interview was brief, and marked by a rudeness at its close that
contrasted sharply with the ceremoniousness of its inception. It soon
became clear that the ambassador's true mission was to pick a quarrel
with Babbiano on his master's behalf, to the end that the Borgia might
be afforded a sound pretext for invading the Duchy. He demanded, at
first politely and calmly, and later--when denied--with arrogant
insistance, that Gian Maria should provide the Duke of Valentinois
with a hundred lances--equivalent to five hundred men--as some
contribution on his part towards the stand which Caesar Borgia meant
to make against the impending French invasion.
Gian Maria never heeded the restraining words which Lodi whispered
in his ear, urging him to temporise, and to put off this messenger
until the alliance with the house of Urbino should be complete and
their position strengthened sufficiently to permit them to brave the
anger of Caesar Borgia. But neither this nor the wrathful, meaning
glances which his cunning mother bent upon him served to curb him. He
obeyed only the voice of his headstrong mood, never dreaming of the
consequences with which he might be visited.
"You will bear to the Duca Valentino this message from me," he
said, in conclusion. "You will tell him that what lances I have in
Babbiano I intend to keep, that with them I may defend my own
frontiers against his briganding advances. Messer da Lodi," he added,
turning to Fabrizio and without so much as waiting to see if the envoy
had anything further to say, "let this gentleman be reconducted to his
quarters, and see that he has safe conduct hence until he is out of
When the envoy, crimson of face and threatening of eye, had
withdrawn under Lodi's escort, Monna Caterina rose, the very
incarnation of outraged patience, and poured her bitter invective upon
her rash son's head.
"Fool!" she stormed at him. "There goes your Duchy--in the hollow
of that man's hand." Then she laughed in bitterness. "After all, in
casting it from you, perhaps you have chosen the wiser course, for, as
truly as there is a God in Heaven, you are utterly unfitted to retain
"My lady mother," he answered her, with such dignity as he could
muster from the wretched heap in which his wits now seemed to lie,
"you will be well advised to devote yourself to your woman's tasks,
and not to interfere in a man's work."
"Man's work!" she sneered. "And you perform it like a petulant boy
or a peevish woman."
"I perform it, Madonna, as best seems to me, for it happens that I
am Duke of Babbiano," he answered sullenly. "I do not fear any Pope's
son that ever stepped. The alliance with Urbino is all but completed.
Let that be established, and if Valentino shows his teeth--by God
we'll show ours."
"Aye, but with this difference, that his are a wolf's teeth, and
yours a lamb's. Besides, this alliance with Urbino is all incomplete
as yet. You had been better advised to have sent away the envoy with
some indefinite promise that would have afforded you respite enough in
which to seal matters with the house of Montefeltro. As it is, your
days are numbered. Upon that message you have sent him Caesar will
act at once. For my own part, I have no mind to fall a prey to the
invader, and I shall leave Babbiano, and seek refuge in Naples. And
if a last word of advice I may offer you, it is that you do the same."
Gian Maria rose and came down from the dais, eyeing her in a sort
of dull amazement. Then he looked, as if for help, to Alvari, to
Santi, and lastly to Lodi, who had returned while Caterina was
speaking. But no word said any of them, and grave were the eyes of
"Poor-spirited are you all!" he sneered. Then his face grew dark
and his tone concentrated. "Not so am I," he assured them, "if in the
past I may have seemed it sometimes. I am aroused at length, sirs. I
heard a voice in the streets of Babbiano to-day, and I saw a sight
that has put a fire into my veins. This good-tempered, soft,
indulgent Duke you knew is gone. The lion is awake at last, and you
shall see such things as you had not dreamt of."
They regarded him now with eyes in which the gravity was increased
by a light of fearsome wonder and inquiry. Was his mind giving way
under the prodigious strain that had been set upon it that day? If
not madness, what else did that wild boasting argue?
"Are you all dumb?" he asked them, his eyes feverish. "Or do you
deem that I promise more than is mine to fulfil. You shall judge, and
soon. To-morrow, my lady mother, whilst you journey south, as you have
told us, I go north again, hack to Urbino. Not a day will I now
waste. Within the week, sirs, by God's grace, I shall be wed. That
will give us Urbino for a buckler, and with Urbino comes Perugia and
Camerino. But more than that. There is a princely dowry comes to us
with the Lady Valentina. How think you will I spend it? To the last
florin it shall go to the arming of men. I will hire me every free
condotta in Italy. I will raise me such an army as has never before
been seen at any one time, and with this I shall seek out the Duca
Valentino. I'll not sit here at home awaiting the pleasure of his
coming, but I'll out to meet him, and with that army I shall descend
upon him as a thunderbolt out of Heaven. Aye, my lady mother," he
laughed in his madness, "the lamb shall hunt the wolf, and rend it so
that it shall never stand again to prey on other lambs. This will I
do, my friends, and there shall be such fighting as has not been seen
since the long-dead days of Castracani."
They stared at him, scarce believing now that he was sane, and
marvelling deeply whence had sprung this sudden martial fervour in one
whose nature was more indolent than active, more timid than warlike.
And yet the reason was not far to seek, had they but cared to follow
the line of thought to which he, himself, had given them the clue when
he referred to the voice he had heard, and the sights he had seen in
the streets of Babbiano. The voice was the voice that had acclaimed
his cousin Francesco Duke. That it was through that a fierce jealousy
had fired him. This man had robbed him at once of the love of his
people and of Valentina, and thereby had set in his heart the burning
desire to outdo him and to prove wrong in their preference both his
people and Valentina. He was like a gamer who risks all on a single
throw, and his stake was to be the dowry of his bride, the game a tilt
with the forces of the Borgia. If he won he came out covered with
glory, and not only the saviour of his people and the champion of
their liberty, but a glorious figure that all Italy--or, at least,
that part of it that had known the iron heel of Valentino--should
revere. Thus would he set himself right, and thus crush from their
minds the memory of his rebellious cousin with whom he was about to
His mother turned to him now, and her words were words of caution,
prayers that he should adventure on naught so vast and appalling to
her woman's mind, without due thought and argument in council. A
servant entered at that moment, and approached the Duke.
"Madonna," Gian Maria announced, breaking in upon her earnest
words, "I am fully resolved upon my course. If you will but delay a
moment and resume your seat, you shall witness the first scene of this
great drama that I am preparing." Then turning to the waiting
servant: "Your message?" he demanded.
"Captain Armstadt has returned, Highness, and has brought his
"Fetch lights and then admit them," he commanded briefly. "To your
places, sirs, and you, my mother. I am about to sit in judgment."
Amazed and uncomprehending, they obeyed his wild gestures, and
resumed their places by the throne even as he walked back to the dais
and sat himself upon the ducal chair. Servants entered, bearing great
candelabra of beaten gold which they set on table and overmantel.
They withdrew, and when the doors opened again, a clank of mail,
reaching them from without, increased the astonishment of the company.
This rose yet higher, and left them cold and speechless, when into
the chamber stepped the Count of Aquila with a man-at-arms on either
side of him, marking him a prisoner. With a swift, comprehensive
glance that took in the entire group about the throne--and without
manifesting the slightest surprise at Lodi's presence--Francesco stood
still and awaited his cousin's words.
He was elegantly dressed, but without lavishness, and if he had the
air of a great lord, it was rather derived from the distinction of his
face and carriage. He was without arms, and bareheaded save for the
gold coif he always wore, which seemed to accentuate the lustrous
blackness of his hair. His face was impassive, and the glance as that
of a man rather weary of the entertainment provided him.
There was an oppressive silence of some moments, during which his
cousin regarded him with an eye that glittered oddly. At last Gian
Maria broke into speech, his voice shrill with excitement.
"Know you of any reason," he demanded, "why your head should not be
flaunted on a spear among those others on the Gate of San Bacolo?"
Francesco's eyebrows shot up in justifiable astonishment.
"I know of many," he answered, with a smile, an answer which by its
simplicity seemed to nonplus the Duke.
"Let us hear some of them," he challenged presently.
"Nay, let us hear, rather, some reason why my poor head should be
so harshly dealt with. When a man is rudely taken, as I have been, it
is a custom, which perhaps your Highness will follow, to afford him
some reason for the outrage."
"You smooth-tongued traitor," quoth the Duke, with infinite malice,
made angrier by his cousin's dignity. "You choicely-spoken villain!
You would learn why you have been taken? Tell me, sir, what did you
at Acquasparta on the morning of the Wednesday before Easter?"
The Count's impassive face remained inscrutable, a mask of patient
wonder. By the sudden clenching of his hands alone did he betray how
that thrust had smitten him, and his hands none there remarked.
Fabrizio da Lodi, standing behind the Duke, went pale to the lips.
"I do not recall that I did anything there of much account," he
answered. "I breathed the good spring air in the woods."
"And nothing else?" sneered Gian Maria.
"I can bethink me of little else that signifies. I met a lady
there with whom I had some talk, a friar, a fool, a popinjay, and some
soldiers. But,"--he shifted abruptly, his tone growing
haughty--"whatever I did, I did as best seemed to me, and I have yet
to learn that the Count of Aquila must give account of what he does
and where he does it. You have not told me yet, sir, by what right,
or fancied right, you hold me prisoner."
"Have I not, indeed? See you no link between your offence and your
presence near Sant' Angelo on that day?"
"If I am to apprehend that you have had me brought here with this
indignity to set me riddles for your amusement, I am enlightened and
yet amazed. I am no court buffoon."
"Words, words," snapped the Duke. "Do not think to beguile me with
them." With a short laugh he turned from Francesco to those upon the
dais. "You will be marvelling, sirs, and you, my lady mother, upon
what grounds I have had this traitor seized. You shall learn. On the
night of the Tuesday before Easter seven traitors met at Sant' Angelo
to plot my overthrow. Of those, the heads of four may be seen on the
walls of Babbiano now; the other three made off, but there stands one
of them--the one that was to have occupied this throne after they had
The eyes of all were now upon the young Count, whilst his own
glance strayed to the face of Lodi, on which there was written a
consternation so great that it must have betrayed him had the Duke but
chanced to look his way. A pause ensued which none present dared to
break. Gian Maria seemed to await an answer from Francesco; but
Francesco stood impassively regarding him, and made no sign that he
would speak. At length, unable longer to endure the silence:
"E dunque?" cried the Duke. "Have you no answer?"
"I would submit," returned Francesco, "that I have heard no
question. I heard a wild statement, extravagant and mad, the
accusation of one demented, a charge of which no proofs can be
forthcoming, else I take it you had not withheld them. I ask you,
sirs, and you, Madonna," he continued, turning to the others, "has his
Highness said anything to which an answer can by any means be
"Is it proofs you lack?" cried Gian Maria, but less confidently
than hitherto, and, so, less fiercely. A doubt had arisen in his mind
born of this strange calm on the part of Francesco--a calm that to
Gian Maria's perceptions seemed hardly the garb of guilt, but belonged
rather to one who is assured that no peril threatens him. "Is it
proofs you lack?" quoth the Duke again, and then with the air of a man
launching an unanswerable question: "How came you by the wound you had
that day in the woods?"
A smile quivered on Francesco's face, and was gone.
"I asked for proofs, not questions," he protested wearily. "What
shall it prove if I had a hundred wounds?"
"Prove?" echoed the Duke, less and less confident of his ground,
fearing already that he had perhaps gone too fast and too far upon the
road of his suspicions. "It proves to me, when coupled with your
presence there, that you were in the fight the night before."
Francesco stirred at that. He sighed and smiled at once. Then
assuming a tone of brisk command:
"Bid these men begone," he said, pointing to his guards. "Then
hear me scatter your foul suspicions as the hurricane scatters the
leaves in autumn."
Gian Maria stared at him in stupefaction. That overwhelming
assurance, that lofty, dignified bearing which made such a noble
contrast with his own coarse hectoring, were gradually undermining
more and more his confidence. With a wave of his hand he motioned the
soldiers to withdraw, obeying almost unconsciously the master-mind of
his cousin by which he was as unconsciously being swayed.
"Now, Highness," said Francesco, as soon as the men were gone,
"before I refute the charge you make, let me clearly understand it.
From the expressions you have used I gather it to be this: A
conspiracy was laid a little time ago at Sant' Angelo which had for
object to supplant you on the throne of Babbiano and set me in your
place. You charge me with having had in that conspiracy a part--the
part assigned to me. It is so, is it not?"
Gian Maria nodded.
"You have put it very clearly," he sneered. "If you can make out
your innocence as clearly, I shall be satisfied that I have wronged
"That this conspiracy took place we will accept as proven, although
to the people of Babbiano the proof may have seemed scant. A man,
since dead, had told your Highness that such a plot was being hatched.
Hardly, perhaps, in itself, evidence enough to warrant setting the
heads of four very valiant gentlemen on spears, but no doubt your
Highness had other proofs to which the rest of us had no access."
Gian Maria shivered at the words. He recalled what Francesco had
said on the occasion of their last talk upon this very subject; he
remembered the manner of his own reception that day in Babbiano.
"We must be content that it is so," calmly pursued Francesco.
"Indeed, your Highness's action in the matter leaves no doubt. We
will accept, then, that such a plot was laid, but that I had a part in
it, that I was the man chosen to take your place--need I prove the
idleness of such a charge?"
"You need, in truth. By God! you need, if you would save your
The Count stood in an easy posture, his hands clasped behind his
back, and smiled up at his cousin's pale face and scowling brow.
"How mysterious are the ways of your justice, Cousin," he murmured,
with infinite relish; "what a wondrous equity invests your methods!
You have me dragged here by force, and sitting there, you say to me:
'Prove that you have not conspired against me, or the headsman shall
have you!' By my faith! Soloman was a foolish prattler when compared
Gian Maria smote the gilded arm of his chair a blow for which he
was to find his hand blackened on the morrow.
"Prove it!" he screamed, like a child in a pet. "Prove it, prove
it, prove it!"
"And have my words not already proven it?" quoth the Count, in a
voice of such mild wonder and gentle protest that it left Gian Maria
Then the Duke made a hasty gesture of impatience.
"Messer Alvari," he said, in a voice of concentrated rage, "I think
you had best recall the guard."
"Wait!" the Count compelled him, raising his hand. And now it was
seen that the easy insouciance was gone from his face: the smile had
vanished, and in its place there was a look of lofty and contemptuous
wrath. "I will repeat my words. You have dragged me here before you
by force, and, sitting there on the throne of Babbiano, you say:
'Prove that you have not conspired against me if you would save your
head.'" A second he paused, and noted the puzzled look with which all
"Is this a parable?" sneered the uncomprehending Duke.
"You have said it," flashed back Francesco. "A parable it is. And
if you consider it, does it not afford you proof enough?" he asked, a
note of triumph in his voice. "Do not our relative positions
irrefutably show the baselessness of this your charge? Should I stand
here and you sit there if what you allege against me were true?" He
laughed almost savagely, and his eyes flashed scornfully upon the
Duke. "If more plainly still you need it, Gian Maria, I tell you that
had I plotted to occupy your tottering throne, I should be on it now,
not standing here defending myself against a foolish charge. But can
you doubt it? Did you learn no lesson as you rode into Babbiano
to-day? Did you not hear them acclaim me and groan at you. And yet,"
he ended, with a lofty pity, "you tell me that I plotted. Why, if I
desired your throne, my only need would be to unfurl my banner in the
streets of your capital, and within the hour Gian Maria would be Duke
no more. Have I proved my innocence, Highness?" he ended quietly,
sadly almost. "Are you convinced how little is my need for plots?"
But the Duke had no answer for him. Speechless, and in a sort of
dazed horror, he sat and scowled before him at his cousin's handsome
face, what time the others watched him furtively, in silence,
trembling for the young man who, here, in his grasp, had dared say
such things to him. Presently he covered his face with his hands, and
sat so, as one deeply in thought, a little while. At last he withdrew
them slowly and presented a countenance that passion and chagrin had
strangely ravaged in so little time. He turned to Santi, who stood
"The guard," he said hoarsely, with a wave of the hand, and Santi
went, none daring to utter a word. They waited thus an odd group, all
very grave save one, and he the one that had most cause for gravity.
Then the captain re-entered, followed by his two men, and Gian Maria
waved a hand towards the prisoner.
"Take him away," he muttered harshly, his face ghastly, and passion
shaking him like an aspen. "Take him away, and await my orders in the
"If it is farewell, Cousin," said Francesco, "may I hope that you
will send a priest to me? I have lived a faithful Christian."
Gian Maria returned him no answer, but his baleful eye was upon
Martino. Reading the significance of that glance, the captain touched
Francesco lightly on the arm. A moment the Count stood, looking from
the Duke to the soldiers; a second his glance rested on those
assembled there; then, with a light raising of his shoulders, he
turned on his heel, and with his head high passed out of the ducal
And silence continued after he was gone until Caterina Colonna
broke it with a laugh that grated on Gian Maria's now very tender
"You promised bravely," she mocked him, "to play the lion. But so
far, we have only heard the braying of an ass."
CHAPTER XI. WANDERING KNIGHTS
That taunt of his mother's stirred Gian Maria. He rose from his
ducal chair and descended from the dais on which it stood, possessed
by a tempestuous mood that would not brook him to sit still.
"The braying of an ass?" he muttered, facing Caterina. Then he
laughed unpleasantly. "The jaw-bone of an ass did sore execution on
one occasion, Madonna, and it may again. A little patience, and you
shall see." Next, and with a brisker air, he addressed the four
silent courtiers, "You heard him, sirs," he exclaimed, "How do you say
that I shall deal with such a traitor?" He waited some seconds for an
answer, and it seemed to anger him that none came. "Have you, then,
no counsel for me?" he demanded harshly.
"I had not thought," said Lodi hardily, "that this was a case in
which your Highness needed counsel. You were drawn to conclude that
the Lord of Aquila was a traitor, but from what we have all heard,
your Highness should now see that he is not."
"Should I so?" the Duke returned, standing still and fixing upon
Fabrizio an eye that was dull as a snake's. "Messer da Lodi, your
loyalty is a thing that has given signs of wavering of late. Now, if
by the grace of God and His blessed saints I have ruled as a merciful
prince who errs too much upon the side of clemency, I would enjoin you
not to try that clemency too far. I am but a man, after all."
He turned from the fearless front presented by the old statesman,
to face the troubled glances of the others.
"Your silence, sirs, tells me that in this matter your judgement
runs parallel with mine. And you are wise, for in such a case there
can be but one course. My cousin has uttered words to-day which no
man has ever said to a prince and lived. Nor shall we make exception
to that rule. My Lord of Aquila's head must pay the price of his
"My son," cried Caterina, in a voice of horror. Gian Maria faced
her in a passion, his countenance grown mottled.
"I have said it," he growled. "I will not sleep until he dies."
"Yet never may you wake again," she answered. And with that
preamble she launched upon his head the bitterest criticism he had
ever heard. By stinging epithets and contemptuous words, she sought
to make him see the folly of what he meditated. Was he indeed tired
of ruling Babbiano? If that were so, she told him, he had but to wait
for Caesar Borgia's coming. He need not precipitate matters by a deed
that must lead to a revolt, a rising of the people to avenge their
"You have given me but added reasons," he answered her stoutly.
"There is no room in my Duchy for a man whose death, if it pleased me
to encompass it, would be avenged upon me by my own people."
"Then send him from your dominions," she urged. "Banish him, and
all may be well. But if you slay him, I should not count your life
worth a day's purchase."
This advice was sound, and in the end they prevailed upon him to
adopt it. But it was not done save at the cost of endless prayers on
the part of those courtiers, and the persuasions of Caterina's biting
scorn and prophecies of the fate that surely awaited him did he touch
the life of one so wellbeloved. At last, against his will, he
sullenly consented that the banishment of his cousin should content
him. But it was with infinite bitterness and regret that he passed
his word, for his jealousy was of a quality that nothing short of
Francesco's death could have appeased. Certain it is that nothing but
the fear of the consequences, which his mother had instilled into his
heart, could have swayed him to be satisfied that the Count of Aquila
should be banished.
He sent for Martino and bade him return the Count his sword, and he
entrusted the message of exile to Fabrizio da Lodi, charging him to
apprise Francesco that he was allowed twenty-four hours' grace in
which to take himself beyond the dominions of Gian Maria Sforza.
That done--and with an exceedingly ill grace--the Duke turned on
his heel, and with a sullen brow he left the ducal chamber, and
passed, unattended, to his own apartments.
Rejoicing, Fabrizio da Lodi went his errand, which he discharged
with certain additions that might have cost him his head had knowledge
of them come to Gian Maria. In fact, he seized the opportunity to
again press upon Francesco the throne of Babbiano.
"The hour is very ripe," he urged the Count, "and the people love
you as surely prince was never loved. It is in their interests that I
plead. You are their only hope. Will you not come to them?"
If for a moment Francesco hesitated, it was rather in consideration
of the manner in which the crown was offered than in consequence of
any allurement that the offer may have had for him. Once--that night
at Sant' Angelo--he had known temptation, and for a moment had
listened to the seductions in the voice that invited him to power.
But not so now. A thought he gave to the people who had such faith in
him, and showered upon him such admiring love, and whom, as a matter
of reciprocity, he wished well, and would have served in any capacity
but this. He shook his head, and with a smile of regret declined the
"Have patience, old friend," he added. "I am not of the stuff that
goes to make good princes, although you think it. It is a bondage
into which I would not sell myself. A man's life for me, Fabrizio--a
free life that is not directed by councillors and at the mercy of the
Fabrizio's face grew sad. He sighed profoundly, yet since it might
not be well for him that he should remain over-long in talk with one
who, in the Duke's eyes, was attainted with treason, he had not
leisure to insist with persuasions, which, after all, he clearly saw
must in the end prove barren.
"What was the salvation of the people of Babbiano," he murmured,
"was also your Excellency's, since did you adopt the course I urge
there would be no need to go in banishment."
"Why, this exile suits me excellently well," returned Francesco.
"Idle have I been over-long, and the wish to roam is in my veins
again. I'll see the world once more, and when I weary of my vagrancy
I can withdraw to my lands of Aquila, and in that corner of Tuscany,
too mean to draw a conqueror's eye, none will molest me, and I shall
rest. Babbiano, my friend, shall know me no more after to-night.
When I am gone, and the people realise that they may not have what
they would, they may rest content perhaps with what they may." And he
waved a hand in the direction of the doors leading to the ducal
chamber. With that he took his leave of his old friend, and, carrying
in his hand the sword and dagger which Captain Armstadt had returned
to him, he repaired briskly to the northern wing of the Palace, in
which he had his lodging.
In the ante-room he dismissed those of his servants who had been
taken from the ranks of the Duke's people, and bade his own Tuscan
followers, Zaccaria and Lanciotto, see to the packing of his effects,
and make all ready to set out within the hour.
He was no coward, but he had no wish to die just yet if it might be
honourably avoided. Life had some sweets to offer Francesco del
Falco, and this spurred him to hasten, for he well knew his cousin's
unscrupulous ways. He was aware that Gian Maria had been forced by
weight of argument to let him go, and he shrewdly feared that did he
linger, his cousin might veer round again, and without pausing to seek
advice a second time, have him disposed of out of hand and reckless of
Whilst Lanciotto was left busy in the ante-room the Count passed
into his bedchamber attended by Zaccaria, to make in his raiment such
changes as were expedient. But scarce had he begun when he was
interrupted by the arrival of Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, whom Lanciotto
ushered in. Francesco's face lighted at sight of his friend, and he
held out his hand.
"What is it that has happened?" cried the young gallant, adding
that which showed his question to be unnecessary, for from Fabrizio da
Lodi he had had the whole story of what was befallen. He sat himself
upon the bed, and utterly disregarding the presence of Zaccaria--whom
he knew to be faithful--he attempted to persuade the Count where
Fabrizio had failed. But Paolo cut him short ere he had gone very
"Have done with that," he said, and for all that he said it with a
laugh, determination sounded sturdy in his accents. "I am a
knight-errant, not a prince, and I'll not be converted from one to the
other. It were making a helot of a free man, and you do not love me,
Fanfulla, if you drive this argument further. Do you think me sad,
cast down, at the prospect of this banishment? Why, boy, the blood
runs swifter through my veins since I heard the sentence. It frees me
from Babbiano in an hour when perhaps my duty--the reciprocation of
the people's love--might otherwise have held me here, and it gives me
liberty to go forth, my good Fanfulla, in quest of such adventure as I
chose to follow." He threw out his arms, and displayed his splendid
teeth in a hearty laugh.
Fanfulla eyed him, infected by the boisterous gladness of his mood.
"Why, true indeed, my lord," he acknowledged, "you are too fine a
bird to sing in a cage. But to go knight-erranting----" He paused,
and spread his hands in protest. "There are no longer dragons holding
"Alas no. But the Venetians are on the eve of war, and they will
find work for these hands of mine. I want not for friends among
"And so we lose you. The stoutest arm in Babbiano leaves us in the
hour of need, driven out by that loutish Duke. By my soul, Ser
Francesco, I would I might go with you. Here is nothing to be done."
Francesco paused in the act of drawing on a boot, and raised his
eyes to stare a moment at his friend.
"But if you wish it, Fanfulla, I shall rejoice to have your
And now the idea of it entered Fanfulla's mind in earnest, for his
expression had been more or less an idle one. But since Francesco
invited him, why not indeed?
And thus it came to pass that at the third hour of that warm May
night a party of four men on horseback and two sumpter mules passed
out of Babbiano and took the road that leads to Vinamare, and thence
into the territory of Urbino. These riders were the Count of Aquila
and Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, followed by Lanciotto leading a mule
that bore the arms of those knights-errant, and Zaccaria leading
another with their general baggage.
All night they rode beneath the stars, and on until some three
hours after sunrise, when they made halt in a hollow of the hills not
far from Fabriano. They tethered their horses in a grove of peaceful
laurel and sheltering mulberry, at the foot of a slope that was set
with olive trees, grey, gnarled and bent as aged cripples, and beside
the river Esino at a spot where it was so narrow that an agile man
might leap its width. Here, then, they spread their cloaks, and
Zaccaria unpacked his victuals, and set before them a simple meal of
bread and wine and roasted fowl, which to their hunger made more
appeal than a banquet at another season. And when they had eaten they
laid them down beside the stream, and there beguiled in pleasant talk
the time until they fell asleep. They rested them through the heat of
the day, and waking some three hours after noon, the Count rose up and
went some dozen paces down the stream to a spot where it fell into a
tiny lake--a pool deep and blue as the cloudless heavens which it
mirrored. Here he stripped off his garments and plunged headlong in,
to emerge again, some moments later, refreshed and reinvigorated in
body and in soul.
As Fanfulla awoke he beheld an apparition coming towards him, a
figure lithe and stalwart as a sylvian god, the water shining on the
ivory whiteness of his skin and glistening in his sable hair as the
sunlight caught it.
"Tell me now, Fanfulla, lives there a man of so depraved a mind
that he would prefer a ducal crown to this?"
And the courtier, seeing Francesco's radiant mien, understood
perhaps, at last, how sordid was the ambition that could lure a man
from such a god- like freedom, and from the holy all-consuming joys it
brought him. His thoughts being started upon that course, it was of
this they talked what time the Count resumed his garments--his hose of
red, his knee-high boots of untanned leather, and his quilted
brigandine of plain brown cloth, reputed dagger-proof. He rose at
last to buckle on his belt of hammered steel, from which there hung,
behind his loins, a stout, lengthy dagger, the only weapon that he
At his command the horses were saddled and the sumpters laden once
more. Lanciotto held his stirrup, and Zaccaria did like service for
Fanfulla, and presently they were cantering out of that fragrant grove
on to the elastic sward of broad, green pasture-lands. They crossed
the stream at a spot where the widened sheet of water scarce went
higher than their horses' hocks; then veering to the east they rode
away from the hills for a half-league or so until they gained a road.
Here they turned northward again, and pushed on towards Cagli.
As the bells were ringing the Ave Maria the cavalcade drew up
before the Palazzo Valdicampo, where two nights ago Gian Maria had
been entertained. Its gates were now as readily thrown wide to welcome
the illustrious and glorious Count of Aquila, who was esteemed by
Messer Valdicampo no less than his more puissant cousin. Chambers
were set at his disposal, and at Fanfulla's; servants were bidden to
wait upon them; fresh raiment was laid out for them, and a noble
supper was prepared to do honour to Francesco. Nor did the generous
Valdicampo's manner cool when he learned that Francesco was in
disgrace at the Court of Babbiano and banished from the dominions of
Duke Gian Maria. He expressed sympathetic regret at so untoward a
circumstance and discreetly refrained from passing any opinion
Yet later, as they supped, and when perhaps the choice wines had
somewhat relaxed his discretion, he permitted himself to speak of Gian
Maria's ways in terms that were very far from laudatory.
"Here, in my house," he informed them, "he committed an outrage
upon a poor unfortunate, for which an account may yet be asked of
me--since it was under my roof that the thing befell, for all that I
knew nothing of it."
Upon being pressed by Paolo to tell them more, he parted with the
information that the unfortunate in question was Urbino's jester
Peppe. At that, Paolo's glance became more intent. The memory of his
meeting with the fool and his mistress in the woods, a month ago,
flashed now across his mind, and it came to him that he could rightly
guess the source whence his cousin had drawn the information that had
led to his own arrest and banishment.
"Of what nature was the outrage?" he inquired.
"From what Peppe himself has told me it would seem that the fool
was possessed of some knowledge which Gian Maria sought, but on which
Peppe was bound by oath to silence. Gian Maria caused him to be
secretly taken and carried off from Urbino. His sbirri brought the
fellow here, and to make him speak the Duke improvised in his
bedchamber a tratta di corde, which had the desired result.
The Count's face grew dark with anger. "The coward!" he muttered.
"The dastardly craven!"
"But bethink you, sir Count," exclaimed Valdicampo, "that this poor
Peppe is a frail and deformed creature, lacking the strength of an
ordinary man, and do not judge him over-harshly."
"It was not of him I spoke," replied Francesco, "but of my cousin,
that cowardly tyrant, Gian Maria Sforza. Tell me, Messer
Valdicampo--what has become of Ser Peppe?"
"He is still here. I have had him tended, and his condition is
already much improved. It will not he long ere he is recovered, but
for a few days yet his arms will remain almost useless. They were all
but torn from his body."
When the meal was done Francesco begged his host to conduct him to
Peppe's chamber. This Valdicampo did, and leaving Fanfulla in the
company of the ladies of his house, he escorted the Count to the room
where the poor, ill-used hunchback was abed tended by one of the women
of Valdicampo's household.
"Here is a visitor to see you, Ser Peppe," the old gentleman
announced, setting down his candle on a table by the bed. The jester
turned his great head towards the newcomer's, and sought with
melancoly eyes the face of his visitor. At sight of him a look of
terror spread itself upon his countenance.
"My lord," he cried, struggling into a sitting posture, "my noble,
gracious lord, have mercy on me. I could tear out this craven tongue
of mine. But did you know what agonies I suffered, and to what a
torture they submitted me to render me unfaithful, it may be that you,
yourself, would pity me."
"Why, that I do," answered Francesco gently. "Indeed, could I have
seen the consequences that oath would have for you, I had not bound
you by it."
The fear in Peppe's face gave place to unbelief.
"And you forgive me, lord?" he cried. "I dreaded when you entered
that you were come to punish me for what wrong I may have done you in
speaking. But if you forgive me, it may be that Heaven will forgive
me also, and that I may not be damned. And that were a thousand
pities, for what, my lord, should I do in hell?"
"Deride the agonies of Gian Maria," answered Francesco, with a
"It were almost worth burning for," mused Peppe, putting forth a
hand, whose lacerated, swollen wrist bore evidence to the torture he
had suffered. At sight of it the Count made an exclamation of angry
horror, and hastened to inquire into the poor fool's condition.
"It is not so bad now," Peppe answered him, "and it is only in
consequence of Messer Valdicampo's insistence that I have kept my bed.
I can scarce use my arms, it is true, but they are improving.
To-morrow I shall be up, and I hope to set out for Urbino, where my
dear mistress must be distressed with fears for my absence, for she is
a very kind and tenderhearted lady."
This resolve of Peppe's prompted the Count to offer to conduct him
to Urbino on the morrow, since he, himself, would be journeying that
way--an offer which the fool accepted without hesitation and with
CHAPTER XII. THE FOOL'S
In the morning Frsncesco set out once more, accompanied by his
servants, Fanfulla, and the fool. The latter was now so far restored
as to be able to sit a mule, but lest the riding should over-tire him
they proceeded at little more than an ambling pace along the lovely
valleys of the Metauro. Thus it befell that when night descended it
found them still journeying, and some two leagues distant from Urbino.
Another league they travelled in the moonlight, and the fool was
beguiling the time for them with a droll story culled from the bright
pages of Messer Boccaccio, when of a sudden his sharp ears caught a
sound that struck him dumb in the middle of a sentence.
"Are you faint?" asked Francesco, turning quickly towards him, and
mindful of the fellow's sore condition.
"No, no," answered the fool, with a readiness that dispelled the
Count's alarm on that score. "I thought I heard a sound of marching
in the distance."
"The wind in the trees, Peppino," explained Fanfulla.
"I do not think----" He stopped short and listened and now they
all heard it, for it came wafted to them on a gust of the fitful
breeze that smote their faces.
"You are right," said Francesco. "It is the tramp of men. But
what of that, Peppe? Men will march in Italy. Let us hear the end of
"But who should march in Urbino, and by night?" the fool persisted.
"Do I know or do I care?" quoth the Count. "Your story, man."
For all that he was far from satisfied, the fool resumed his
narrative. But he no longer told it with his former irresistible
humour. His mind was occupied with that sound of marching, which came
steadily nearer. At length he could endure it no longer, and the
apathy of his companions fired him openly to rebel.
"My lord," he cried, turning to the Count, and again leaving his
story interrupted, "they are all but upon us."
"True!" agreed Francesco indifferently. "The next turn yonder
should bring us into them."
"Then I beg you, Lord Count, to step aside. Let us pause here,
under the trees, until they have passed. I am full of fears. Perhaps
I am a coward, but I mislike these roving night-hands. It may be a
company of masnadieri."
"What then?" returned the Count, without slackening speed. "What
cause have we to fear a party of robbers?"
But Fanfulla and the servants joined their advice to Peppe's, and
prevailed at last upon Francesco to take cover until this company
should have passed. He consented, to pacify them, and wheeling to the
right they entered the border of the forest, drawing rein well in the
shadow, whence they could survey the road and see who passed across
the patch of moonlight that illumined it. And presently the company
came along and swung into that revealing flood of light. To the
astonishment of the watchers they beheld no marauding party such as
they had been led to expect, but a very orderly company of some twenty
men, soberly arrayed in leather hacketons and salades of bright steel,
marching sword on thigh and pike on shoulder. At the head of this
company rode a powerfully- built man on a great sorrel horse, at sight
of whom the fool swore softly in astonishment. In the middle of the
party came four litters borne by mules, and at the side of one of them
rode a slender, graceful figure that provoked from Peppe a second
oath. But the profoundest objurgation of all was wrung from him at
sight of a portly bulk in the black habit of the Dominicans ambling in
the rear, who just then was in angry altercation with a fellow that
was urging his mule along with the butt of his partisan.
"May you be roasted on a gridiron like Saint Lawrence," gasped the
irate priest. "Would you break my neck, brute beast that you are? Do
you but wait until we reach Roccaleone, and by St. Dominic, I'll get
your ruffianly commander to hang you for this ill-seasoned jest."
But his tormentor laughed for answer, and smote the mule again, a
blow this time that almost caused it to rear up. The friar cried out
in angry alarm, and then, still storming and threatening his
persecutor, he passed on. After him came six heavily-laden carts,
each drawn by a pair of bullocks, and the rear of the procession was
brought up by a flock of a dozen bleating sheep, herded by a
blasphemant man-at-arms. They passed the astonished watchers, who
remained concealed until that odd company had melted away into the
"I could swear," said Fanfulla, "that that friar and I have met
"Nor would you do a perjury," answered him the fool. "For it is
that fat hog Fra Domenico--he that went with you to the Convent of
Acquasparta to fetch unguents for his Excellency."
"What does he in that company, and who are they?" asked the Count,
turning to the fool as they rode out of their ambush.
"Ask me where the devil keeps his lures," quoth the fool, and I'll
make some shift to answer you. But as for what does Fra Domenico in
that galley, it is more than I can hazard a guess on. He is not the
only one known to me," Peppino added, "There was Ercole Fortemani, a
great, dirty, blustering ruffian whom I never saw in aught but rags,
riding at their heads in garments of most unwonted wholeness; and
there was Romeo Gonzaga, whom I never knew to stir by night save to an
assignation. Strange things must be happening in Urbino."
"And the litters?" inquired Francesco, "Can you hazard no guess as
to their meaning?"
"None," said he, "saving that they may account for the presence of
Messer Gonzaga. For litters argue women."
"It seems, fool, that not even your wisdom shall avail us. But you
heard the friar say they were bound for Roccaleone?"
"Yes, I heard that. And by means of it we shall probably learn the
rest at the end of our journey."
And being a man of extremely inquisitive mind, the fool set his
inquiries on foot the moment they entered the gates of Urbino in the
morning--for they had reached the city over-late to gain admittance
that same night, and were forced to seek shelter in one of the houses
by the river. It was of the Captain of the Gate that he sought
"Can you tell me, Ser Capitan," he inquired, "what company was that
that travelled yesternight to Roccaleone?"
The captain looked at him a moment.
"There was none that I know of," said he, "Certainly none from
"You keep a marvellous watch," said the fool drily. "I tell you
that a company of men-at-arms some twenty strong went last night from
Urbino to Roccaleone."
"To Roccaleone?" echoed the captain, with a musing air, more
attentively than before, as if the repetition of that name had
suggested something to his mind. "Why, it is the castle of Monna
"True, sapient sir. But what of the company, and why was it
travelling so, by night?"
"How know you it proceeded from Urbino?" quoth the captain
"Because at its head I recognised the roaring warrior Ercole
Fortemani, in the middle rode Romeo Gonzaga, in the rear came Fra
Domenico, Madonna's confessor--men of Urbino all."
The officer's face grew purple at the news.
"Were there any women in the party?" he cried.
"I saw none," replied the fool, in whom this sudden eagerness of
the captain's awakened caution and reflection.
"But there were four litters," put in Francesco, whose nature was
less suspicious and alert than the wise fool's.
Too late Peppe scowled caution at him. The captain swore a great
"It is she," he cried, with assurance. "And this company was
travelling to Roccaleone, you say. How know you that?"
"We heard it from the friar," answered Francesco readily.
"Then, by the Virgin! we have them. Olá!" He turned from them,
and ran shouting into the gatehouse, to re-emerge a moment later with
half-dozen soldiers at his heels.
"To the Palace," he commanded, and as his men surrounded
Francesco's party, "Come, sir," he said to the Count. "You must go
with us, and tell your story to the Duke."
"There is no need for all this force," answered Francesco coldly.
"In any case, I could not pass through Urbino without seeing Duke
Guidobaldo. I am the Count of Aquila."
At once the captain's bearing grew respectful. He made his
apologies for the violent measures of his zeal, and bade his men fall
behind. Ordering them to follow him, he mounted a horse that was
brought him, and rode briskly through the borgo at the Count's side.
And as he rode he told them what the jester's quick intuition had
already whispered to him. The lady Valentina was fled from Urbino in
the night, and in her company were gone three of her ladies, and--it
was also supposed, since they had disappeared--Fra Domenico and Romeo
Aghast at what he heard, Francesco pressed his informer for more
news; but there was little more that the captain could tell him,
beyond the fact that it was believed she had been driven to it to
escape her impending marriage with the Duke of Babbiano. Guidobaldo
was distraught at what had happened, and anxious to bring the lady
back before news of her behaviour should reach the ears of Gian Maria.
It was, therefore, a matter of no little satisfaction to the captain
that the task should be his to bear Guidobaldo this news of her
whereabouts which from Francesco and the jester he had derived.
Peppe looked glum and sullen. Had he but bridled his cursed
curiosity, and had the Count but taken the alarm in time and held his
peace, all might have been well with his beloved patrona. As it was,
he--the one man ready to die that he might serve her--had been the
very one to betray her refuge. He heard the Count's laugh, and the
sound of it was fuel to his anger. But Francesco only thought of the
splendid daring of the lady's action.
"But these men-at-arms that she had with her?" he cried. "For what
purpose so numerous a bodyguard?"
The captain looked at him a moment.
"Can you not guess?" he inquired. "Perhaps you do not know the
Castle of Roccaleone."
"It were odd if I did not know the most impregnable fortress in
"Why, then, does it not become clear? She has taken this company
for a garrison, and in Roccaleone she clearly intends to resist in
rebel fashion the wishes of his Highness."
At that the Count threw back his head, and scared the passers-by
with as hearty a peal of laughter as ever crossed his lips.
"By the Host!" he gasped, laughter still choking his utterance.
"There is a maid for you! Do you hear what the captain says,
Fanfulla? She means to resist this wedding by armed force if needs
be. Now, on my soul, if Guidobaldo insists upon the union after this,
why, then, he has no heart, no feeling. As I live, she is a kinswoman
that such a warlike prince might well be proud of. Small wonder that
they do not fear the Borgia in Urbino." And he laughed again. But
the captain scowled at him, and Peppe frowned.
"She is a rebellious jade," quoth the captain sourly.
"Nay, softly," returned Francesco; for all that he still laughed.
"If you were of knightly rank I'd break a lance with you on that
score. As it is----" he paused, his laughter ceased, and his dark
eyes took the captain's measure in a curious way. "Best leave her
uncensured, Ser Capitano. She is of the house of Rovere, and closely
allied to that of Montefeltro."
The officer felt the rebuke, and silence reigned between them after
It was whilst Francesco, Fanfulla and Peppe waited in the
ante-chamber for admittance to the Duke that the jester vented some of
the bitterness he felt at their babbling. The splendid room was
thronged with a courtly crowd. There were magnificent nobles and
envoys, dark ecclesiastics and purple prelates, captains in steel and
court officers in silk and velvet. Yet, heedless of who might hear
him, Peppe voiced his rebuke, and the terms he employed were neither
as measured nor as respectful as the Count's rank dictated. Yet with
that fairness of mind that made him so universally beloved, Francesco
offered no resentment to the fool's reproof. He saw that it was
deserved, for it threw upon the matter a light that was new and more
searching. But he presently saw further than did the fool, and he
smiled at the other's scowls.
"Not so loud Peppe," said he. "You over-estimate the harm. At
worst, we have but anticipated by a little what the Duke must have
learnt from other sources."
"But it is just that little--the few hours or days--that will do
the mischief," snapped the jester testily, for all that he lowered his
voice. "In a few days Gian Maria will be back. If he were met with
the news that the Lady Valentina were missing, that she had run away
with Romeo Gonzaga--for that, you'll see, will presently be the
tale--do you think he would linger here, or further care to pursue his
wooing? Not he. These alliances that are for State purposes alone, in
which the heart plays no part, demand, at least, that on the lady's
side there shall be a record unblemished by the breath of scandal.
His Highness would have returned him home, and Madonna would have
been rid of him."
"But at a strange price, Peppe," answered Franeesco gravely.
"Still," he added, "I agree that I would have served her purpose
better by keeping silent. But that such an affair will cool the
ardour of my cousin I do not think. You are wrong in placing this
among the alliances in which the heart has no part. On my cousin's
side--if all they say be true--the heart plays a very considerable
part indeed. But, for the rest--what harm have we done?"
"Time will show," said the hunchback.
"It will show, then, that I have done no hurt whatever to her
interests. By now she is safe in Roccaleone. What, then, can befall
her? Guidobaldo, no doubt, will repair to her, and across the moat he
will entreat her to be a dutiful niece and to return. She will offer
to do so on condition that he pass her his princely word not to
further molest her with the matter of this marriage. And then?"
"Well?" growled the fool, "And then? Who shall say what may befall
then? Let us say that his Highness reduces her by force."
"A siege?" laughed the Count. "Pooh! Where is your wisdom, fool!
Do you think the splendid Guidobaldo is eager to become the sport of
Italy, and go down to posterity as the duke who besieged his niece
because she resisted his ordainings touching the matter of her
"Guidobaldo da Montefeltro can be a violent man upon occasion," the
fool was answering, when the officer who had left them reappeared with
the announcement that his Highness awaited them.
They found the Prince in a very gloomy mood, and after greeting
Francesco with cool ceremony, he questioned him on the matter of the
company they had met yesternight. These inquiries he conducted with
characteristic dignity, and no more show of concern than if it had
been an affair of a strayed falcon. He thanked Francesco for his
information, and gave orders that the seneschal should place
apartments at his and Fanfulla's disposal for as long as it should
please them to grace his court. With that he dismissed them, bidding
the officer remain to receive his orders.
"And that," said Francesco to Peppe, as they crossed the
ante-chamber in the wake of a servant, "is the man who would lay siege
to his niece's castle? For once, sir fool, your wisdom is at fault."
"You do not know the Duke, Excellency," answered the fool.
"Beneath that frozen exterior burns a furnace, and there is no
madness he would not commit."
But Francesco only laughed as, linking arms with Fanfulla, he
passed down the gallery on his way to the apartments to which the
servant was conducting them.
CHAPTER XIII. GIAN MARIA MAKES A VOW
In a measure the events that followed would almost tend to show
that the fool was right. For even if the notion of besieging
Valentina and reducing her by force of arms was not Guidobaldo's own
in the first place, yet he lent a very willing ear to the counsel that
they should thus proceed, when angrily urged two days thereafter by
the Duke of Babbiano.
Upon hearing the news Gian Maria had abandoned himself to such a
licence of rage as made those about him tremble from the highest to
the meanest. The disappointment of his passion was in itself
justification enough for this; but, in addition, Gian Maria beheld in
the flight of Valentina the frustration of those bold schemes of which
had talked so loudly to his councillors and his mother. It was his
confidence in those same schemes that had induced him to send that
defiant answer to Caesar Borgia. As a consequence of this there was
haste--most desperate haste--that he should wed, since wedding was to
lend him the power to carry out his brave promises of protecting his
crown from the Duke of Valentinois, not to speak of the utter routing
of the Borgia which he had wildly undertaken to accomplish.
That the destinies of States should be tossed to the winds of
Heaven by a slip of a girl was to him something as insufferable as it
had been unexpected.
"She must be brought back!" he had screeched, in his towering
passion. "She must be brought back at once."
"True!" answered Guidobaldo, in his serene way; "she must be
brought back. So far, I agree with you entirely. Tell me, now, how
the thing is to be accomplished." And there was sarcasm in his voice.
"What difficulties does it present?" inquired Gian Maria.
"No difficulties," was the ironical reply. "She has shut herself
up in the stoutest castle in Italy, and tells me that she will not
come forth until I promise her freedom of choice in the matter of
marriage. Clearly, there are no difficulties attached to her being
Gian Maria showed his teeth.
"Do you give me leave to go about it in my own way?" he asked.
"Not only do I give you leave, but I'll render you all the
assistance in my power, if you can devise a means for luring her from
"I hesitate no longer. Your niece, Lord Duke, is a rebel, and as a
rebel is she to be treated. She has garrisoned a castle, and hurled
defiance at the ruler of the land. It is a declaration of war,
Highness, and war we shall have."
"You would resort to force?" asked Guidobaldo, disapproval lurking
in his voice.
"To the force of arms, your Highness," answered Gian Maria, with
prompt fierceness. "I will lay siege to this castle of hers, and I
shall tear it stone from stone. Oh, I would have wooed her nicely had
she let me, with gentle words and mincing ways that maidens love. But
since she defies us, I'll woo her with arquebuse and cannon, and seek
by starvation to make her surrender to my suit. My love shall put on
armour to subject her, and I vow to God that I shall not shave my
beard until I am inside her castle."
Guidobaldo looked grave.
"I should counsel gentler measures," said he. "Besiege her if you
will, but do not resort to too much violence. Cut off their resources
and let hunger be your advocate. Even so, I fear me, you will be
laughed at by all Italy," he added bluntly.
"A fig for that! Let the fools laugh if they be minded to. What
forces has she at Roccaleone?"
At the question Guidobaldo's brow grew dark. It was as if he had
recalled some circumstance that had lain forgotten.
"Some twenty knaves led by a notorious ruffian of the name of
Fortemani. The company was enrolled, they tell me, by a gentleman of
my court, a kinsman of my Duchess, Messer Romeo Gonzaga."
"Is he with her now?" gasped Gian Maria.
"It would seem he is."
"By the Virgin's Ring of Perugia!" spluttered Gian Maria in
increased dismay. "Do you suggest that they fled together?"
"My lord!" Guidobaldo's voice rang sharp and threatening. "It is
of my niece that you are speaking. She took this gentleman with her
just as she took three of her ladies and a page or two, to form such
attendance as befits her birth."
Gian Maria took a turn in the apartment, a frown wrinkling his
brow, and his lips pressed tight. Guidobaldo's proud words by no
means convinced him. But the one preponderating desire in his heart
just then was to humble the girl who had dared to flout him, to make
her bend her stubborn neck. At last:
"I may indeed become the laughing-stock of Italy," he muttered, in
a concentrated voice, "but I shall carry my resolve through, and my
first act upon entering Roccaleone will be to hang this knave Gonzaga
from its highest turret."
That very day Gian Maria began his preparations for the expedition
against Roccaleone, and word of it was carried by Fanfulla to
Francesco-- for the latter had left his quarters at the palace upon
hearing of Gian Maria's coming, and was now lodging at the sign of the
Upon hearing the news he swore a mighty oath in which he consigned
his cousin to the devil, by whom, in that moment, he pronounced him
"Do you think," he asked, when he was calmer," that this man
Gonzaga is her lover?"
"It is more than I can say," answered Fanfulla. "There is the fact
that she fled with him. Though when I questioned Peppe on this same
subject he first laughed the notion to scorn, and then grew grave.
'She loves him not, the popinjay,' he said; 'but he loves her, or I
am blind else, and he's a villain, I know.'"
Francesco stood up, his face mighty serious, and his dark eyes full
of uneasy thought.
"By the Host! It is a shameful thing," he cried out at last.
"This poor lady so beset on every hand by a parcel of villains, each
more unscrupulous than the other. Fanfulla, send for Peppe. We must
despatch the fool to her with warning of Gian Maria's coming, and
warning, too, against this man of Mantua she has fled with."
"Too late," answered Fanfulla. "The fool departed this morning for
Roccaleone, to join his patrona."
Francesco looked his dismay.
"She will be undone," he groaned. "Thus between the upper and the
nether stone--between Gian Maria and Romeo Gonzaga. Gesù! she will be
undone! And she so brave and so high-spirited!"
He moved slowly to the casement, and stood staring at the windows
across the street, on which the setting sun fell in a ruddy glow. But
it was not the windows that he saw. It was a scene in the woods at
Acquasparta on that morning after the mountain fight; a man lying
wounded in the bracken, and over him a gentle lady bending with eyes
of pity and solicitude. Often since had his thoughts revisited that
scene, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a sigh, and sometimes
with both at once.
He turned suddenly upon Fanfulla. "I will go myself," he
"You?" echoed Fanfulla. "But the Venetians?"
By a gesture the Count signified how little the Venetians weighed
with him when compared with the fortunes of this lady.
"I am going to Roccaleone," he insisted, "now--at once." And
striding to the door he beat his hands together and called Lanciotto.
"You said, Fanfulla, that in these days there are no longer maidens
held in bondage to whom a knight-errant may lend aid. You were at
fault, for in Monna Valentina we have the captive maiden, in my cousin
the dragon, in Gonzaga another, and in me the errant knight who is
destined--I hope-- to save her."
"You will save her from Gian Maria?" questioned Fanfulla
"I will attempt it."
He turned to his servant, who entered as he spoke.
"We set out in a quarter of an hour, Lanciotto," said he. "Saddle
for me and for yourself. You are to go with me. Zaccaria may remain
with Messer degli Arcipreti. You will care for him, Fanfulla, and he
will serve you well."
"But what of me?" cried Fanfulla. "Do I not accompany you?"
"If you will, yes. But you might serve me better by returning to
Babbiano and watching the events there, sending me word of what
befalls-- for great things will befall soon if my cousin returns not
and the Borga advances. It is upon this that I am founding such hopes
as I have."
"But whither shall I send you word? To Roccaleone?"
Francesco reflected a moment. "If you do not hear from me, then
send your news to Roccaleone, for if I should linger there and we are
besieged, it will perhaps be impossible to send a message to you. But
if--as I hope--I go to Aquila, I will send you word of it."
"Yes. It may be that I shall be at Aquila before the week is out.
But keep it secret, Fanfulla, and I'll fool these dukes to the very
top of their unhealthy bent."
A half-hour later the Count of Aquila, mounted on a stout Calabrian
horse, and attended by Lanciotto on a mule, rode gently down towards
the valley. They went unnoticed, for what cared for them the peasants
that sang at their labours in the contado?
They met a merchant, whose servant was urging his laden sumpters up
the hilly road to the city on the heights, and they passed him with a
courteous greeting. Farther they came upon a mounted company of
nobles and ladies, returning from a hawking party, and followed by
attendants bearing their hooded falcons, and their gay laughter still
rang in Francesco's ears after he had passed from their sight and
vanished in the purple mists of eventide that came up to meet him from
They turned westward towards the Apennines, and pushed on after
night had fallen, until the fourth hour, when at Francesco's
suggestion they drew rein before a sleepy, wayside locanda, and awoke
the host to demand shelter. There they slept no longer than until
matins, so that the grey light of dawn saw them once more upon their
way, and by the time the sun had struck with its first golden shaft
the grey crest of the old hills, they drew rein on the brink of the
roaring torrent at the foot of the mighty crag that was crowned by the
Castle of Roccaleone.
Grim and gaunt it loomed above the fertile vale, with that torrent
circling it in a natural moat, like a giant sentinel of the Apennines
that were its background. And now the sunlight raced down the slopes
of the old mountains like a tide. It smote the square tower of the
keep, then flowed adown the wall, setting the old grey stone
a-gleaming, and flashing back from a mullioned window placed high up.
Lower it came, revealing grotesque gargoyles, flooding the
crenellated battlements and turning green the ivy and lichen that but
a moment back had blackened the stout, projecting buttresses. Thence
it leapt to the ground, and drove the shadow before it down the grassy
slope, until it reached the stream and sparkled on its foaming,
tumbling waters, scattering a hundred colours through the flying
And all that time, until the sun had reached him and included him
in the picture it was awakening, the Count of Aquila sat in his
saddle, with thoughtful eyes uplifted to the fortress.
Then, Lanciotto following him, he walked his horse round the
western side, where the torrent was replaced by a smooth arm of water,
for which a cutting had been made to complete the isolation of the
crag of Roccaleone. But here, where the castle might more easily have
become vulnerable, a blank wall greeted him, broken by no more than a
narrow slit or two midway below the battlements. He rode on towards
the northern side, crossing a footbridge that spanned the river, and
at last coming to a halt before the entrance tower. Here again the
moat was formed by the torrential waters of the mountain stream.
He bade his servant rouse the inmates, and Lanciotto hallooed in a
voice that nature had made deep and powerful. The echo of it went
booming up to scare the birds on the hillside, but evoked no answer
from the silent castle.
"They keep a zealous watch," laughed the Count. "Again,
The man obeyed him, and again and again his deep voice rang out
like a trumpet-call before sign was made from within that it had been
heard. At length, above the parapet of the tower appeared a stunted
figure with head unkempt, as grotesque almost as any of the gargoyles
beneath, and an owlish face peered at them from one of the crenels of
the battlement, and demanded, in surly, croaking tones their business.
Instantly the Count recognised Peppe.
"Good morrow, fool," he bade him.
"You, my lord?" exclaimed the jester.
"You sleep soundly at Roccaleone," quoth Francesco. "Bestir that
knavish garrison of yours, and bid the lazy dogs let down the bridge.
I have news for Monna Valentina."
"At once, Excellency," the fool replied, and would have gone upon
the instant but that Francesco recalled him.
"Say, Peppe, a knight--the knight she met at Acquasparta, if you
will. But leave my name unspoken."
With the assurance that he would obey his wishes Peppe went his
errand. A slight delay ensued, and then upon the battlements appeared
Gonzaga, sleepy and contentious, attended by a couple of Fortemani's
knaves, who came to ask the nature of Francesco's business.
"It is with Monna Valentina," answered him Francesco, raising head
and voice, so that Gonzaga recognised him for the wounded knight of
Acquasparta, remembered and scowled.
"I am Monna Valentina's captain here," he announced, with
arrogance. "And you may deliver to me such messages as you bear."
There followed a contention, conducted ill-humouredly on the part
of Gonzaga and scarcely less so on the Count's, Francesco stoutly
refusing to communicate his business to any but Valentina, and Gonzaga
as stoutly refusing to disturb the lady at that hour, or to lower the
bridge. Words flew between them across the waters of the moat, and
grew hotter at each fresh exchange, till in the end they were abruptly
terminated by the appearance of Valentina herself, attended by
"What is this, Gonzaga?" she inquired, her manner excited, for the
fool had told her that it was the knight Francesco who sought
admittance, and at the very mention of the name she had flushed, then
paled, then started for the ramparts. "Why is this knight denied
admittance since he bears a message for me?" And from where she stood
she sought with admiring eyes the graceful shape of the Count of
Aquila--the knight-errant of her dreams. Francesco bared his head,
and bent to the withers of his horse in courteous greeting. She
turned to Gonzaga impatiently.
"For what do you wait?" she cried. "Have you not understood my
wishes? Let the bridge be lowered."
"Bethink you, Madonna," he remonstrated. "You do not know this
man. He may be a spy of Gian Maria's--a hireling paid to betray us."
"You fool," she answered sharply. "Do you not see that it is the
wounded knight we met that day you were escorting me to Urbino?"
"What shall that signify?" demanded he. "Is it proof of his
honesty of purpose or loyalty to you? Be advised, Madonna, and let
him deliver his message from where he is. He is safer there."
She measured him with a determined eye.
"Messer Gonzaga, order them to lower the bridge," she bade him.
"But, lady, bethink you of your peril."
"Peril?" she echoed. "Peril from two men, and we a garrison of
over twenty? Surely the man is a coward who talks so readily of
perils. Have the drawbridge lowered."
"But if----" he began, with a desperate vehemence, when again she
cut him short.
"Am I to be obeyed? Am I mistress, and will you bid them lower the
bridge, or must I, myself, go see to it?"
With a look of despairing anger and a shrug of the shoulders he
turned from her, and despatched one of his men with an order. A few
moments later, with a creaking of hinges and a clanking of chains, the
great bridge swung down and dropped with a thud to span the gulf.
Instantly the Count spurred his horse forward, and followed by
Lanciotto rode across the plank and under the archway of the entrance
tower into the first courtyard.
Now, scarcely had he drawn rein there when through a door at the
far end appeared the gigantic figure of Fortemani, half-clad and sword
in hand. At sight of Francesco the fellow leaped down a half-dozen
steps, and advanced towards him with a burst of oaths.
"To me!" he shouted, in a voice that might have waked the dead.
"Olá! Olá! What devil's work is this? How come you here? By whose
orders was the bridge let down?"
"By the orders of Monna Valentina's captain," answered Francesco,
wondering what madman might be this.
"Captain?" cried the other, coming to a standstill and his face
turning purple. "Body of Satan! What captain? I am captain here."
The Count looked him over in surprise.
"Why, then," said he, "you are the very man I seek. I congratulate
you on the watch you keep, Messer Capitano. Your castle is so
excellently patrolled that had I been minded for a climb I had scaled
your walls and got within your gates without arousing any of your
Fortemani eyed him with a lowering glance. The prosperity of the
past four days had increased the insolence inherent in the man.
"Is that your affair?" he growled menacingly. "You are over-bold,
sir stranger, to seek a quarrel with me, and over-pert to tell me how
I shall discharge my captaincy. By the Passion! You shall be
"Punished--I?" echoed Francesco, on whose brow there now descended
a scowl as black as Ercole's own.
"Aye, punished, young sir. Ercole Fortemani is my name."
"I have heard of you," answered the Count contemptuously, "and of
how you belie that name of yours, for they tell me that a more
drunken, cowardly, good-for-nothing rogue is not to be found in
Italy--no, not even in the Pope's dominions. And have a care how you
cast the word 'punishment' at your betters, animal. The moat is none
so distant, and the immersion may profit you. For I'll swear you've
not been washed since they baptized you--if, indeed, you be a son of
Mother Church at all."
"Sangue di Cristo!" spluttered the enraged bully, his face mottled.
"This to me? Come down from that horse."
He laid hold of Francesco's leg to drag him to the ground, but the
Count wrenched it free by a quick motion that left a gash from his
spur upon the captain's hands. Simultaneously he raised his whip, and
would have laid the lash of it across the broad of Fortemani's
back--for it had angered him beyond words to have a ruffian of this
fellow's quality seeking to ruffle it with him--but at that moment a
female voice, stern and imperative, bade them hold in their quarrel.
Fortemani fell back nursing his lacerated hand and muttering
curses, whilst Francesco turned in the direction whence that voice had
come. Midway on the flight of stone steps he beheld Valentina,
followed by Gonzaga, Peppe, and a couple of men-at-arms, descending
from the battlements.
Calm and queenly she stood, dressed in a camorra of grey velvet
with black sleeves, which excellently set off her handsome height.
Gonzaga was leaning forward, speaking into her ear, and for all that
his voice was subdued, some of his words travelled down to Francesco
on the still, morning air.
"Was I not wise, Madonna, in that I hesitated to admit him? You
see what manner of man he is."
The blood flamed in Francesco's cheeks, nor did it soften his
chagrin to note the look which Valentina flashed down at him.
Instantly he leapt to the ground, and flinging his reins to
Lanciotto he went forward to the foot of that stone staircase, his
broad hat slung back upon his shoulders, to meet that descending
"Is this seemly, sir?" she questioned angrily. "Does it become you
to brawl with my garrison the moment you are admitted?"
The blood rose higher in Francesco's face, and now suffused his
temples and reached his hair. Yet his voice was well restrained as he
"Madonna, this knave was insolent."
"An insolence that you no doubt provoked," put in Gonzaga, a dimple
showing on his woman's check. But the sterner rebuke fell from the
lips of Valentina.
"Knave?" she questioned, with flushed countenance. "If you would
not have me regret your admittance, Messer Francesco, I pray you curb
your words. Here are no knaves. That, sir, is the captain of my
Francesco bowed submissively, as patient under her reproof as he
had been hasty under Fortemani's.
"It was on the matter of this captaincy that we fell to words," he
answered, with more humility. "By his own announcement I understood
this nobleman"--and his eyes turned to Gonzaga--"to be your captain."
"He is the captain of my castle," she informed him.
"As you see, Ser Francesco," put in Peppe, who had perched himself
upon the balustrade, "we suffer from no lack of captains here. We
have also Fra Domenico, who is captain of our souls and of the
kitchen; myself am captain of----"
"Devil take you, fool," snapped Gonzaga, thrusting him roughly from
his perch. Then turning abruptly to the Count: "You bear a message
for us, sir?" he questioned loftily.
Swallowing the cavalier tone, and overlooking the pronoun Gonzaga
employed, Francesco inclined his head again to the lady.
"I should prefer to deliver it in more privacy than this." And his
eye travelled round the court and up the steps behind, where was now
collected the entire company of Fortemani. Gonzaga sneered and tossed
his golden curls, but Valentina saw naught unreasonable in the
request, and bidding Romeo attend her and Francesco follow, she led
They crossed the quadrangle, and, mounting the steps down which
Fortemani had dashed to meet the Count, they passed into the
banqueting-hall, which opened directly upon the south side of the
courtyard. The Count, following in her wake, ran the gauntlet of
scowls of the assembled mercenaries. He stalked past them unmoved,
taking their measure as he went, and estimating their true value with
the unerring eye of the practised condottiero who has had to do with
the enrolling of men and the handling of them. So little did he like
their looks that on the threshold of the hall he paused and stayed
"I am loath to leave my servant at the mercy of those ruffians,
sir. May I beg that you will warn them against offering him
"Ruffians?" cried the lady angrily, before Gonzaga could offer a
reply. "They are my soldiers."
Again he bowed, and there was a cold politeness in the tones in
which he answered her:
"I crave your pardon, and I will say no more--unless it be to
deplore that I may not felicitate you on your choice."
It was Gonzaga's turn to wax angry, for the choice had been his.
"Your message will have need to be a weighty one, sir, to earn our
patience for your impertinence."
Francesco returned the look of those blue eyes which vainly sought
to flash ferociously, and he made little attempt to keep his scorn
from showing in his glance. He permitted himself even to shrug his
shoulders a trifle impatiently.
"Indeed, indeed, I think that I had best begone," he answered
regretfully, "for it is a place whose inmates seem all bent on
quarrelling with me. First your captain Fortemani greets me with an
insolence hard to leave unpunished. You, yourself, Madonna, resent
that I should crave protection for my man against those fellows whose
looks give rise for my solicitation. You are angry that I should dub
them ruffians, as if I had followed the calling of arms these ten
years without acquiring knowledge of the quality of a man however much
you may disguise him. And lastly, to crown all, this cicisbeo"--and
he spread a hand contemptuously towards Gonzaga--"speaks of my
"Madonna," cried Gonzaga, "I beg that you will let me deal with
Unwittingly, unwillingly, Gonzaga saved the situation by that
prayer. The anger that was fast rising in Madonna's heart, stirred by
the proud bearing of the Count, was scattered before the unconscious
humour of her captain's appeal, in such ludicrous contrast was his
mincing speech and slender figure with Francesco's firm tones and
lean, active height. She did not laugh, for that would have been to
have spoilt all, but she looked from one to the other with quiet
relish, noting the glance of surprise and raised eyebrows with which
the Count received the courtier's request to be let deal with him.
And thus, being turned from anger, the balance of her mind was quick
to adjust itself, and she bethought her that perhaps there was reason
in what this knight advanced, and that his reception had lacked the
courtesy that was his due. In a moment, with incomparable grace and
skill, she had soothed Gonzaga's ruffled vanity, and appeased the
Count's more sturdy resentment.
"And now, Messer Francesco," she concluded, "let us be friends, and
let me hear your business. I beg that you will sit."
They had passed into the banqueting-hall--a noble apartment, whose
walls were frescoed with hunting and pastoral scenes, one or two of
which were the work of Pisaniello. There were, too, some stray
trophies of the chase, and, here and there, a suit of costly armour
that caught the sunlight pouring through the tall, mullioned windows.
At the far end stood a richly carved screen of cedar, and above this
appeared the twisted railing of the minstrels' gallery. In a tall
armchair of untanned leather, at the head of the capacious board,
Monna Valentina sate herself, Gonzaga taking his stand at her elbow,
and Francesco fronting her, leaning lightly against the table.
"The news I bear you, lady, is soon told," said the Count. "I
would its quality were better. Your suitor Gian Maria returning to
Guidobaldo's court, eager for the nuptials that were promised him, has
learnt of your flight to Roccaleone and is raising--indeed will have
raised by now--an army to invest and reduce your fortress."
Gonzaga turned as pale as the vest of white silk that gleamed
beneath his doublet of pearl-coloured velvet at this realisation of
the prophecies he had uttered without believing. A sickly fear
possessed his soul. What fate would they mete out to him who had been
the leading spirit in Valentina's rebellion? He could have groaned
aloud at this miscarriage of all his fine plans. Where now would be
the time to talk of love, to press and carry his suit with Valentina
and render himself her husband? These would be war in the air, and
bloody work that made his skin creep and turn cold to ponder on. And
the irony of it all was keenly cruel. It was the very contingency that
he had prophesied, assured that neither Guidobaldo nor Gian Maria
would be so mad as to court ridicule by engaging upon it.
For a second Francesco's eyes rested on the courtier's face, and
saw the fear written there for all to read. The shadow of a smile
quivered on his lips as his glance moved on to meet the eyes of
Valentina, sparkling as sparkles frost beneath the sun.
"Why, let them come!" she exclaimed, almost in exultation. "This
ducal oaf shall find me very ready for him. We are armed at all
points. We have victuals to last us three months, if need be, and we
have no lack of weapons. Let Gian Maria come, and he will find
Valentina della Rovere none so easy to reduce. To you, sir," she
continued, with more calm, "to you on whom I have no claim, I am more
than grateful for your chivalrous act in riding here to warn me."
Francesco sighed; a look of regret crossed his face.
"Alas!" he said. "When I rode hither, Madonna, I had hoped to
serve you to a better purpose. I had advice to offer and assistance
if you should need it; but the sight of those men-at-arms of yours
makes me fear that it is not advice upon which it would be wise to
act. For the plan I had in mind, it would be of the first importance
that your soldiers should be trustworthy, and this, I fear me, they
"Nevertheless," put in Gonzaga feverishly, clinging to a slender
hope, "let us hear it."
"I beg that you will," said Valentina.
Thus enjoined, Francesco pondered a moment.
"Are you acquainted with the politics of Babbiano?" he inquired.
"I know something of them."
"I will make the position quite clear to you, Madonna," he
rejoined. And with that he told her of the threatened descent of
Caesar Borgia upon Gian Maria's duchy, and hence, of the little time
at her suitor's disposal; so that if he could but be held in check
before the walls of Roccaleone for a little while, all might be well.
"But seeing in what haste he is," he ended, "his methods are likely
to be rough and desperate, and I had thought that meanwhile you need
not remain here, Madonna."
"Not remain?" she cried, scorn of the notion in her voice. "Not
remain?" quoth Gonzaga timorously, hope sounding in his.
"Precisely, Madonna. I would have proposed that you leave Gian
Maria an empty nest, so that even if the castle should fall into his
hands he would gain nothing."
"You would advise me to fly?" she demanded.
"I came prepared to do so, but the sight of your men restrains me.
They are not trustworthy, and to save their dirty skins they might
throw Roccaleone open to the besiegers, and thus your flight would be
discovered, while yet there might be time to render it futile."
Before she could frame an answer there was Gonzaga feverishly
urging her to act upon so wise and timely a suggestion, and seek
safety in flight from a place that Gian Maria would tear stone from
stone. His words pattered quickly and piteously in entreaty, till in
the end, facing him squarely:
"Are you afraid, Gonzaga?" she asked him.
"I am--afraid for you, Madonna," he answered readily.
"Then let your fears have peace. For whether I stay or whether I
go, one thing is certain: Gian Maria never shall set hands upon me."
She turned again to Francesco. "I see a certain wisdom in the
counsel of flight you would have offered me, no less than in what I
take to be your advice that I should remain. Did I but consult my
humour I should stay and deliver battle when this tyrant shows
himself. But prudence, too, must be consulted, and I will give the
matter thought." And now she thanked him with a generous charm for
having come to her with this news and proffered his assistance, asking
what motives brought him.
"Such motives as must ever impel a knight to serve a lady in
distress," said he, "and perhaps, too, the memory of the charity with
which you tended my wounds that day at Acquasparta."
For a second their glances met, quivered in the meeting, and fell
apart again, an odd confusion in the breast of each, all of which
Gonzaga, sunk in moody rumination, observed not. To lighten the
awkward silence that was fallen, she asked him how it had transpired
so soon that it was to Roccaleone she had fled.
"Do you not know?" he cried. "Has not Peppe told you?"
"I have had no speech with him. He but reached the castle,
himself, late last night, and I first saw him this morning when he
came to announce your presence."
And then, before more could be said, there arose a din of shouting
from without. The door was pushed suddenly open, and Peppe darted
into the room.
"Your man, Ser Francesco" he cried, his face white with excitement.
"Come quickly, or they will kill him."
CHAPTER XIV. FORTEMANI DRINKS WATER
The thing had begun with the lowering glances that Francesco had
observed, and had grown to gibes and insults after he had disappeared.
But Lanciotto had preserved an unruffled front, being a man schooled
in the Count of Aquila's service to silence and a wondrous patience.
This insensibility those hinds translated into cowardice, and
emboldened by it--like the mongrels that they were--their
offensiveness grew more direct and gradually more threatening.
Lanciotto's patience was slowly oozing away, and indeed, it was no
longer anything but the fear of provoking his master's anger that
restrained him. At length one burly ruffian, who had bidden him
remove his head-piece in the company of gentlemen, and whose request
had been by Lanciotto as disregarded as the rest, advanced menacingly
towards him and caught him by the leg, as Ercole had caught his
master. Exasperated at that, Lanciotto had swung his leg free, and
caught the rash fellow a vicious kick in the face that had felled him,
stunned and bleeding.
The roar from the man's companions told Lanciotto what to expect.
In an instant they were upon him, clamouring for his blood. He
sought to draw his master's sword, which together with the Count's
other armour was slung across his saddle-bow; but before he could
extricate it, he was seized by a dozen hands, and cropped, fighting,
from the saddle. On the ground they overpowered him, and a mailed
hand was set upon his mouth, crushing back into his throat the cry for
help he would have raised.
On the west side of the courtyard a fountain issuing from the wall
had once poured its water through a lion's head into a vast tank of
moss- grown granite. But it had been disused for some time, and the
pipe in the lion's mouth was dry. The tank, however, was more than
half full of water, which, during the late untenanting of the castle,
had turned foul and stagnant. To drown Lanciotto in this was the
amiable suggestion that emanated from Fortemani himself--a suggestion
uproariously received by his knaves, who set themselves to act upon
it. They roughly dragged the bleeding and frantically struggling
Lanciotto across the yard and gained the border of the tank, intending
fully to sink him into it and hold him under, to drown there like a
But in that instant a something burst upon him like a bolt from out
of Heaven. In one or two, and presently in more, the cruel laughter
turned to sudden howls of pain as a lash of bullock-hide caught them
about head and face and shoulders.
"Back there, you beasts, you animals, back!" roared a voice of
thunder, and back they went unquestioning before that pitiless lash,
like the pack of craven hounds they were.
It was Francesco, who, single-handed, and armed with no more than a
whip, was scattering them from about his maltreated servant, as the
hawk scatters a flight of noisy sparrows. And now between him and
Lanciotto there stood no more than the broad bulk of Ercole Fortemani,
his back to the Count; for, as yet, he had not realised the
Francesco dropped his whip, and setting one hand at the captain's
girdle, and the other at his dirty neck, he hoisted him up with a
strength incredible, and hurled him from his path and into the slimy
water of the tank.
There was a mighty roar drowned in a mightier splash as Fortemani,
spread-eagle, struck the surface and sank from sight, whilst with the
flying spray there came a fetid odour to tell of the unsavouriness of
that unexpected bath.
Without pausing to see the completion of his work, Francesco
stooped over his prostrate servant.
"Have the beasts hurt you, Lanciotto?" he questioned. But before
the fellow could reply, one of those hinds had sprung upon the
stooping Count, and struck him with a dagger between the
A woman's alarmed cry rang out, for Valentina was watching the
affray from the steps of the hall, with Gonzaga at her elbow.
But Francesco's quilted brigandine had stood the test of steel, and
the point of that assassin's dagger glanced harmlessly aside, doing no
worse hurt than a rent in the silk surface of the garment. A second
later the fellow found himself caught as in a bond of steel. The
dagger was wrenched from his grasp, and the point of it laid against
his breast even as the Count forced him down upon his knees.
In a flash was the thing done, yet to the wretched man who saw
himself upon the threshold of Eternity, and who--like a true son of
the Church-- had a wholesome fear of hell, it seemed an hour whilst,
with livid cheeks and eyes starting from his head, he waited for that
poniard to sink into his heart, as it was aimed. But not in his heart
did the blow fall. With a sudden snort of angry amusement, the Count
pitched the dagger from him and brought down his clenched fist with a
crushing force into the ruffian's face. The fellow sank unconscious
beneath that mighty blow, and Francesco, regaining the whip that lay
almost at his feet, rose up to confront what others there might be.
From the tank, standing breast-deep in that stinking water, his
head and face grotesquely masked in a vile green slime of putrid
vegetation, Ercole Fortemani bellowed with horrid blasphemy that he
would have his aggressor's blood, but stirred never a foot to take it.
Not that he was by nature wholly a coward; but inspired by a
wholesome fear of the man who could perform such a miracle of
strength, he remained out of Francesco's reach, well in the middle of
that square basin, and lustily roared orders to his men to tear the
fellow to pieces. But his men had seen enough of the Count's methods,
and made no advance upon that stalwart, dauntless figure that stood
waiting for them with a whip which several had already tasted.
Huddled together, more like a flock of frightened sheep than a body
of men of war, they stood near the entrance tower, the mock of Peppe,
who from the stone-gallery above--much to the amusement of Valentina's
ladies and two pert pages that were with him-- applauded in high-flown
terms their wondrous valour.
They stirred at last, but it was at Valentina's bidding. She had
been conferring with Gonzaga, who--giving it for his reason that she,
herself, might need protection--had remained beside her, well out of
the fray. She had been urging him to do something, and at last he had
obeyed her, and moved down the short flight of steps into the court;
but so reluctantly and slowly, that with an exclamation of impatience,
she suddenly brushed past him, herself to do the task she had begged
of him. Past Francesco she went, with a word of such commendation of
his valour and a look of such deep admiration, that the blood sprang,
responsive, to his cheek. She paused with a solicitous inquiry for
the now risen but sorely bruised Lanciotto. She flashed an angry look
and an angry command of silence at the great Ercole, still bellowing
from his tank, and then, within ten paces of his followers, she
halted, and with wrathful mien, and hand outstretched towards their
captain, she bade them arrest him.
That sudden, unexpected order struck dumb the vociferous Fortemani.
He ceased, and gaped at his men, who eyed one another now in doubt;
but the doubt was quickly dispelled by the lady's own words:
"You will make him prisoner, and conduct him to the guardroom, or I
will have you and him swept out of my castle," she informed them, as
confidently as though she had a hundred men-at-arms to do her bidding
A pace or so behind her stood the lily-cheeked Gonzaga, gnawing his
lip, timid and conjecturing. Behind him again loomed the stalwart
height of Francesco del Falco with, at his side, Lanciotto, of mien
almost as resolute as his own.
That was the full force with which the lady spoke of sweeping
them--as if they had been so much foulness--from Roccaleone, unless
they did her bidding. They were still hesitating, when the Count
advanced to Valentina's side.
"You have heard the choice our lady gives you," he said sternly.
"Let us know whether you will obey or disobey. This choice that is
yours now, may not be yours again. But if you elect to disobey
Madonna, the gate is behind you, the bridge still down. Get you
Furtively, from under lowering brows, Gonzaga darted a look of
impotent malice at the Count. Whatever issue had the affair, this man
must not remain in Roccaleone. He was too strong, too dominant, and
he would render himself master of the place by no other title than
that strength of his and that manner of command which Gonzaga
accounted a coarse, swashbuckling bully's gift, but would have given
much to be possessed of. Of how strong and dominant indeed he was
never had Francesco offered a more signal proof. Those men, bruised
and maltreated by him, would beyond doubt have massed together and
made short work of one less dauntless but when a mighty courage such
as his goes hand-in-hand with the habit of command, such hinds as they
can never long withstand it. They grumbled something among themselves,
and one of them at last made answer:
"Noble sir, it is our captain that we are bidden to arrest."
"True; but your captain, like yourselves, is in this lady's pay;
and she, your true, your paramount commander, bids you arrest him."
And now, whilst yet they hesitated, his quick wits flung them the
bait that must prove most attractive. "He has shown himself to-day
unfitted for the command entrusted him and it may become a question,
when he has been judged, of choosing one of you to fill the place he
may leave empty."
Hinds were they in very truth; the scum of the bravi that haunted
the meanest borgo of Urbino. Their hesitation vanished, and such
slight loyalty as they felt towards Ercole was overruled by the
prospect of his position and his pay, should his disgrace become
They called upon him to come forth from his refuge, where he still
stood, dumb and stricken at this sudden turn events had taken. He
sullenly refused to obey the call to yield, until Francesco--who now
assumed command with a readiness that galled Gonzaga more and
more--bade one of them go fetch an arquebuse and shoot the dog. At
that he cried out for mercy, and came wading to the edge of the tank
swearing that if the immersion had not drowned him, it were a miracle
but he was poisoned.
Thus closed an incident that had worn a mighty ugly look, and it
served to open Valentina's eyes to the true quality of the men Gonzaga
had hired her. Maybe that it opened his own for that amiable
lute-thrummer was green of experience in these matters. She bade
Gonzaga care for Francesco, and called one of the grinning pages from
the gallery to be his esquire. A room was placed at his disposal for
the little time that he might spend at Roccaleone, whilst she debated
what her course should be.
A bell tolled in the far southern wing of the castle, beyond the
second courtyard, and summoned her to chapel, for there Fra Domenico
said Mass each morning. And so she took her leave of Francesco,
saying she would pray Heaven to direct her to a wise choice, whether
to fly from Roccaleone, or whether to remain and ward off the
onslaught of Gian Maria.
Francesco, attended by Gonzaga and the page, repaired to a handsome
room under the Lion's Tower, which rose upon the south-eastern angle
of the fortress. His windows overlooked the second, or inner,
courtyard, across which Valentina and her ladies were now speeding on
their way to Mass.
Gonzaga made shift to stifle the resentment that he felt against
this man, in whom he saw an interloper, and strove to treat him with
the courtesy that was his due. He would even have gone the length of
discussing with him the situation--prompted by a certain mistrust, and
cunningly eager to probe the real motive that had brought this
stranger to interest himself in the affairs of Valentina. But
Francesco, wearily, yet with an unimpeachable politeness, staved him
off, and requested that Lanciotto might be sent to attend him. Seeing
the futility of his endeavours, Gonzaga withdrew in increased
resentment, but with a heightened sweetness of smile and profoundness
He went below to issue orders for the raising of the bridge, and
finding the men singularly meek and tractable after the sharp lesson
Francesco had read them, he vented upon them some of the vast
ill-humour that possessed him. Next he passed on to his own
apartments, and there he sat himself by a window overlooking the
castle gardens, with his unpleasant thoughts for only company.
But presently his mood lightened and he took courage, for he could
be very brave when peril was remote. It was best, he reflected, that
Valentina should leave Roccaleone. Such was the course he would
advise and urge. Naturally, he would go with her, and so he might
advance his suit as well elsewhere as in that castle. On the other
hand, if she remained, why, so would he, and, after all, what if Gian
Maria came? As Francesco had said, the siege could not be protracted,
thanks to the tangled affairs of Babbiano. Soon Gian Maria would be
forced to turn him homeward, to defend his Duchy. If, then, for a
little while they could hold him in cheek, all would yet be well.
Surely he had been over-quick to despond.
He rose and stretched himself with indolent relish, then pushing
wide his casement, he leaned out to breathe the morning air. A soft
laugh escaped him. He had been a fool indeed to plague himself with
fears when he had first heard of Gian Maria's coming. Properly
viewed, it became a service Gian Maria did him--whether they remained,
or whether they went. Love has no stronger promoter than a danger
shared, and a week of such disturbances as Gian Maria was likely to
occasion them should do more to advance his suit than he might hope to
achieve in a whole month of peaceful wooing. Then the memory of
Francesco set a wrinkle 'twixt his brows, and he bethought him how
taken Valentina had been with the fellow when first she had beheld him
at Acquasparta, and of how, as she rode that day, she had seen naught
but the dark eyes of this Knight Francesco.
"Knight Francesco of what or where?" he muttered to himself. "Bah!
A nameless, homeless adventurer; a swashbuckling bully, reeking of
blood and leather, and fit to drive such a pack as Fortemani's. But
with a lady--what shalt such an oaf attain, how shall he prevail?" He
laughed the incipient jealousy to scorn, and his brow grew clear, for
now he was in an optimistic mood--perhaps a reaction from his recent
tremors. "Yet, by the Host!" he pursued, bethinking him of the
amazing boldness Francesco had shown in the courtyard, "he has the
strength of Hercules, and a way with him that makes him feared and
obeyed. Pish!" he laughed again, as, turning, he unhooked his lute
from where it hung upon the wall. "The by-blow of some condottiero,
who blends with his father's bullying arrogance the peasant soul of
his careless mother. And I fear that such a one as that shall touch
the heart of my peerless Valentina? Why, it is a thought that does her
but poor honour."
And dismissing Francesco from his mind, he sought the strings with
his fingers, and thrummed an accompaniment as he returned to the
window, his voice, wondrous sweet and tender, breaking into a gentle
CHAPTER XV. THE MERCY OF FRANCESCO
Monna Valentina and her ladies dined at noon in a small chamber
opening from the great hall, and thither were bidden Francesco and
Gonzaga. The company was waited upon by the two pages, whilst Fra
Domenico, with a snow-white apron girt about his portentous waist,
brought up the steaming viands from the kitchen where he had prepared
them; for, like a true conventual, he was something of a master in the
confection--and a very glutton in the consumption--of delectable
comestibles. The kitchen was to him as the shrine of some minor cult,
and if his breviary and beads commanded from him the half of the
ecstatic fervour of his devotions to pot and pan, to cauldron and to
spit, then was canonisation indeed assured him.
He set before them that day a dinner than which a better no prince
commanded, unless it were the Pope. There were ortolans, shot in the
valley, done with truffles, that made the epicurean Gonzaga roll his
eyes, translated through the medium of his palate into a very paradise
of sensual delight. There was a hare, trapped on the hillside, and
stewed in Malmsey, of a flavour so delicate that Gonzaga was
regretting him his heavy indulgence in the ortolans; there was trout,
fresh caught in the stream below, and a wondrous pasty that turned
liquid in the mouth. To wash down these good things there was stout
red wine of Puglia and more delicate Malvasia, for in his provisioning
of the fortress Gonzaga had contrived that, at least, they should not
"For a garrison awaiting siege you fare mighty well at Roccaleone,"
was Francesco's comment on that excellent repast.
It was the fool who answered him. He sat out of sight upon the
floor, hunched against the chair of one of Valentina's ladies, who now
and again would toss him down a morsel from her plate, much as she
might have treated a favourite hound.
"You have the friar to thank for it," said he, in a muffled voice,
for his mouth was crammed with pasty. "Let me be damned when I die,
if I make him not my confessor. The man who can so minister to bodies
should deal amazingly well with souls. Fra Domenico, you shall
confess me after sunset."
"You need me not," answered the monk, in disdainful wrath. "There
is a beatitude for such as you--'Blessed are the poor in spirit.'"
"And is there no curse for such as you?" flashed back the fool.
"Does it say nowhere--'Damned are the gross of flesh, the fat and
rotund gluttons who fashion themselves a god of their own bellies'?"
With his sandalled foot the friar caught the fool a surreptitious
"Be still, you adder, you bag of venom."
Fearing worse, the fool gathered himself up.
"Beware!" he cried shrilly. "Bethink you, friar, that anger is a
cardinal sin. Beware, I say!"
Fra Domenico checked his upraised hand, and fell to muttering
scraps of Latin, his lids veiling his suddenly downcast eyes. Thus
Peppe gained the door.
"Say, friar; in my ear, now--Was that a hare you stewed, or an
"Now, God forgive me," roared the monk, springing towards him.
"For your cooking? Aye, pray--on your knees." He dodged a blow,
ducked, and doubled back into the room. "A cook, you? Pish! you tun
of convent lard! Your ortolans were burnt, your trout swam in grease,
What the pasty may have been the company was not to learn, for Fra
Domenico, crimson of face, had swooped down upon the fool, and would
have caught him but that he dived under the table by Valentina's
skirts, and craved her protection from this gross maniac that held
himself a cook.
"Now, hold your wrath, father," she said, laughing with the rest.
"He does but plague you. Bear with him for the sake of that
beautitude you cited, which has fired him to reprisals."
Mollified, but still grumbling threats of a beating to be bestowed
on Peppe when the opportunity should better serve him, the friar
turned to his domestic duties. They rose soon after, and at Gonzaga's
suggestion Valentina paused in the great hall to issue orders that
Fortemani be brought before her for judgment. In a score of ways,
since their coming to Roccaleone, had Ercole been wanting in that
respect to which Gonzaga held himself entitled, and this opportunity
he seized with eagerness to vent his vindictive rancour.
Valentina begged of Francesco that he, too, would stay, and help
them with his wide experience, a phrase that sent an unpleasant pang
through the heart of Romeo Gonzaga. It was perhaps as much to assert
himself as to gratify his rancour against Fortemani, that, having
despatched a soldier to fetch the prisoner, he turned to suggest
curtly that Ercole should be hanged at once.
"What boots a trial?" he demanded. "We were all witnesses of his
insubordination, and for that there can be but one punishment. Let
the animal hang!"
"But the trial is of your own suggestion," she protested.
"Nay, Madonna. I but suggested judgment. It is since you have
begged Messer Francesco, here, to assist us that I opine you mean to
give the knave a trial."
"Would you credit this dear Gonzaga with so much bloodthirstiness?"
she asked Francesco. "Do you, sir, share his opinion that the captain
should hang unheard? I fear me you do, for, from what I have seen of
them, your ways do not incline to gentleness."
Gonzaga smiled, gathering from that sentence how truly she apprised
the coarse nature of this stranger. Francesco's answer surprised
"Nay, I hold Messer Gonzaga's an ill counsel. Show mercy to
Fortemani now, where he expects none, and you will have made a
faithful servant of him. I know his kind."
"Ser Francesco speaks without the knowledge that we have, Madonna,"
was Gonzaga's rude comment. "An example must be made if we would have
respect and orderliness from these men."
"Then make it an example of mercy," suggested Francesco sweetly.
"Well, we shall see," was Valentina's answer. "I like your
counsel, Messer Francesco, and yet I see a certain wisdom in Gonzaga's
words. Though in such a case as this I would sooner consort with folly
than have a man's death upon my conscience. But here he comes, and,
at least, we'll give him trial. Maybe he is penitent by now."
Gonzaga sneered, and took his place on the right of Valentina's
chair, Francesco standing on her left; and in this fashion they
disposed themselves to hold judgment upon the captain of her forces.
He was brought in between two mailed men-at-arms, his hands
pinioned behind him, his tread heavy as that of a man in fear, his
eyes directed sullenly upon the waiting trio, but sullenest of all
upon Francesco, who had so signally encompassed his discomfiture.
Valentina spread a hand to Gonzaga, and from Gonzaga waved it
slightly in the direction of the Bully. Responsive to that gesture,
Gonzaga faced the pinioned captain truculently.
"You know your offence, knave," he bawled at him. "Have you aught
to urge that may deter us from hanging you?"
Fortemani raised his brows a moment in surprise at this ferocity
from one whom he had always deemed a very woman. Then he uttered a
laugh of such contempt that the colour sprang to Gonzaga's cheek.
"Take him out----" he began furiously, when Valentina interposed,
setting a hand upon his arm.
"Nay, nay, Gonzaga, your methods are all wrong. Tell him---- Nay,
I will question him myself. Messer Fortemani, you have been guilty of
an act of gross abuse. You and your men were hired for me by Messer
Gonzaga, and to you was given the honourable office of captain over
them, that you might lead them in this service of mine in the ways of
duty, submission, and loyalty. Instead of that, you were the
instigator of that outrage this morning, when murder was almost done
upon an inoffensive man who was my guest. What have you to say?"
"That I was not the instigator," he answered sullenly.
"It is all one," she returned, "for at least it was done with your
sanction, and you took a share in that cruel sport, instead of
restraining it, as was clearly your duty. It is upon you, the
captain, that the responsibility rests."
"Lady," he explained, "they are wild souls, but very true."
"True to their wildness, maybe," she answered him disdainfully.
Then she proceeded: "You will remember that twice before has Messer
Gonzaga had occasion to admonish you. These last two nights your men
have behaved riotously within my walls. There has been hard drinking,
there has been dicing, and such brawling once or twice as led me to
think there would be throats cut among your ranks. You were warned by
Messer Gonzaga to hold your followers in better leash, and yet to-day,
without so much as drunkenness to excuse them, we have this vile
affair, with yourself for a ringleader in it."
There followed a pause, during which Ercole stood with bent head
like one who thinks, and Francesco turned his wonder-laden glance upon
this slight girl with the gentle brown eyes which had been so tender
and pitiful. Marvelling at the greatness of her spirit, he grew--all
unconsciously-- the more enslaved.
Gonzaga, all unconcerned in this, eyed Fortemani in expectation of
"Madonna," said the bully at last, "what can you look for from such
a troop as this? Messer Gonzaga cannot have expected me to enlist
acolytes for a business that he told me bordered upon outlawry.
Touching their drunkenness and the trifle of rioting, what soldiers
have not these faults? When they have them not, neither have they
merit. The man that is tame in times of peace is a skulking woman in
times of war. For the rest, whence came the wine they drank? It was
of Messer Gonzaga's providing."
"You lie, hound!" blazed Gonzaga. "I provided wine for Madonna's
table, not for the men."
"Yet some found its way to them; which is well. For water on the
stomach makes a man poor-spirited. Where is the sin of a little
indulgence, Madonna?" he went on, turning again to Valentina. "These
men of mine will prove their mettle when it comes to blows. They are
dogs perhaps-- but mastiffs every one of them, and would lose a
hundred lives in your service if they had them."
"Aye, if they had them," put in Gonzaga sourly; "but having no more
than one apiece, they'll not care to spare it."
"Nay, there you wrong them," cried Fortemani, with heat. "Give
them a leader strong enough to hold them, to encourage and subject
them, and they will go anywhere at his bidding."
"And there," put in Gonzaga quickly, "you bring us back to the main
issue. Such a leader you have shown us that you are not. You have
done worse. You have been insubordinate when you should not only have
been orderly, but have enforced orderliness in others. And for that,
by my lights, you should be hanged. Waste no more time on him,
Madonna," he concluded, turning to Valentina. "Let the example be
"But, Madonna----" began Fortemani, paling under the tan of his
Gonzaga silenced him.
"Your words are vain. You have been insubordinate, and for
insubordination there is but one penalty."
The bully hung his head, deeming himself lost, and lacking the wit
to retort as Francesco unexpectedly retorted for him.
"Madonna, there your adviser is at fault. The charge against the
man is wrong. There has been no insubordination."
"How?" she questioned, turning to the Count. "None, say you?"
"A Solomon is arisen," sneered Gonzaga. Then peevishly; "Waste not
words with him, Madonna," he pursued. "Our business is with
"But stay, my good Gonzaga. He may be right."
"Your heart is over-tender," answered Romeo impatiently. But she
had turned from him now, and was begging Francesco to make his meaning
"Had he raised his hand against you, Madonna, or even against
Messer Gonzaga, or had he disobeyed an order given him by either of
you, then, and then only, could there be question of insubordination.
But he has done none of these things. He is guilty of grossly
misusing my servant, it is true, but there is no insubordination in
that, since he was under no promise of loyalty to Lanciotto."
They stared at him as though his words were words of recondite
wisdom instead of the simple statement of a plain case. Gonzaga
crestfallen, Fortemani with a light of hope and wonder shining in his
eyes, and Madonna with a faint nodding of the head that argued
agreement. They wrangled a while yet, Gonzaga bitter and vindictive
and rashly scornful of both Francesco and Fortemani. But the Count so
resolutely held the ground he had taken that in the end Valentina
shrugged her shoulders, acknowledged herself convinced, and bade
Francesco deliver judgment.
"You are in earnest, Madonna?" quoth Francesco in surprise, whilst
a black scowl disfigured the serenity of Gonzaga's brow.
"I am indeed, Deal with him as you account best and most just, and
it shall fare with him precisely as you ordain."
Francesco turned to the men-at-arms. "Unbind him, one of you," he
"I believe that you are mad," cried Gonzaga, in a frenzy, but his
mood sprang rather from the chagrin of seeing his interloper prevail
where he had failed. "Madonna, do not heed him."
"I pray you let be, my good Gonzaga," she answered soothingly, and
Gonzaga, ready to faint from spite, obeyed her.
"Leave him there, and go," was Paolo's next order to the men, and
they departed, leaving the astonished Fortemani standing alone,
unbound and sheepish.
"Now mark me well, Messer Fortemani," Francesco admonished him.
"You did a cowardly thing, unworthy of the soldier that you would
have men believe you. And for that, I think, the punishment you
received at my hands has been sufficient, in that the indignity to
which I submitted you has shaken your standing with your followers.
Go back to them now and retrieve what you have lost, and see that in
the future you are worthier. Let this be a lesson to you, Messer
Fortemani. You have gone perilously near hanging, and you have had it
proved to you that in moments of peril your men are ready to raise
their hands against you. Why is that? Because you have not sought
their respect. You have been too much a fellow of theirs in their
drinking and their brawling, instead of holding yourself aloof with
"Lord, I have learnt my lesson!" answered the cowed bully.
"Then act upon it. Resume your command, and discipline your men to
a better order. Madonna, here, and Messer Gonzaga will forget this
thing. Is it not so, Madonna? Is it not so, Messer Gonzaga?"
Swayed by his will and by an intuition that told her that to
whatever end he might be working, he was working wisely, Valentina
gave Fortemani the assurance Francesco begged, and Gonzaga was forced
grudgingly to follow her example.
Fortemani bowed low, his face pale and his limbs trembling as not
even fear had made them tremble. He advanced towards Valentina, and
sinking on one knee, he humbly kissed the hem of her gown.
"Your clemency, Madonna, shall give you no regret. I will serve
you to the death, lady, and you, lord." At the last words he raised
his eyes to Francesco's calm face. Then, without so much as a glance
at the disappointed Gonzaga, he rose, and bowing again--a very
The closing of the door was to Gonzaga a signal to break out in a
torrent of bitter reproofs against Francesco, reproofs that were
stemmed midway by Valentina.
"You are beside yourself, Gonzaga," she exclaimed. "What has been
done, has been done with my sanction. I do not doubt the wisdom of
"Do you not? God send you never may! But that man will know no
peace until he is avenged on us."
"Messer Gonzaga," returned Francesco, with an incomparable
politeness, "I am an older man than are you, and maybe that I have
seen more warring and more of such men. There is a certain valour
lurks in that bully for all his blustering boastfulness and swagger,
and there is, too, a certain sense of justice. Mercy he has had
to-day, and time will show how right I am in having pardoned him in
Madonna's name. I tell you, sir, that nowhere has Monna Valentina a
more faithful servant than he is now likely to become."
"I believe you, Messer Francesco. Indeed, I am sure your act was
Gonzaga gnawed his lip.
"I may be wrong," said he, in grudging acquiescence. "I hope,
indeed, I may be."
CHAPTER XVI. GONZAGA UNMASKS
The four great outer walls of Roccaleone stood ranged into a mighty
square, of which the castle proper occupied but half. The other half,
running from north to south, was a stretch of garden, broken into
three terraces. The highest of these was no more than a narrow alley
under the southern wall, roofed from end to end by a trellis of vines
on beams blackened with age, supported by uprights of granite, square
and roughly hewn.
A steep flight of granite steps, weedy in the interstices of the
old stone, and terminating in a pair of couchant lions at the base,
led down to the middle terrace, which was called the upper garden.
This was split in twain by a very gallery of gigantic box trees
running down towards the lower terrace, and bearing eloquent witness
to the age of that old garden. Into this gallery no sun ever
penetrated by more than a furtive ray, and on the hottest day in
summer a grateful cool dwelt in its green gloom. Rose gardens spread
on either side of it, but neglect of late had left them rank with
The third and lowest of these terraces, which was longer and
broader than either of those above, was no more than a smooth stretch
of lawn, bordered by acacias and plane trees, from the extreme corner
of which sprang a winding, iron-railed staircase of stone, leading to
an eerie which corresponded diagonally with the Lion's Tower, where
the Count of Aquila was lodged.
On this green lawn Valentina's ladies and a page beguiled the
eventide in a game of bowls, their clumsiness at the unwonted pastime
provoking the good-humoured banter of Peppe, who looked on, and their
own still better- humoured laughter.
Fortemani, too, was there, brazening out the morning's affair,
which it almost seemed he must have forgotten, so self-possessed and
mightily at his ease was he. He was of the kind with whom shame
strikes never very deeply, and he ruffled it gaily there, among the
women, rolling his fierce eyes to ogle them seductively, tossing his
gaudy new cloak with a high-born disdain--gloriously conscious that it
would not rend in the tossing, like the cloaks to which grim
Circumstance had lately accustomed him--and strutting it like any cock
upon a dunghill.
But the lesson he had learnt was not likely to share the same
forgetfulness. Indeed, its fruits were to be observed already in the
more orderly conduct of his men, four of whom, partisan on shoulder,
were doing duty on the walls of the castle. They had greeted his
return amongst them with sneers and derisive allusions to his
immersion, but with a few choicely-aimed blows he had cuffed the
noisiest into silence and a more subservient humour. He had spoken to
them in a rasping, truculent tone, issuing orders that he meant should
be obeyed, unless the disobeyer were eager for a reckoning with him.
Indeed, he was an altered man, and when that night his followers,
having drunk what he accounted enough for their good, and disregarding
his orders that they should desist and get them to bed, he went in
quest of Monna Valentina. He found her in conversation with Francesco
and Gonzaga, seated in the loggia of the dining-room. They had been
there since supper, discussing the wisdom of going or remaining, of
fleeing or standing firm to receive Gian Maria. Their conference was
interrupted now by Ercole with his complaint.
She despatched Gonzaga to quell the men, a course that Fortemani
treated to a covert sneer. The fop went rejoicing at this proof that
her estimate of his commanding qualities had nowise suffered by
contrast with those of that swashbuckling Francesco. But his pride
rode him to a bitter fall.
They made a mock of his remonstrances, and when he emulated
Francesco's methods, addressing them with sharp ferocity, and dubbing
them beasts and swine, they caught the false ring of his fierceness,
which was as unlike the true as the ring of lead is unlike that of
silver. They jeered him insults, they mimicked his tenor voice, which
excitement had rendered shrill, and they bade him go thrum a lute for
his lady's delectation, and leave men's work to men.
His anger rose, and they lost patience; and from showing their
teeth in laughter, they began to show them in snarls. At this his
ferocity deserted him. Brushing past Fortemani, who stood cold and
contemptuous by the doorway, watching the failure he had expected, he
returned with burning cheeks and bitter words to Madonna Valentina.
She was dismayed at the tale he bore her, magnified to cover his
own shame. Francesco sat quietly drumming on the sill, his eyes upon
the moonlit garden below, and never by word or sign suggesting that he
might succeed where Romeo had failed. At last she turned to him.
"Could you----?" she began, and stopped, her eyes wandering back to
Gonzaga, loath to further wound a pride that was very sore already.
On the instant Francesco rose.
"I might try, Madonna," he said quietly, "although Messer Gonzaga's
failure gives me little hope. And yet, it may be that he has taken
the keen edge from their assurance, and that, thus, an easier task
awaits me. I will try, Madonna." And with that he went.
"He will succeed, Gonzaga," she said, after he had gone. "He is a
man of war, and knows the words to which these fellows have no
"I wish him well of his errand," sneered Gonzaga, his pretty face
white now with sullenness. "And I'll wager you he fails."
But Valentina disdained the offer whose rashness was more than
proven when, at the end of some ten minutes, Francesco re-entered, as
imperturbable as when he went.
"They are quiet now, Madonna," he announced.
She looked at him questioningly. "How did you accomplish it?" she
"I had a little difficulty," he said, "yet not over-much." His eye
roved to Gonzaga, and he smiled. "Messer Gonzaga is too gentle with
them. Too true a courtier to avail himself of the brutality that is
necessary when we deal with brutes. You should not disdain to use
your hands upon them," he admonished the fop in all seriousness, and
without a trace of irony. Nor did Gonzaga suspect any.
"I, soil my hands on that vermin?" he cried, in a voice of horror.
"I would die sooner."
"Or else soon after," squeaked Peppe, who had entered unobserved.
"Patrona mia, you should have seen this paladin," he continued, coming
forward. "Why, Orlando was never half so furious as he when he stood
there telling them what manner of dirt they were, and bidding them to
bed ere he drove them with a broomstick."
"And they went?" she asked.
"Not at first," said the fool. "They had drunk enough to make them
very brave, and one who was very drunk was so brave as to assault him.
But Ser Francesco fells him with his hands, and calling Fortemani he
bids him have the man dropped in a dungeon to grow sober. Then,
without waiting so much as to see his orders carried out, he stalks
away, assured that no more was needed. Nor was it. They rose up,
muttering a curse or two, maybe--yet not so loud that it might reach
the ears of Fortemani--and got themselves to bed."
She looked again at Francesco with admiring eyes, and spoke of his
audacity in commending terms. This he belittled; but she persisted.
"You have seen much warring, sir," she half-asked, halfasserted.
"Why, yes, Madonna."
And here the writhing Gonzaga espied his opportunity.
"I do not call to mind your name, good sir," he purred.
Francesco half-turned towards him, and for all that his mind was
working with a lightning quickness, his face was indolently calm. To
disclose his true identity he deemed unwise, for all connected with
the Sforza brood must earn mistrust at the hands of Valentina. It was
known that the Count of Aquila stood high in the favour of Gian Maria,
and the news of his sudden fall and banishment could not have reached
Guidobaldo's niece, who had fled before the knowedge of it was in
Urbino. His name would awaken suspicion, and any story of disgrace
and banishment might be accounted the very mask to fit a spy. There
was this sleek, venomous Gonzaga, whom she trusted and relied on, to
whisper insidiously into her ear.
"My name," he said serenely, "is, as I have told you. Francesco."
"But you have another?" quoth Valentina, interest prompting the
"Why, yes, but so closely allied to the first as to be scarce worth
reciting. I am Francesco Franceschi, a wandering knight."
"And a true one, as I know." She smiled at him so sweetly that
Gonzaga was enraged.
"I have not heard the name before," he murmured, adding:
"Your father was----?"
"A gentleman of Tuscany."
"But not at Court?" suggested Romeo.
"Why, yes, at Court."
Then with a sly insolence that brought the blood to Francesco's
cheeks, though to the chaste mind of Valentina's it meant
nothing--"Ah!" he rejoined. "But then, your mother----?"
"Was more discriminating, sir, than yours," came the sharp answer,
and from the shadows the fool's smothered burst of laughter added gall
Gonzaga rose heavily, drawing a sharp breath, and the two men
stabbed each other with their eyes. Valentina, uncomprehending,
looked from one to the other.
"Sirs, sirs, what have you said?" she cried. "Why all this war of
"He is over-quick to take offence, Madonna, for an honest man," was
Gonzaga's answer. "Like the snake in the grass, he is very ready with
his sting when we seek to disclose him."
"For shame, Gonzaga," she cried, now rising too. "What are you
saying? Are you turned witless? Come, sirs, since you are both my
friends, be friends each with the other."
"Most perfect syllogism!" murmured the fool, unheeded.
"And you, Messer Francesco, forget his words. He means them not.
He is very hot of fancy, but sweet at heart, this good Gonzaga."
On the instant the cloud lifted from Francesco's brow.
"Why, since you ask me," he answered, inclining his head, "if he'll
but say he meant no malice by his words, I will confess as much for
Gonzaga, cooling, saw that haply he had gone too fast, and was the
readier to make amends. Yet in his bosom he nursed an added store of
poison, a breath of which escaped him as he was leaving Valentina, and
after Francesco had already gone:
"Madonna," he muttered, "I mistrust that man."
"Mistrust him? Why?" she asked, frowning despite her faith in the
"I know not why; but it is here. I feel it." And with his hand he
touched the region of his heart. "Say that he is no spy, and call me
"Why, I'll do both," she laughed. Then more sternly, added: "Get
you to bed, Gonzaga. Your wits play you false. Peppino, call my
In the moment that they were left alone he stepped close up to her,
spurred to madness by the jealous pangs he had that day endured. His
face gleamed white in the candlelight, and in his eyes there was a
lurking fierceness that gave her pause.
"Have your way, Madonna," he said, in a concentrated voice; "but
to- morrow, whether we go hence, or whether we stay, he remains not
She drew herself up to the full of her slender, graceful height,
her eyes on a level with Gonzaga's own.
"That," she answered, "is as shall be decreed by me or him."
He breathed sharply, and his voice hardened beyond belief in one
usually so gentle of tone and manner.
"Be warned, Madonna," he muttered, coming so close that with the
slightest swaying she must touch him, "that if this nameless sbirro
shall ever dare to stand 'twixt you and me, by God and His saints,
I'll kill him! Be warned, I say."
And the door re-opening at that moment, he fell back, bowed, and
brushing past the entering ladies, gained the threshold. Here someone
tugged at the prodigious foliated sleeves that spread beside him on
the air like the wings of a bird. He turned, and saw Peppino
motioning him to lower his head.
"A word in your ear, Magnificent. There was a man once went out
for wool that came back shorn."
Angrily cuffing the fool aside, he was gone.
Valentina sank down upon her window-seat, in a turmoil of mingled
anger and amazement that paled her cheek and set her bosom heaving.
It was the first hint of his aims respecting her that Gonzaga had
ever dared let fall, and the condition in which it left her boded ill
for his ultimate success. Her anger he could have borne, had he
beheld it, for he would have laid it to the score of the tone he had
taken with her. But her incredulity that he could indeed have dared
to mean that which her senses told her he had meant, would have shown
him how hopeless was his case and how affronted, how outraged in soul
she had been left by this moment of passionate self-revealing. He
would have understood then that in her eyes he never had been, was
never like to be, aught but a servant--and one, hereafter, that,
deeming presumptuous, she would keep at greater distance.
But he, dreaming little of this as he paced his chamber, smiled at
his thoughts, which flowed with ready optimism. He had been a fool to
give way so soon, perhaps. The season was not yet; the fruit was not
ripe enough for plucking; still, what should it signify that he had
given the tree a slight premonitory shake? A little premature,
perhaps, but it would predispose the fruit to fall. He bethought him
of her never- varying kindness to him, her fond gentleness, and he
lacked the wit to see that this was no more than the natural sweetness
that flowed from her as freely as flows the perfume from the
flower--because Nature has so fashioned it, and not because Messer
Gonzaga likes the smell. Lacking that wit, he went in blissful
confidence to bed, and smiled himself softly to his sleep.
Away in the room under the Lion's Tower, the Count of Aquila, too,
paced his chamber ere he sought his couch, and in his pacing caught
sight of something that arrested his attention, and provoked a smile.
In a corner, among his harness which Lanciotto had piled there, his
shield threw back the light, displaying the Sforza lion quartered with
the Aquila eagle.
"Did my sweet Gonzaga get a glimpse of that he would have no
further need to pry into my parentage," he mused. And dragging the
escutcheon from amongst that heap of armour, he softly opened his
window and flung it far out, so that it dropped with a splash into the
moat. That done, he went to bed, and he, too, fell asleep with a
smile upon his lips, and in his mind a floating vision of Valentina.
She needed a strong and ready hand to guide her in this rebellion
against the love-at-arms of Gian Maria, and that hand he swore should
be his, unless she scorned the offer of it. And so, murmuring her name
with a lingering fervour, of whose true significance he was
all-nescient, he sank to sleep, nor waked again until a thundering at
his door aroused him. And to his still dormant senses came the voice
of Lanciotto, laden with hurry and alarm.
"Awake, lord! Up, afoot! We are beset."
CHAPTER XVII. THE ENEMY
The Count leapt from his bed, and hastened to throw wide the door
to admit his servant, who with excited face and voice bore him the
news that Gian Maria had reached Roccaleone in the night, and was now
encamped in the plain before the castle.
He was still at his tale when a page came with the message that
Monna Valentina besought Messer Francesco's presence in the great
hall. He dressed in all haste, and then, with Lanciotto at his heels,
he descended to answer her summons. As he crossed the second
courtyard he beheld Valentina's ladies grouped upon the chapel-steps
in excited discussion of this happening with Fra Domenico, who, in
full canonicals, was waiting to say the morning's Mass. He gave them
a courteous "Good morrow," and passed on to the banqueting-hall,
leaving Lanciotto without.
Here he found Valentina in conference with Fortemani. She was
pacing the great room as she talked; but, beyond that, there was no
sign of excitement in her bearing, and if any fear of the issue
touched her heart now that the moment for action was at hand, it was
wondrously well- suppressed. At sight of Francesco, a look that was
partly dismay and partly pleasure lighted her face. She greeted him
with such a smile as she would bestow in that hour upon none but a
trusted friend. Then, with a look of regret:
"I am beyond measure grieved, sir, that you should thus stand
committed to my fortunes. They will have told you that already we are
besieged, and so you will see how your fate is now bound up with ours.
For I fear me there is no road hence for you until Gian Maria raises
this siege. The choice of going or remaining is no longer mine. We
must remain, and fight this battle out."
"At least, lady," he answered readily, gaily almost, "I cannot
share your regrets for me. The act of yours may be a madness,
Madonna, but it is the bravest, sweetest madness that ever was, and I
shall be proud to play my part if you'll assign me one."
"But, sir, I have no claim upon you!"
"The claim that every beset lady has upon a true knight," he
assured her. "I could ask no better employment for these arms of mine
than in your defence against the Duke of Babbiano. I am at your
service, and with a glad heart, Monna Valentina. I have seem
something of war, and you may find me useful."
"Make him Provost of Roccaleone, Madonna," urged Fortemani, whose
gratitude to the man who had saved his life was blent with an admiring
appreciation of his powers, of which the bully had had such practical
"You hear what Ercole says?" she cried, turning to Francesco with a
sudden eagerness that showed how welcome that suggestion was.
"It were too great an honour," he answered solemnly. "Yet, if you
were to place in my hands that trust, I would defend it to my last
And then, before she could answer him, Gonzaga entered by the
side-door, and frowned to see Francesco there before him. He was a
trifle pale, he carried his cloak on the right shoulder, instead of
the left, and in general his apparel was less meticulous than usual,
and showed signs of hasty donning. With a curt nod to the Count, and
an utter ignoring of Fortemani--who was scowling upon him in memory of
yesterday--he bowed low before Valentina.
"I am distraught, Madonna----" he began, when she cut him short.
"You have little cause to be. Have things fallen out other than we
"Perhaps not. Yet I had hoped that Gian Maria would not allow his
humour to carry him so far."
"You had hoped that--after the message Messer Francesco brought
us?" And she looked him over with an eye of sudden understanding.
"Yet you expressed no such hope when you advised this flight to
Roccaleone. You were all for fighting then. A martial ardour
consumed you. Whence this change? Is it the imminence of danger that
gives it a reality too grim for your appetite?"
There was a scorn in her words that wounded him as she meant it
should. His last night's rashness had shown her the need to leave him
in no false opinion of the extent of her esteem, and, in addition,
those last words of his had shown him revealed in a new light, and she
liked him the less by it.
He inclined his head slightly, shame blazing red in his cheeks,
that he should be thus reproved before Fortemani and that upstart
Francesco. That Francesco was an upstart was no longer a matter of
surmise with him. His soul assured him of it.
"Madonna," he said, with some show of dignity, ignoring her gibes,
"I came to bear you news that a herald from Gian Maria craves a
hearing. Shall I hold parley with him for you?"
"You are too good," she answered sweetly. "I will hear the man
He bowed submissively, and then his eye moved to Francesco.
"We might arrange with him for the safe-conduct of this gentleman,"
"There is no hope they would accord it," she answered easily. "Nor
could I hope so if they would, for Messer Francesco has consented to
fill the office of Provost of Roccaleone. But we are keeping the
messenger waiting. Sirs, will you attend me to the ramparts?"
They bowed, and followed her, Gonzaga coming last, his tread heavy
as a drunkard's, his face white to the lips in the bitter rage with
which he saw himself superseded, and read his answer to the hot words
that last night he had whispered in Valentina's ear.
As they crossed the courtyard Francesco discharged the first act of
his new office in ordering a half-dozen men-at-arms to fall in behind
them, to the end that they might make some show upon the wall when
they came to parley with the herald.
They found a tall man on a tall, grey horse, whose polished helm
shone like silver in the morning sun, and whose haubergeon was almost
hidden under a crimson tabard ornamented with the Sforza lion. He
bowed low as Valentina appeared, followed by her escort, foremost in
which stood the Count of Aquila, his broad castor pulled down upon his
brow, so that it left his face in shadow.
"In the name of my master, the High and Mighty Lord Gian Maria
Sforza, Duke of Babbiano, I call upon you to yield, lady, laying down
your arms and throwing open your gates."
There followed a pause, at the end of which she asked him was that
the sum of his message, or was there something that he had forgotten.
The herald, bowing gracefully upon the arched neck of his caracoling
palfrey, answered her that what he had said was all he had been bidden
She turned with a bewildered and rather helpless look to those
behind her. She wished that the matter might be conducted with due
dignity, and her convent rearing left her in doubt of how this might
best be achieved. She addressed herself to Francesco.
"Will you give him his answer, my Lord Provost," she said, with a
smile, and Francesco, stepping forward and leaning on a merlon of that
embattled wall, obeyed her.
"Sir Herald," he said, in a gruff voice that was unlike his own,
"will you tell me since when has the Duke of Babbiano been at war with
Urbino that he should thus beset one of its fortresses, and demand the
surrender of it?"
"His Highness," replied the herald, "is acting with the full
sanction of the Duke of Urbino in sending this message to the Lady
Valentina della Rovere."
At that Valentina elbowed the Count aside, and forgetting her
purpose of conducting this affair with dignity, she let her woman's
tongue deliver the answer of her heart.
"This message, sir, and the presence here of your master, is but
another of the impertinences that I have suffered at his hands, and it
is the crowning one. Take you that message back to him, and tell him
that when I am instructed by what right he dares to send you upon such
an errand, I may render him an answer more germane with his
"Would you prefer, Madonna, that his Highness should come himself
to speak with you?"
"There is nothing I should prefer less. Already has necessity
compelled me to have more to say to Gian Maria than I could have
wished." And with a proud gesture she signified that the audience was
at an end, and turned to quit the wall.
She had a brief conference with Francesco, during which he
consulted her as to certain measures of defence to be taken, and made
suggestions, to all of which she agreed, her hopes rising fast to see
that here, at least, she had a man with knowledge of the work to which
he had set his hand. It lightened her heart and gave her a glad
confidence to look on that straight, martial figure, the hand so
familiarly resting on the hilt of the sword that seemed a part of him,
and the eyes so calm; whilst when he spoke of perils, they seemed to
dwindle 'neath the disdain of them so manifest in his tone.
With Fortemani at his heels he went about the execution of the
measures he had suggested, the bully following him now with the
faithful wonder of a dog for its master, realising that here, indeed,
was a soldier of fortune by comparison with whom the likes of himself
were no better than camp-followers. Confidence, too, did Ercole
gather from that magnetism of Francesco's unfaltering confidence; for
he seemed to treat the matter as a great jest, a comedy played for the
Duke of Babbiano and at that same Duke's expense. And just as
Francesco's brisk tone breathed confidence into Fortemani and
Valentina, so, too, did it breathe it into Fortemani's wretched
followers. They grew zestful in the reflection of his zest, and out
of admiration for him they came to admire the business on which they
were engaged, and, finally, to take a pride in the part he assigned to
each of them. Within an hour there was such diligent bustle in
Roccaleone, such an air of grim gaiety and high spirits, that
Valentina, observing it, wondered what manner of magician was this she
had raised to the command of her fortress, who in so little time could
work so marvellous a change in the demeanour of her garrison.
Once only did Francesco's light-heartedness fail him, and this was
when, upon visiting the armoury, he found but one single cask of
gunpowder stored there. He turned to Fortemani to inquire where
Gonzaga had bestowed it, and Fortemani being as ignorant as himself
upon the subject he went forthwith in quest of Gonzaga. After
ransacking the castle for him, he found him pacing the vine-alley in
the garden in animated conversation with Valentina. At his approach
the courtier's manner grew more subdued, and his brows sullen.
"Messer Gonzaga," Francesco hailed him. The courtier, surprised,
looked up. "Where have you hidden your store of powder?"
"Powder?" faltered Gonzaga, chilled by a sudden apprehension. "Is
there none in the armoury?"
"Yes--one small cask, enough to load a cannon once or twice,
leaving us nothing for our hand-guns. Is that your store?"
"If that is all there is in the armoury, that is all we have."
Franceseo stood speechless, staring at him, a dull flush creeping
into his cheeks. In that moment of wrath he forgot their positions,
and gave never a thought to the smarting that must be with Gonzaga at
the loss of rank he had suffered since Valentina had appointed a
"And are these your methods of fortifying Roccaleone?" he asked, in
a voice that cut like a knife. "You have laid in good store of wine,
a flock of sheep, and endless delicacies, sir," he jeered. "Did you
expect to pelt the enemy with these, or did you reckon upon no enemy
Now this question touched so closely upon the truth, that it fired
in Gonzaga's bosom an anger that for the moment made a man of him. It
was the last breath that blew into a blaze the smouldering wrath he
carried in his soul.
His retort came fierce and hot. It was as unmeasured and
contemptuous as Francesco's erst recriminations, and it terminated in
a challenge to the Count to meet him on horse or foot, with sword or
lance, and that as soon as might be.
But Valentina intervened, and rebuked them both. Yet to Francesco
her rebuke was courteous, and ended in a prayer that he should do the
best with such resources as Roccaleone offered; to Gonzaga it was
contemptuous in the last degree, for Francesco's question--which
Gonzaga had left unanswered--coming at a moment when she was full of
suspicions of Gonzaga, and the ends he had sought to serve in advising
her upon a course which he had since shown himself so utterly unfitted
to guide, had opened wide her eyes. She remembered how strangely
moved he had been upon learning yesterday that Gian Maria was marching
upon Roccaleone, and how ardently he had advised flight from the
fortress--he that had so bravely talked of holding it against the
They were still wrangling there in a most unseemly fashion when a
trumpet-blast reached them from beyond the walls.
"The herald again," she cried. "Come, Messer Francesco, let us
hear what fresh message he brings."
She led Francesco away, leaving Gonzaga in the shadow of the vines,
reduced well-nigh to tears in the extremity of his mortification.
The herald was returned with the announcement that Valentina's
answer left Gian Maria no alternative but to await the arrival of Duke
Guidobaldo, who was then marching to join him. The Duke of Urbino's
presence would be, he thought, ample justification in her eyes for the
challenge Gian Maria had sent, and which he would send again when her
uncle arrived to confirm it.
Thereafter, the remainder of the day was passed in peace at
Roccaleone, if we except the very hell of unrest that surged in the
heart of Romeo Gonzaga. He sat disregarded at supper that evening,
save by Valentina's ladies and the fool, who occasionally rallied him
upon his glumness. Valentina herself turned her whole attention to the
Count, and whilst Gonzaga--Gonzaga, the poet of burning fancy, the gay
songster, the acknowledged wit, the mirror of courtliness--was silent
and tongue-tied, this ruffling, upstart swashbuckler entertained them
with a sprightliness that won him every heart--always excepting that
of Romeo Gonzaga.
Francesco made light of the siege in a manner that enlivened every
soul present with relief. He grew merry at the expense of Gian Maria,
and made it very plain that he could have found naught more
captivating to his warlike fancy than this business upon which an
accident had embarked him. He was as full of confidence for the issue
as he was full of eager anticipation of the fray itself.
Is it wonderful that--never having known any but artificial men;
men of court and ante-chamber; men of dainty ways and mincing,
affected tricks of speech; in short, such men as circumstance ordains
shall surround the great--Monna Valentina's eyes should open very
wide, the better to behold this new pattern of a man, who, whilst
clearly a gentleman of high degree, carried with him an air of the
camp rather than the camerion, was imbued by a spirit of chivalry and
adventure, and ignored with a certain lofty dignity, as if beneath his
observance, the poses that she was wont to see characterising the
demeanour of the gentlemen of his Highness, her uncle.
He was young, moreover, yet no longer callow; comely, yet with a
strong male comeliness; he had a pleasantly modulated voice, yet one
that they had heard swell into a compelling note of command; he had
the most joyous, careless laugh in all the world--such a laugh as
endears a man to all that hear it--and he indulged it without stint.
Gonzaga sat glum and moody, his heart bursting with the resentment
of the mean and the incompetent for the man of brilliant parts. But
the morrow was to bring him worse.
The Duke of Urbino arrived next morning, and rode up to the moat in
person, attended only by a trumpeter, who, for the third time, wound a
note of challenge to the fortress.
As on the previous day, Valentina answered the summons, attended by
Francesco, Fortemani and Gonzaga--the latter uninvited yet not denied,
and following sullenly in her train, in a last, despairing attempt to
assert himself one of her captains.
Francesco had put on his harness, and came arrayed from head to
foot in resplendent steel, to do worthy honour to the occasion. A
bunch of plumes nodded in his helm, and for all that his beaver was
open, yet the shadows of the head-piece afforded at the distance
sufficient concealment to his features.
The sight of her uncle left Valentina unmoved. Well-beloved though
he was of his people, between himself and his niece he had made no
effort ever to establish relations of affection. Less than ever did
he now seek to prevail by the voice of kinship. He came in the
panoply of war, as a prince to a rebel subject, and in precisely such
a tone did he greet her.
"Monna Valentina," he said--seeming entirely to overlook the
circumstance that she was his kinswoman--"deeply though this rebellion
grieves me, you are not to think that your sex shall gain you any
privileges or any clemency. We will treat you precisely as we would
any other rebel subject who acted as you have done."
"Highness," she replied, "I solicit no privilege beyond that to
which my sex gives me the absolute right, and which has no concern
with war and arms. I allude to the privilege of disposing of myself,
my hand and heart, as it shall please me. Until you come to recognise
that I am a woman endowed with a woman's nature, and until, having
realised it, you are prepared to submit to it, and pass me your
princely word to urge the Duke of Babbiano's suit no further with me,
here will I stay in spite of you, your men-at-arms, and your paltry
ally, Gian Maria, who imagines that love may be made successfully in
armour, and that a way to a woman's heart is to be opened with
"I think we shall bring you to a more subjective and dutiful frame
of mind, Madonna," was the grim answer.
"Dutiful to whom?"
"To the State, a princess of which you have had the honour to be
"And what of my duty to myself, to my heart, and to my womanhood?
Is no account to be taken of that?"
"These are matters, Madonna, that are not to be discussed in shouts
from the walls of a castle--nor, indeed, do I wish to discuss them
anywhere. I am here to summon you to surrender. If you resist us, you
do so at your peril."
"Then at my peril I will resist you--gladly. I defy you. Do your
worst against me, disgrace your manhood and the very name of chivalry
by whatsoever violence may occur to you, yet I promise you that
Valentina della Rovere never shall become the wife of his Highness of
"You refuse to open your gates?" he returned, in a voice that shook
"Utterly and finally."
"And you think to persist in this?"
"As long as I have life."
The Prince laughed sardonically.
"I wash my hands of the affair and of its consequences," he
answered grimly. "I leave it in the care of your future husband, Gian
Maria Sforza, and if, in his very natural eagerness for the nuptials,
he uses your castle roughly, the blame of it must rest with you. But
what he does, he does with my full sanction, and I have come hither to
advise you of it since you appeared in doubt. I beg that you will
remain there for a few moments, to hear what his Highness himself may
have to say. I trust his eloquence may prove more persuasive."
He saluted ceremoniously, and, wheeling his horse about, he rode
away. Valentina would have withdrawn, but Francesco urged her to
remain, and await the Duke of Babbiano's coming. And so they paced
the battlements, Valentina in earnest talk with Francesco, Gonzaga
following in moody silence with Fortemani, and devouring them with his
From their eminence they surveyed the bustling camp in the plain,
where tents, green, brown, and white, were being hastily erected by
half- stripped soldiers. The little army altogether, may have
numbered a hundred men, which, in his vainglory, Gian Maria accounted
all that would be needed to reduce Roccaleone. But the most
formidable portion of his forces rolled into the field even as they
watched. It was heralded by a hoarse groaning of the wheels of
bullock-carts to the number of ten, on each of which was borne a
cannon. Other carts followed with ammunition and victuals for the men
They looked on with interest at the busy scene that was toward, and
as they watched they saw Guidobaldo ride into the heart of the camp,
and dismount. Then from out of a tent more roomy and imposing than
the rest advanced the short, stout figure of Gian Maria, not to be
recognised at that distance save by the keen eyes of Francesco that
were familiar with his shape.
A groom held a horse for him and assisted him to mount, and then,
attended by the same trumpeter that had escorted Guidobaldo, he rode
forward towards the castle. At the edge of the moat he halted, and at
sight of Valentina and her company, he doffed his feathered hat, and
bowed his straw-coloured head.
"Monna Valentina," he called, and when she stepped forth in answer,
he raised his little, cruel eyes in a malicious glance and showed the
round moon of his white face to be whiter even, than its wont--a
pallor atrabilious and almost green.
"I am grieved that his Highness, your uncle, should not have
prevailed with you. Where he has failed, I may have little hope of
succeeding--by the persuasion of words. Yet I would beg you to allow
me to have speech of your captain, whoever he may be."
"My captains are here in attendance," she answered tranquilly.
"So! You have a plurality of them; to command--how many men?"
"Enough," roared Francesco, interposing, his voice sounding hollow
from his helmet, "to blow you and your woman besieging scullions to
The Duke stirred on his horse, and peered up at the speaker. But
there was too little of his face visible for recognition, whilst his
voice was altered and his figure dissembled in its steel casing.
"Who are you, rogue?" he asked.
"Rogue in your teeth, be you twenty times a Duke," returned the
other, at which Valentina laughed outright.
Never from the day when he had uttered his first wail had his
Highness of Babbiano heard words of such import from the lips of
living man. A purple flush mottled his cheeks at the indignity of it.
"Attend to me, knave!" he bellowed. "Whatever betide the rest of
this misguided garrison when ultimately it falls into my hands, for
you I can promise a rope and a cross-beam."
"Bah!" sneered the knight. "First catch your bird. Be none so
sure that Roccaleone ever will fall into your hands. While I live you
do not enter here, and my life, Highness, is for me a precious thing,
which I'll not part with lightly."
Valentina's eyes were mirthless now as she turned them upon that
gleaming, martial figure standing so proudly at her side, and seeming
so well-attuned to the proud defiance he hurled at the princely bully
"Hush, sir!" she murmured. "Do not anger him further."
"Aye," groaned Gonzaga, "in God's name say no more, or you'll undo
"Madonna," said the Duke, without further heeding Francesco, "I
give you twenty-four hours in which to resolve upon your action.
Yonder you see them bringing the cannon into camp. When you wake
to-morrow you shall find those guns trained upon your walls.
Meanwhile, enough said. May I speak a word with Messer Gonzaga ere I
"So that you depart, you may say a word to whom you will," she
answered contemptuously. And, turning aside, she motioned Gonzaga to
the crenel she abandoned.
"I'll swear that mincing jester is trembling already with the fear
of what is to come," bawled the Duke, "and perhaps fear will show him
the way to reason. "Messer Gonzaga!" he called, raising his voice.
"As I believe the men of Roccaleone are in your service, I call upon
you to bid them throw down that drawbridge, and in the name of
Guidobaldo as well as my own, I promise them free pardon and no
hurt--saving only that rascal at your side. But if your knaves resist
me, I promise you that when I shall have dashed Roccaleone stone from
stone, not a man of you all will I spare."
Shaking like an aspen Gonzaga stood there, his voice palsied and
making no reply, whereupon Francesco leant forward again.
"We have heard your terms," he answered, "and we are not like to
heed them. Waste not the day in vain threats."
"Sir, my terms were not for you. I know you not; I addressed you
not, nor will I suffer myself to be addressed by you."
"Linger there another moment," answered the vibrating voice of the
knight, "and you will find yourself addressed with a volley of
arquebuse- shot. Olá, there!" he commanded, turning and addressing an
imaginary body of men on the lower ramparts of the garden, to his
left. "Arquebusiers to the postern! Blow your matches! Make ready!
Now, my Lord Duke, will you draw off, or must we blow you off?"
The Duke's reply took the form of a bunch of blasphemous threats of
how he would serve his interlocutor when he came to set hands on him.
"Present arms!" roared the knight to his imaginary arquebusiers,
whereupon, without another word, the Duke turned his horse and rode
off in disgraceful haste, his trumpeter following hot upon his heels,
pursued by a derisive burst of laughter from Francesco.
CHAPTER XVIII. TREACHERY
"Sir," gulped Gonzaga, as they were descending from the
battlements, "you will end by having us all hanged. Was that a way to
address a prince?"
Valentina frowned that he should dare rebuke her knight. But
Francesco only laughed.
"By St. Paul! How would you have had me address him?" he inquired.
"Would you have had me use cajolery with him--the lout? Would you
have had me plead mercy from him, and beg him, in honeyed words, to be
patient with a wilful lady? Let be, Messer Gonzaga, we shall weather
it yet, never doubt it."
"Messer Gonzaga's courage seems of a quality that wanes as the need
for it increases," said Valentina.
"You are confounding courage, Madonna, with foolhardy
recklessness," the courtier returned. "You may learn it to your
That Gonzaga was not the only one entertaining this opinion they
were soon to learn, for, as they reached the courtyard a burly,
black-browed ruffian, Cappoccio by name, thrust himself in their path.
"A word with you, Messer Gonzaga, and you, Ser Ercole." His
attitude was full of truculent insolence, and all paused, Francesco
and Valentina turning from him to the two men whom he addressed, and
waiting to hear what he might have to say to them. "When I accepted
service under you, I was given to understand that I was entering a
business that should entail little risk to my skin. I was told that
probably there would be no fighting, and that if there were, it would
be no more than a brush with the Duke's men. So, too, did you assure
"Did you indeed?" quoth Valentina, intervening, and addressing
herself to Fortemani, to whom Cappoccio's words had been directed.
"I did, Madonna," answered Ercole. "But I had Messer Gonzaga's
word for it."
"Did you," she continued, turning to Gonzaga, "permit their
engagement on that understanding?"
"On some such understanding, yes, Madonna," he was forced to
She looked at him a moment in amazement. Then:
"Msser Gonzaga," she said at length, "I think that I begin to know
But Cappoccio, who was nowise interested in the extent of
Valentina's knowledge of the man, broke in impetuously:
"Now we have heard what has passed between this new Provost here
and his Highness of Babbiano. We have heard the terms that were
offered, and his rejection of them, and I am come to tell you, Ser
Ercole, and you, Messer Gonzaga, that I for one will not remain here
to be hanged when Roccaleone shall fall into the hands of Gian Maria.
And there are others of my comrades who are of the same mind."
Valentina looked at the rugged, determined features of the man, and
fear for the first time stole into her heart and was reflected on her
countenance. She was half-turning to Gonzaga, to vent upon him some
of the bitterness of her humour--for him she accounted to blame--when
once again Francesco came to the rescue.
"Now, shame on you, Cappoccio, for a paltry hind! Are these words
for the ears of a besieged and sorely harassed lady, craven?"
"I am no craven," the man answered hoarsely, his face flushing
under the whip of Francesco's scorn. "Out in the open I will take my
chances, and fight in any cause that pays me. But this is not my
trade--this waiting for the death of a trapped rat."
Francesco met his eyes steadily for a moment, then glanced at the
other men, to the number of a half-score or so--all, in fact, whom the
duties he had apportioned them did not hold elsewhere. They hung in
the rear of Cappoccio, all ears for what was being said, and their
countenances plainly showing how their feelings were in sympathy with
"And you a soldier, Cappoccio?" sneered Francesco. "Shall I tell
you in what Fortemani was wrong when he enlisted you? He was wrong in
not hiring you for scullion duty in the castle kitchen."
"Bah! Do you raise your voice to me? Do you think I am of your
kind, animal, to be affrighted by sounds--however hideous?"
"I am not affrighted by sounds."
"Are you not? Why, then, all this ado about a bunch of empty
threats cast at us by the Duke of Babbiano? If you were indeed the
soldier you would have us think you, would you come here and say, 'I
will not die this way, or that'? Confess yourself a boaster when you
tell us that you are ready to die in the open."
"Nay! That am I not."
"Then, if you are ready to die out there, why not in here? Shall
it signify aught to him that dies where he gets his dying done? But
reassure yourself, you woman," he added, with a laugh, and in a voice
loud enough to be heard by the others, "you are not going to
die--neither here, nor there."
"When Roccaleone capitulates----"
"It will not capitulate," thundered Francesco.
"Well, then--when it is taken."
"Nor will it be taken," the Provost insisted, with an assurance
that carried conviction. "If Gian Maria had time unlimited at his
command, he might starve us into submission. But he has not. An
enemy is menacing his own frontiers, and in a few days--a week, at
most--he will be forced to get him hence to defend his crown."
"The greater reason for him to use stern measures and bombard us as
he threatens," answered Cappoccio shrewdly but rather in the tone of a
man who expects to have his argument disproved. And Francesco, if he
could not disprove it, could at least contradict it.
"Believe it not," he cried, with a scornful laugh. "I tell you
that Gian Maria will never dare so much. And if he did, are these
walls that will crumble at a few cannon-shots? Assault he might
attempt; but I need not tell a soldier that twenty men who are stout
and resolute, as I will believe you are for all your craven words,
could hold so strong a place as this against the assault of twenty
times the men the Duke has with him. And for the rest, if you think I
tell you more than I believe myself, I ask you to remember how I am
included in Gian Maria's threat. I am but a soldier like you, and such
risks as are yours are mine as well. Do you see any sign of faltering
in me, any sign of doubting the issue, or any fear of a rope that
shall touch me no more than it shall touch you? There, Cappoccio! A
less merciful provost would have hanged you for your words--for they
reek of sedition. Yet I have stood and argued with you, because I
cannot spare a brave man such as you will prove yourself. Let us hear
no more of your doubtings. They are unworthy. Be brave and resolute,
and you shall find yourself well rewarded when the baffled Duke shall
be forced to raise this siege."
He turned without waiting for the reply of Cappoccio--who stood
crestfallen, his cheeks reddened by shame of his threat to get him
hence --and conducted Valentina calmly across the yard and up the
steps of the hall.
It was his way never to show a doubt that his orders would be
obeyed, yet on this occasion scarce had the door of the hall closed
after them when he turned sharply to the following Ercole.
"Get you an arquebuse," he said quickly, "and take my man
Lanciotto, with you. Should those dogs still prove mutinous, fire
into any that attempt the gates--fire to kill--and send me word. But
above all, Ercole, do not let them see you or suspect your presence;
that were to undermine such effect as my words may have produced."
From out of a woefully pale face Valentina raised her brown eyes to
his, in a look that was as a stab to the observing Gonzaga.
"I needed a man here," she said, "and I think that Heaven it must
have been that sent you to my aid. But do you think," she asked, and
with her eyes she closely scanned his face for any sign of doubt,
"that they are pacified?"
"I am assured of it, Madonna. Come, there are signs of tears in
your eyes, and--by my soul!--there is naught to weep at."
"I am but a woman, after all," she smiled up at him, "and so,
subject to a woman's weakness. It seemed as if the end were indeed
come just now. It had come, but for you. If they should mutiny----"
"They shall not, while I am here," he answered, with a cheering
confidence. And she, full of faith in this true knight of hers, went
to seek her ladies, and to soothe in her turn any alarm to which they
might have fallen a prey.
Francesco went to disarm, and Gonzaga to take the air upon the
ramparts, his heart a very bag of gall. His hatred for the interloper
was as nothing now to his rage against Valentina, a rage that had its
birth in a wondering uncomprehension of how she should prefer that
coarse, swashbuckling bully to himself, the peerless Gonzaga. And as
he walked there, under the noontide sky, the memory of Francesco's
assurance that the men would not mutiny returned to him, and he caught
himself most ardently desiring that they might, if only to bear it
home to Valentina how misplaced was her trust, how foolish her belief
in that loud boaster. He thought next--and with increasing
bitterness--of his own brave schemes, of his love for Valentina, and
of how assured he had been that his affections were returned, before
this ruffler came amongst them. He laughed in bitter scorn as the
thought returned to her preferring Francesco to himself. Well, it
might be so now--now that the times were warlike, and this Francesco
was such a man as shone at his best in them. But what manner of
companion would this sbirro make in times of peace? Had he the wit,
the grace, the beauty even that was Gonzaga's? Circumstance, it seemed
to him, was here to blame, and he roundly cursed that same
Circumstance. In other surroundings, he was assured that she would
not have cast an eye upon Francesco whilst he, himself, was by; and if
he recalled their first meeting at Acquasparta, it was again to curse
Circumstance for having placed the knight in such case as to appeal to
the tenderness that is a part of woman's nature.
He reflected--assured that he was right--that if Francesco had not
come to Roccaleone, he might by now have been wed to Valentina; and
once wed, he could throw down the bridge and march out of Roccaleone,
assured that Gian Maria would not care to espouse his widow, and no
less assured that Guidobaldo--who was at heart a kind and clement
prince--would be content to let be what was accomplished, since there
would be naught gained beyond his niece's widowhood in hanging
Gonzaga. It was the specious argument that had lured him upon this
rash enterprise, the hopes that he was confident would have fructified
but for the interloping of Francesco.
He stood looking down at the tented plain, with black rage and
black despair blotting the beauty from the sunlight of that May
morning, and then it came to him that since there was naught to be
hoped from his old plans, might it not be wise to turn his attention
to new ones that would, at least, save him from hanging? For he was
assured that whatever might betide the others, his own fate was
sealed, whether Roccaleone fell or not. It would be remembered
against him that the affair was of his instigating, and from neither
Gian Maria nor Guidobaldo might he look for mercy.
And now the thought of extricating himself from his desperate peril
turned him cold by its suddenness. He stood very still a moment; then
looked about him as though he feared that some watching spy might read
on him the ugly intention that of a sudden had leapt to life in his
heart. Swiftly it spread, and took more definite shape, the reflection
of it showing now upon his smooth, handsome face, and disfiguring it
beyond belief. He drew away from the wall, and took a turn or two
upon the ramparts, one hand behind him, the other raised to support
his drooping chin. Thus he brooded for a little while. Then, with
another of his furtive glances, he turned to the north-western tower,
and entered the armoury. There he rummaged until he had found the
pen, ink and paper that he sought, and with the door wide open--the
better that he might hear the sound of approaching steps--he set
himself feverishly to write. It was soon done, and he stood up, waving
the sheet to dry the ink. Then he looked it over again, and this is
what he had written:
"I have it in my power to stir the garrison to mutiny and to throw
open the gates of Roccaleone. Thus shall the castle fall immediately
into your hands, and you shall have a proof of how little I am in
sympathy with this rebellion of Monna Valentina's. What terms do you
offer me if I accomplish this? Answer me now, and by the same means
as I am employing, but dispatch not your answer if I show myself upon
He folded the paper, and on the back he wrote the
superscription--"To the High and Mighty Duke of Babbiano." Then
opening a large chest that stood against the wall, he rummaged a
moment, and at last withdrew an arbalest quarrel. About the body of
this he tied his note. Next, from the wall he took down a cross-bow,
and from a corner a moulinet for winding it. With his foot in the
stirrup he made the cord taut and set the shaft in position.
And now he closed the door, and, going to the window, which was
little more than an arrow-slit, he shouldered his arbalest. He took
careful aim in the direction of the ducal tent, and loosed the
quarrel. He watched its light, and it almost thrilled him with pride
in his archery to see it strike the tent at which he had aimed, and
set the canvas shuddering.
In a moment there was a commotion. Men ran to the spot, others
emerged from the tent, and amongst the latter Gonzaga recognised the
figures of Gian Maria and Guidobaldo.
The bolt was delivered to the Duke of Babbiano, who, with an upward
glance at the ramparts, vanished into the tent once more.
Gonzaga moved from his eerie, and set wide the door of the tower,
so that his eyes could range the whole of the sun-bathed ramparts.
Returning to his window, he waited impatiently for the answer. Nor
was his impatience to endure long. At the end of some ten minutes
Gian Maria reappeared, and, summoning an archer to his side, he
delivered him something and made a motion of his hand towards
Roccaleone. Gonzaga moved to the door, and stood listening
breathlessly. At the least sign of an approach, he would have shown
himself, and thus, by the provision made in his letter have cautioned
the archer against shooting his bolt. But all was quiet, and so
Gonzaga remained where he was until something flashed like a bird
across his vision, struck sharply against the posterior wall, and fell
with a tinkle on the broad stones of the rampart. A moment later the
answer from Gian Maria was in his hands.
He swiftly unwound it from the shaft that had brought it, and
dropped the bolt into a corner. Then unfolding the letter, he read
it, leaning against one of the merlons of the wall.
"If you can devise a means to deliver Roccaleone at once into my
hands you shall earn my gratitude, full pardon for your share in Monna
Valentina's rebellion, and the sum of a thousand gold florins.
As he read, a light of joy leapt to his eyes. Gian Maria's terms
were very generous. He would accept them, and Valentina should
realise when too late upon what manner of broken reed she leaned in
relying upon Messer Francesco. Would he save her now, as he so loudly
boasted? Would there indeed be no mutiny, as he so confidently
prophesied? Gonzaga chuckled evilly to himself. She should learn her
lesson, and when she was Gian Maria's wife, she might perhaps repent
her of her treatment of Romeo Gonzaga.
He laughed softly to himself. Then suddenly he turned cold, and he
felt his skin roughening. A stealthy step sounded behind him.
He crumpled the Duke's letter in his hand, and in the alarm of the
moment, he dropped it over the wall. Seeking vainly to compose the
features that a chilling fear had now disturbed, he turned to see who
Behind him stood Peppe, his solemn eyes bent with uncanny
intentness upon Gonzaga's face.
"You were seeking me?" quoth Romeo, and the quaver in his voice
sorted ill with his arrogance.
The fool made him a grotesque bow.
"Monna Valentina desires that you attend her in the garden,
CHAPTER XIX. PLOT AND COUNTERPLOT
Peppe's quick eyes had seen Gonzaga crumple and drop the paper, no
less than he had observed the courtier's startled face, and his
suspicions had been aroused. He was by nature prying, and experience
had taught him that the things men seek to conceal are usually the
very things it imports most to have knowledge of. So when Gonzaga had
gone, in obedience to Valentina's summons, the jester peered carefully
over the battlements.
At first he saw nothing, and he was concluding with disappointment
that the thing Gonzaga had cast from him was lost in the torrential
waters of the moat. But presently, lodged on a jutting stone, above
the foaming stream into which it would seem that a miracle had
prevented it from falling, he espied a ball of crumpled paper. He
observed with satisfaction that it lay some ten feet immediately below
the postern-gate by the drawbridge.
Secretly, for it was not Peppy's way to take men into his
confidence where it might be avoided, he got himself a coil of rope.
Having descended and quietly opened the postern, he made one end fast
and lowered the other to the water with extreme care, lest he should
dislodge, and so lose, that paper.
Assuring himself again that he was unobserved, he went down, hand
over hand, like a monkey, his feet against the rough-hewn granite of
the wall. Then, with a little swinging of the rope, he brought himself
nearer that crumpled ball, his legs now dangling in the angry water,
and by a mighty stretch that all but precipitated him into the
torrent, he seized the paper and transferred it to his teeth. Then
hand over hand again, and with a frantic haste, for he feared
observation not only from the castle sentries but also from the
watchers in the besieger's camp, he climbed back to the postern,
exulting in that he had gone unobserved, and contemptuous for the
vigilance of those that should have observed him.
Softly he closed the wicket, locked it and shot home the bolts at
top and base, and went to replace the key on its nail in the
guard-room, which he found untenanted. Next, with that mysterious
letter in his hand, he scampered off across the courtyard and through
the porch leading to the domestic quarters, nor paused until he had
gained the kitchen, where Fra Domenico was roasting the quarter of a
lamb that he had that morning butchered. For now that the siege was
established, there was no more fish from the brook, nor hares and
ortolans from the country-side.
The friar cursed the fool roundly, as was his wont upon every
occasion, for he was none so holy that he disdained the milder forms
of objurgatory oaths. But Peppe for once had no vicious answer ready,
a matter that led the Dominican to ask him was he ill.
Never heeding him, the fool unfolded and smoothed the crumpled
paper in a corner by the fire. He read it and whistled, then stuffed
it into the bosom of his absurd tunic.
"What ails you?" quoth the friar. "What have you there?"
"A recipe for a dish of friar's brains. A most rare delicacy, and
rendered costly by virtue of the scarcity of the ingredients." And
with that answer Peppe was gone, leaving the monk with an ugly look in
his eyes, and an unuttered imprecation on his tongue.
Straight to the Count of Aquila went the fool with his letter.
Francesco read it, and questioned him closely as to what he knew of
the manner in which it had come into Gonzaga's possession. For the
rest, those lines, far from causing him the uneasiness Peppe expected,
seemed a source of satisfaction and assurance to him.
"He offers a thousand gold florins," he muttered, "in addition to
Gonzaga's liberty and advancement. Why, then, I have said no more
than was true when I assured the men that Gian Maria was but idly
threatening us with bombardment. Keep this matter secret, Peppe."
"But you will watch Messer Gonzaga?" quoth the fool.
"Watch him? Why, where is the need? You do not imagine him so
vile that this offer could tempt him?"
Peppe looked up, his great, whimsical face screwed into an
expression of cunning doubt.
"You do not think, lord, that he invited it?"
"Now, shame on you for that thought. Messer Gonzaga may be an idle
lute- thrummer, a poor-spirited coward; but a traitor----! And to
betray Monna Valentina! No, no."
But the fool was far from reassured. He had had the longer
acquaintance of Messer Gonzaga, and his shrewd eyes had long since
taken the man's exact measure. Let Francesco scorn the notion of
betrayal at Romeo's hands; Peppe would dog him like a shadow. This he
did for the remainder of that day, clinging to Gonzaga as if he loved
him dearly, and furtively observing the man's demeanour. Yet he saw
nothing to confirm his suspicions beyond a certain preoccupied
moodiness on the courtier's part.
That night, as they supped, Gonzaga pleaded toothache, and with
Valentina's leave he quitted the table at the very outset of the meal.
Peppe rose to follow him, but as he reached the door, his natural
enemy, the friar--ever anxious to thwart him where he could--caught
him by the nape of the neck, and flung him unceremoniously back into
"Have you a toothache too, good-for-naught?" quoth the frate.
"Stay you here and help me to wait upon the company."
"Let me go, good Fra Domenico," the fool whispered, in a voice so
earnest that the monk left his way clear. But Valentina's voice now
bade him stay with them, and so his opportunity was lost.
He moved about the room a very dispirited, moody fool with no quip
for anyone, for his thoughts were all on Gonzaga and the treason that
he was sure he was hatching. Yet faithful to Francesco, who sat all
unconcerned, and not wishing to alarm Valentina, he choked back the
warning that rose to his lips, seeking to convince himself that his
fears sprang perhaps from an excess of suspicion. Had he known how
well- founded indeed they were he might have practised less
For whilst he moved sullenly about the room, assisting Fra Domenico
with the dishes and platters, Gonzaga paced the ramparts beside
Cappoccio, who was on sentry duty on the north wall.
His business called for no great diplomacy, nor did Gonzaga employ
much. He bluntly told Cappoccio that he and his comrades had allowed
Messer Francesco's glib tongue to befool them that morning, and that
the assurances Francesco had given them were not worthy of an
intelligent man's consideration.
"I tell you, Cappoccio," he ended, "that to remain here and
protract this hopeless resistance will cost you your life at the
unsavoury hands of the hangman. You see I am frank with you."
Now for all that what Gonzaga told him might sort excellently well
with the ideas he had himself entertained, Cappoccio was of a
suspicious nature, and his suspicions whispered to him now that
Gonzaga was actuated by some purpose he could not gauge.
He stood still, and leaning with both hands upon his partisan, he
sought to make out the courtier's features in the dim light of the
"Do you mean," he asked, and in his voice sounded the surprise with
which Gonzaga's odd speech had filled him, "that we are foolish to
have listened to Messer Francesco, and that we should be better
advised to march out of Roccaleone?"
"Yes; that is what I mean."
"But why," he insisted, his surprise increasing, "do you urge such
a course upon us?"
"Because, Cappoccio," was the plausible reply, "like yourselves, I
was lured into this business by insidious misrepresentations. The
assurances that I gave Fortemani, and with which he enrolled you into
his service, were those that had been given to me. I did not bargain
with such a death as awaits us here, and I frankly tell you that I
have no stomach for it."
"I begin to understand," murmured Cappoccio, sagely wagging his
head, and there was a shrewd insolence in his tone and manner. "When
we leave Roccaleone you come with us?"
"But why do you not say these things to Fortemani?" questioned
Cappoccio, still doubting.
"Fortemani!" echoed Gonzaga. "By the Host, no! The man is
bewitched by that plausible rogue, Francesco. Far from resenting the
fellow's treatment of him, he follows and obeys his every word, like
the mean- spirited dog that he is."
Again Cappoccio sought to scrutinise Gonzaga's face. But the light
"Are you dealing with me fairly?" he asked. "Or does some deeper
purpose lie under your wish that we should rebel against the lady?"
"My friend," answered Gonzaga, "do you but wait until Gian Maria's
herald comes for his answer in the morning. Then you will learn again
the terms on which your lives are offered you. Do nothing until then.
But when you hear yourselves threatened with the rope and the wheel,
bethink you of what course you will be best advised in pursuing. You
ask me what purpose inspires me. I have already told you--for I am as
open as the daylight with you--that I am inspired by the purpose of
saving my own neck. Is not that purpose enough?"
A laugh of such understanding as would have set a better man on
fire with indignation was the answer he received.
"Why, yes, it is more than enough. To-morrow, then, my comrades
and I march out of Roccaleone. Count upon that."
"But do not accept my word. Wait until the herald comes again. Do
nothing until you have heard the terms he brings."
"Why, no, assuredly not."
"And do not let it transpire among your fellows that it is I who
have suggested this."
"Why no. I'll keep your secret," laughed the bravo offensively,
shouldering his partisan and resuming his sentinel's pacing.
Gonzaga sought his bed. A fierce joy consumed him at having so
consummately planned Valentina's ruin, yet he did not wish to face her
again that night.
But when on the morrow the herald wound his horn again beneath the
castle walls, Gonzaga was prominent in the little group that attended
Monna Valentina. The Count of Aquila was superintending the work to
which he had set a half-score of men. With a great show, and as much
noise as possible--by which Francesco intended that the herald should
be impressed--they were rolling forward four small culverins and some
three cannons of larger calibre, and planting them so that they made a
menacing show in the crenels of the parapet.
Whilst watching and directing the men, he kept his ears open for
the message, and he heard the herald again recite the terms on which
the garrison might surrender, and again the threat to hang every man
from the castle-walls if they compelled him to reduce them by force of
arms. He brought his message to an end by announcing that in his
extreme clemency Gian Maria accorded them another half-hour's grace in
which to resolve themselves upon their course. Should the end of that
time still find them obstinate, the bombardment would commence. Such
was the message that in another of his arrow-borne letters Gonzaga had
suggested Gian Maria should send.
It was Francesco who stepped forward to reply. He had been
stooping over one of the guns, as if to assure himself of the accuracy
of its aim, and as he rose he pronounced himself satisfied in a voice
loud enough for the herald's hearing. Then he advanced to Valentina's
side, and whilst he stood there delivering his answer he never noticed
the silent departure of the men from the wall.
"You will tell his Highness of Babbiano," he replied, "that he
reminds us of the boy in the fable who cried 'Wolf!' too often. Tell
him, sir, that his threats leave this garrison as unmoved as do his
promises. If so be that he intends in truth to bombard us, let him
begin forthwith. We are ready for him, as you perceive. Maybe he did
not suppose us equipped with cannon; but there they stand. Those guns
are trained upon his camp, and the first shot he fires upon us shall
be a signal for such a reply as he little dreams of. Tell him, too,
that we expect no quarter, and will yield none. We are unwilling for
bloodshed, but if he drives us to it and executes his purpose of
employing cannon, then the consequences be upon his own head. Bear
him that answer, and tell him to send you no more with empty threats."
The herald bowed upon the withers of his horse. The arrogance, the
cold imperiousness of the message struck him dumb with amazement.
Amazement was his, too, that Roccaleone should be armed with cannon,
as with his own eyes he saw. That those guns were empty he could not
guess, nor could Gian Maria when he heard a message that filled him
with rage, and would have filled him with dismay, but that he counted
upon the mutiny which Gonzaga had pledged himself to stir up.
As the herald was riding away a gruff laugh broke from Fortemani,
who stood behind the Count.
Valentina turned to Francesco with eyes that beamed admiration and
a singular tenderness.
"Oh, what had I done without you, Messer Francesco?" she cried, for
surely the twentieth time since his coming. "I tremble to think how
things had gone without your wit and valour to assist me." She never
noticed the malicious smile that trembled on Gonzaga's pretty face.
"Where did you find the powder?" she asked innocently, for her mind
had not yet caught that humour of the situation that had drawn a laugh
"I found none," answered Francesco, smiling from the shadow of his
helm. "My threats"--and he waved his hand in the direction of that
formidable array of guns--"are as empty as Gian Maria's. Yet I think
they will impress him more than his do us. I will answer for it,
Madonna, that they deter him from bombarding us--if so be that he ever
intended to. So let us go and break our fast with a glad courage."
"Those guns are empty?" she gasped. "And you could talk so boldly
and threaten so defiantly!"
Mirth crept now into her face, and thrust back the alarm, a little
of which had peeped from her eyes even as she was extolling Francesco.
"There!" he cried joyously. "You are smiling now, Madonna. Nor
have you cause for aught else. Shall we descend? This early morning
work has given me the hunger of a wolf."
She turned to go with him, and in that moment, Peppe, his owlish
face spread over with alarm, dashed up the steps from the courtyard.
"Madonna!" he gasped, breathless. "Messer Francesco! The men--
Cappoccio---- He is haranguing them. He--is inciting them to
So, in gasps, he got out his tale, which swept the mirth again from
Valentina's eyes, and painted very white her cheek. Strong and brave
though she was, she felt her senses swimming at that sudden revulsion
from confidence to fear. Was all indeed ended at the very moment when
hope had reached its high meridian?
"You are faint, Madonna; lean on me."
It was Gonzaga who spoke. But beyond the fact that the words had
been uttered, she realised nothing. She saw an arm advanced, and she
took it. Then she dragged Gonzaga with her to the side overlooking the
courtyard, that with her own eyes she might have evidence of what was
She heard an oath--a vigorous, wicked oath--from Francesco,
followed by a command, sharp and rasping.
"To the armoury yonder, Peppe! Fetch me a two-handed sword--the
stoutest you can find. Ercole, come with me. Gonzaga---- Nay, you
had best stay here. See to Monna Valentina."
He stepped to her side now, and rapidly surveyed the surging scene
below, where Cappoccio was still addressing the men. At sight of
Francesco, they raised a fierce yell, as might a pack of dogs that
have sighted their quarry.
"To the gates!" was the shout. "Down the drawbridge! We accept
the terms of Gian Maria. We will not die like rats."
"By God, but you shall, if I so will it!" snarled Francesco through
his set teeth. Then turning his head in a fever of impatience
"Peppe," he shouted, "will you never bring that sword?"
The fool came up at that moment, staggering under the weight of a
great, double-edged two-hander, equipped with lugs, and measuring a
good six feet from point to pummel. Francesco caught it from him, and
bending, he muttered a swift order in Peppino's ear.
"...In the box that stands upon the table in my chamber," Gonzaga
overheard him say. "Now go, and bring it to me in the yard. Speed
A look of understanding flashed up from the hunchback's eyes, and
as he departed at a run Francesco hoisted the mighty sword to his
shoulder as though its weight were that of a feather. In that instant
Valentina's white hand was laid upon the brassart that steeled his
"What will you do?" she questioned, in a whisper, her eyes dilating
"Stem the treachery of that rabble," he answered shortly. "Stay
you here, Madonna. Fortemani and I will pacify them--or make an end
of them." And so grimly did he say it that Gonzaga believed it to lie
within his power.
"But you are mad!" she cried, and the fear in her eyes increased.
"What can you do against twenty?"
"What God pleases," he answered, and for a second put the ferocity
from his heart that he might smile reassurance.
"But you will be killed," she cried. " Oh! don't go, don't go!
Let them have their way, Messer Francesco. Let Gian Maria invest the
castle. I care not, so that you do not go."
Her voice, and the tale it told of sweet anxiety for his fate
overruling everything else in that moment--even her horror of Gian
Maria--quickened his blood to the pace of ecstasy. He was taken by a
wild longing to catch her in his arms--this lady hitherto so brave and
daunted now by the fear of his peril only. Every fibre of his being
urged him to gather her to his breast, whilst he poured courage and
comfort into her ear. He fainted almost with desire to kiss those
tender eyes, upturned to his in her piteous pleading that he should
not endanger his own life. But suppressing all, he only smiled,
though very tenderly.
"Be brave, Madonna, and trust in me a little. Have I failed you
yet? Need you then fear that I shall fail you now?"
At that she seemed to gather courage. The words reawakened her
confidence in his splendid strength.
"We shall laugh over this when we break our fast," he cried.
"Come, Ercole!" And without waiting for more, he leapt down the
steps with an agility surprising in one so heavily armed as he.
They were no more than in time. As they gained the courtyard the
men came sweeping along towards the gates, their voices raucous and
threatening. They were full of assurance. All hell they thought
could not have hindered them, and yet at sight of that tall figure,
bright as an angel, in his panoply of glittering steel, with that
great sword poised on his left shoulder, some of the impetuousness
seemed to fall from them.
Still they advanced, Cappoccio's voice shouting encouragement.
Almost were they within range of that lengthy sword, when of a sudden
it flashed from his shoulder, and swept a half-circle of dazzling
light before their eyes. Round his head it went, and back again
before them, handled as though it had been a whip, and bringing them,
silent, to a standstill. He bore it back to his shoulder, and alert
for the first movement, his blood on fire, and ready to slay a man or
two should the example become necessary, he addressed them.
"You see what awaits you if you persist in this," he said, in a
dangerously quiet voice. "Have you no shame, you herd of cowardly
animals! You are loud-voiced enough where treason to the hand that
pays you is in question; but there, it seems, your valour ends."
He spoke to them now in burning words. He recapitulated the
arguments which yesterday he had made use of to quell the mutinous
spirit of Cappoccio. He assured them that Gian Maria threatened more
than he could accomplish; and so, perhaps, more than he would fulfil
if they were so foolish as to place themselves in his power. Their
safety, he pointed out to them, lay here, behind these walls. The
siege could not long endure. They had a stout ally in Caesar Borgia,
and he was marching upon Babbiano by then, so that Gian Maria must get
him home perforce ere long. Their pay was good, he reminded them, and
if the siege were soon raised they should be well rewarded.
"Gian Maria threatens to hang you when he captures Roccaleone. But
even should he capture it, do you think he would be allowed to carry
out so inhuman a threat? You are mercenaries, after all, in the pay
of Monna Valentina, on whom and her captains the blame must fall.
This is Urbino, not Babbiano, and Gian Maria is not master here. Do
you think the noble and magnanimous Guidobaldo would let you hang?
Have you so poor an opinion of your Duke? Fools! You are as safe
from violence as are those ladies in the gallery up there. For
Guidobaldo would no more think of harming you than of permitting harm
to come to them. If any hanging there is it will be for me, and
perhaps for Messer Gonzaga who hired you. Yet, do I talk of throwing
down my arms? What think you holds me here? Interest--just as
interest holds you--and if I think the risk worth taking, why should
not you? Are you so tame and so poor-spirited that a threat is to
vanquish you? Will you become a byword in Italy, and when men speak
of cowardice, will you have them say: 'Craven as Monna Valentina's
In this strain he talked to them, now smiting hard with his scorn,
now cajoling them with his assurances, and breeding confidence anew in
their shaken spirits. It was a thing that went afterwards to the
making of an epic that was sung from Calabria to Piedmont, how this
brave knight, by his words, by the power of his will and the might of
his presence, curbed and subdued that turbulent score of rebellious
And from the wall above Valentina watched him, her eyes sparkling
with tears that had not their source in sorrow nor yet in fear, for
she knew that he must prevail. How could it be else with one so
Thus thought she now. But in the moment of his going, fear had
chilled her to the heart, and when she first saw him take his stand
before them, she had turned half-distraught, and begged Gonzaga not to
linger at her side, but to go lend what aid he could to that brave
knight who stood so sorely in need of it. And Gonzaga had smiled a
smile as pale as January sunshine, and his soft blue eyes had hardened
in their glance. Not weakness now was it that held him there, well
out of the dangerous turmoil. For he felt that had he possessed the
strength of Hercules, and the courage of Achilles, he would not in
that instant have moved a step to Francesco's aid. And as much he
"Why should I, Madonna?" he had returned coldly. "Why should I
raise a hand to help the man whom you prefer to me? Why should I draw
sword in the cause of this fortress?"
She looked at him with troubled eyes. "What are you saying, my
"Aye--your good Gonzaga!" he mocked her bitterly. "Your lap-dog,
your lute-thrummer; but not man enough to be your captain; not man
enough to earn a thought that is kinder than any earned by Peppe or
your hounds. I may endanger my neck to serve you, to bring you hither
to a place of safety from Gian Maria's persecution, and be cast aside
for one who, it happens, has a little more knowledge of this coarse
trade of arms. Cast me aside if you will," he pursued, with
increasing bitterness, "but having done so, do not ask me to serve you
again. Let Messer Francesco fight it out----"
"Hush, Gonzaga!" she interrupted. "Let me hear what he is saying."
And her tone told the courtier that his words had been lost upon
the morning air. Engrossed in the scene below she had not so much as
listened to his bitter tirade. For now Francesco was behaving oddly.
The fool was returned from the errand on which he had been despatched,
and Francesco called him to his side. Lowering his sword he received
a paper from Peppe's hand.
Burning with indignation at having gone unheeded, Gonzaga stood
gnawing his lip, whilst Valentina craned forward to catch Francesco's
"I have here a proof," he cried, "of what I tell you; proof of how
little Gian Maria is prepared to carry out his threats of cannon. It
is that fellow Cappoccio has seduced you with his talk. And you, like
the sheep you are, let yourselves be driven by his foul tongue. Now
listen to the bribe that Gian Maria offers to one within these walls
if he can contrive a means to deliver Roccaleone into his hands." And
to Gonzaga's paralysing consternation, he heard Francesco read the
letter with which Gian Maria had answered his proposed betrayal of the
fortress. He went white with fear and he leant against the low wall
to steady the tell-tale trembling that had seized him. Then
Francesco's voice, scornful and confident, floated up to his ears. "I
ask you, my friends, would his Highness of Babbiano be disposed to the
payment of a thousand gold florins if by bombardment he thought to
break a way into Roccaleone? This letter was written yesterday. Since
then we have made a brave display of cannon ourselves; and if
yesterday he dared not fire, think you he will to-day? But here,
assure yourselves, if there is one amongst you that can read."
He held out the letter to them. Cappoccio took it, and calling one
Aventano, he held it out in his turn. This Aventano, a youth who had
been partly educated for the Church, but had fallen from that lofty
purpose, now stood forward and took the letter. He scrutinised it,
read it aloud, and pronounced it genuine.
"Whom is it addressed to?" demanded Cappoccio.
"Nay, nay!" cried Francesco. "What need for that?"
"Let be," Cappoccio answered, almost fiercely. "If you would have
us remain in Roccaleone, let be. Aventano, tell me."
"To Messer Romeo Gonzaga," answered the youth, in a voice of
So evil a light leapt to Cappoccio's eye that Francesco carried his
free hand to the sword which he had lowered. But Cappoccio only
looked up at Gonzaga, and grinned malevolently. It had penetrated his
dull wits that he had been the tool of a judas, who sought to sell the
castle for a thousand florins. Further than that Cappoccio did not
see; nor was he very resentful, and his grin was rather of mockery
than of anger. He was troubled by no lofty notions of honour that
should cause him to see in this deed of Gonzaga's anything more than
such a trickster's act as it is always agreeable to foil. And then,
to the others, who knew naught of what was passing in Cappoccio's
mind, he did a mighty strange thing. From being the one to instigate
them to treachery and mutiny, he was the one now to raise his voice in
a stout argument of loyalty. He agreed with all that Messer Francesco
had said, and he, for one, ranged himself on Messer Francesco's side
to defend the gates from any traitors who sought to open them to Gian
His defection from the cause of mutiny was the signal for the utter
abandoning of that cause itself, and another stout ally came
opportunely to weigh in Francesco's favour was the fact that the
half-hour of grace was now elapsed, and Gian Maria's guns continued
silent. He drew their attention to the fact with a laugh, and bade
them go in peace, adding the fresh assurance that those guns would not
speak that day, nor the next, nor indeed ever.
Utterly conquered by Francesco and--perhaps even more--by his
unexpected ally, Cappoccio, they slunk shamefacedly away to the food
and drink that he bade them seek at Fra Domenico's hands.
CHAPTER XX. THE LOVERS
How came that letter to your hands?" Valentina asked Gonzaga, when
presently they stood together in the courtyard, whither the courtier
had followed her when she descended.
"Wrapped round an arbalest-bolt that fell on the ramparts yesterday
whilst I was walking there alone," returned Gonzaga coolly.
He had by now regained his composure. He saw that stood in deadly
peril, and the very fear that possessed him seemed, by an odd paradox,
to lend him the strength to play his part.
Valentina eyed him with a something of mistrust in her glance. But
on Francesco's clear countenance no shadow of suspicion showed. His
eyes almost smiled as he asked Gonzaga:
"Why did you not bear it to Monna Valentina?"
A flush reddened the courtier's cheeks. He shrugged his shoulders
impatiently, and in a voice that choked with anger he delivered his
"To you, sir, who seem bred in camps and reared in guard-rooms, the
fulness of this insult offered me by Gian Maria may not be apparent.
It may not be yours to perceive that the very contact of that letter
soiled my hands, that it shamed me unutterably to think that that
loutish Duke should have deemed me a target for such a shaft. It were
idle, therefore, to seek to make you understand how little I could
bear to submit to the further shame of allowing another to see the
affront that I was powerless to avenge. I did, sir, with that letter
the only thing conceivable. I crumpled it in my hand and cast it from
me, just as I sought to cast its contents from my mind. But your
watchful spies, Ser Francesco, bore it to you, and if my shame has
been paraded before the eyes of that rabble soldiery, at least it has
served the purpose of saving Monna Valentina. To do that, I would, if
the need arose, immolate more than the pride that caused me to be
silent on the matter of this communication."
He spoke with such heat of sincerity that he convinced both
Francesco and Valentina, and the lady's eyes took on a softer
expression as she surveyed Gonzaga--this poor Gonzaga whom, her heart
told her, she had sorely wronged in thought. Francesco, ever
generous, took his passionate utterances in excellent part.
"Messer Gonzaga, I understand your scruples. You do me wrong to
think that I should fail in that."
He checked the suggestion he was on the point of renewing that,
nevertheless, Gonzaga would have been better advised to have laid that
letter at once before Monna Valentina. Instead, he dismissed the
subject with a laugh, and proposed that they should break their fast
so soon as he had put off his harness.
He went to do so, whilst Valentina bent her steps towards the
dining- room, attended by Gonzaga, to whom she now sought to make
amends for her suspicions by an almost excessive friendliness of
But there was one whom Gonzaga's high-sounding words in connection
with that letter had left cold. This was Peppe, that most wise of
fools. He hastened after Francesco, and while the knight was
disarming he came to voice his suspicions. But Francesco drove him
out with impatience, and Peppe went sorrowing and swearing that the
wisdom of the fool was truly better than the folly of the wise.
Throughout that day Gonzaga hardly stirred from Valentina's side.
He talked with her in the morning at great length and upon subjects
poetical or erudite, by which he meant to display his vast mental
superiority over the swashbuckling Francesco. In the evening, when
the heat of the day was spent, and whilst that same Messer Francesco
was at some defensive measures on the walls, Gonzaga played at bowls
with Valentina and her ladies--the latter having now recovered from
the panic to which earlier they had been a prey.
That morning Gonzaga had stood at bay, seeing his plans crumble.
That evening, after the day spent in Valentina's company--and she so
sweet and kind to him--he began to take heart of grace once more, and
his volatile mind whispered to his soul the hope that, after all,
things might well be as he had first intended, if he but played his
cards adroitly, and did not mar his chances by the precipitancy that
had once gone near to losing him. His purpose gathered strength from
a message that came that evening from Gian Maria, who was by then
assured that Gonzaga's plan had failed. He sent word that, being
unwilling to provoke the bloodshed threatened by the reckless madman
who called himself Monna Valentina's Provost, he would delay the
bombardment, hoping that in the meantime hunger would beget in that
rebellious garrison a more submissive mood.
Francesco read the message to Madonna's soldiers, and they received
it joyously. Their confidence in him increased a hundredfold by this
proof of the accuracy of his foresight. They were a gay company at
supper in consequence, and gayest of all was Messer Gonzaga, most
bravely dressed in a purple suit of taby silk to honour so portentous
Francesco was the first to quit the table, craving Monna
Valentina's leave to be about some duty that took him to the walls.
She let him go, and afterwards sat pensive, nor heeded now Romeo's
light chatter, nor yet the sonnet of Petrarca that presently he sang
the company. Her thoughts were all with him that had left the board.
Scarcely a word had she exchanged with Francesco since that delirious
moment when they had looked into each other's eyes upon the ramparts,
and seen the secret that each was keeping from the other. Why had he
not come to her? she asked herself. And then she bethought her of how
Gonzaga had all day long been glued to her side, and she realised,
too, that it was she had shunned Francesco's company, grown of a
sudden strangely shy.
But greater than her shyness was now her desire to be near him, and
to hear his voice; to have him look again upon her as he had looked
that morning, when in terror for him she had sought to dissuade him
from opposing the craven impulse of her men-at-arms. A woman of
mature age, or one riper in experience, would have waited for him to
seek her out. But Valentina, in her sweet naturalness, thought never
of subterfuge or of dalliant wiles. She rose quietly from the table
ere Gonzaga's song was done, and as quietly she slipped from the room.
It was a fine night, the air heavy with the vernal scent of fertile
lands, and the deep cobalt of the heavens a glittering, star-flecked
dome in a lighter space of which floated the half-disk of the growing
moon. Such a moon, she bethought her, as she had looked at with
thoughts of him, the night after their brief meeting at Acquasparta.
She had gained that north rampart on which he had announced that duty
took him, and yonder she saw a man---the only tenant of the
wall--leaning upon the embattled parapet, looking down at the lights
of Gian Maria's camp. He was bareheaded, and by the gold coif that
gleamed in his hair she knew him. Softly she stole up behind him.
"Do we dream here, Messer Francesco?" she asked him, as she reached
his side, and there was laughter running through her words.
He started round at the sound of her voice, then he laughed too,
softly and gladly.
"It is a night for dreams, and I was dreaming indeed. But you have
"You grieve me," she rallied him. "For assuredly they were
pleasant, since, to come here and indulge them, you left--us."
"Aye--they were pleasant," he answered. "And yet, they were
fraught with a certain sadness, but idle as is the stuff of dreams.
They were yours to dispel, for they were of you."
"Of me?" she questioned, her heart-beats quickening and bringing to
her cheeks a flush that she thanked the night for concealing.
"Yes, Madonna--of you and our first meeting in the woods at
Acquasparta. Do you recall it?"
"I do, I do," she murmured fondly.
"And do you recall how I then swore myself your knight and ever
your champion? Little did we dream how the honour that I sighed for
was to be mine."
She made him no answer, her mind harking back to that first meeting
on which so often and so fondly she had pondered.
"I was thinking, too," he said presently, "of that man Gian Maria
in the plain yonder, and of this shameful siege."
"You--you have no misgivings?" she faltered, for his words had
disappointed her a little.
"For being here with me. For being implicated in what they call my
He laughed softly, his eyes upon the silver gleam of waters below.
"My misgivings are all for the time when this siege shall be ended;
when you and I shall have gone each our separate way," he answered
boldly. He turned to face her now, and his voice rang a little tense.
"But for being here to guide this fine resistance and lend you the
little aid I can---- No, no, I have no misgiving for that. It is the
dearest frolic ever my soldiering led me into. I came to Roccaleone
with a message of warning; but underneath, deep down in my heart, I
bore the hope that mine should be more than a messenger's part; that
mine it might be to remain by you and do such work as I am doing."
"Without you they would have forced me by now to surrender."
"Perhaps they would. But while I am here I do not think they will.
I burn for news of Babbiano. If I could but tell what is happening
there I might cheer you with the assurance that this siege can last
but a few days longer. Gian Maria must get him home or submit to the
loss of his throne. And if he loses that your uncle would no longer
support so strenuously his suit with you. To you, Madonna, this must
be a cheering thought. To me--alas! Why should I hope for it?"
He was looking away now into the night, but his voice quivered with
the emotion that was in him. She was silent, and emboldened perhaps
by that silence of hers, encouraged by the memory of what he had seen
that morning reflected in her eyes:
"Madonna," he cried, "I would it might be mine to cut a road for
you through that besieging camp, and bear you away to some blessed
place where there are neither courts nor princes. But since this may
not be, Madonna mia, I would that this siege might last for ever."
And then--was it the night breeze faintly stirring through his hair
that mocked him with the whisper, "So indeed would I?" He turned to
her, his hand, brown and nervous, fell upon hers, ivory-white, where
it rested on the stone.
"Valentina!" he cried, his voice no louder than a whisper, his eyes
ardently seeking her averted ones. And then, as suddenly as it had
leapt up, was the fire in his glance extinguished. He withdrew his
hand from hers, he sighed, and shifted his gaze to the camp once more.
"Forgive, forget, Madonna," he murmured bitterly, "that which in my
madness I have presumed."
Silent she stood for a long moment; then she edged nearer to him,
and her voice murmured back: "What if I account it no presumption?"
With a gasp he swung round to face her, and they stood very close,
glance holding glance, and hers the less timid of the two. They thus
remained for a little space. Then shaking his head and speaking with
an infinite sadness:
"It were better that you did, Madonna," he made answer.
"Better? But why?"
"Because I am no duke, Madonna."
"And what of that?" she cried, to add with scorn: "Out yonder sits
a duke. Oh, sir, how shall I account presumptuous in you the very
words that I would hear? What does your rank signify to me? I know
you for the truest knight, the noblest gentleman, and the most valiant
friend that ever came to the aid of distressed maiden. Do you forget
the very principles that have led me to make this resistance? That I
am a woman, and ask of life no more than is a woman's due--and no
There she stopped; again the blood suffused her cheeks as she
bethought her of how fast she talked, and of how bold her words might
sound. She turned slightly from him, and leant now upon the parapet,
gazing out into the night. And as she stood thus, a very ardent voice
it was that whispered in her ear:
"Valentina, by my soul, I love you!" And there that whisper, which
filled her with an ecstasy that was almost painful in its poignancy,
ended sharply as if throttled. Again his hand sought hers, which was
yielded to him as she would have yielded her whole life at his sweet
bidding, and now his voice came less passionately.
"Why delude ourselves with cruel hopes, my Valentina?" he was
saying. "There is the future. There is the time when this siege shall
be done with, and when, Gian Maria having got him home, you will be
free to depart. Whither will you go?"
She looked at him as if she did not understand the question, and
her eyes were troubled, although in such light as there was he could
scarce see this.
"I will go whither you bid me. Where else have I to go?" she
added, with a note of bitterness.
He started. Her answer was so far from what he had expected.
"But your uncle----?"
"What duty do I owe to him? Oh, I have thought of it, and
until--until this morning, it seemed that a convent must be my
ultimate refuge. I have spent most of my young life at Santa Sofia,
and the little that I have seen of the world at my uncle's court
scarce invites me to see more of it. The Mother Abbess loved me a
little. She would take me back, unless----"
She broke off and looked at him, and before that look of absolute
and sweet surrender his senses swam. That she was niece to the Duke
of Urbino he remembered no more than that he was Count of Aquila,
well-born, but of none too rich estate, and certainly no more a match
for her in Guidobaldo's eyes than if he had been the simple
knight-errant that he seemed.
He moved closer to her, his hands--as if obeying a bidding greater
than his will, the bidding of that glance of hers, perhaps--took her
by the shoulders, whilst his whole soul looked at her from his eyes.
Then, with a stifled cry, he caught her to him. For a moment she
lay, palpitant, within his arms, her tall, bronze head on a level with
his chin, her heart beating against his heart. Stooping suddenly, he
kissed her on the lips. She suffered it with an unresistance that
invited. But when it was done, she gently put him from her; and he,
obedient to her slightest wish, curbed the wild ardour of his mood,
and set her free.
"Anima mia!" he cried rapturously. "You are mine now, betide what
may. Not Gian Maria nor all the dukes in Christendom shall take you
She set her hand upon his lips to silence him, and he kissed the
palm, so that laughing she drew back again. And now from laughter she
passed to a great solemnity, and with arm outstretched towards the
ducal camp: "Win me a way through those lines," said she, "and bear me
away from Urbino-- far away where Guidobaldo's power and the vengeance
of Gian Maria may not follow us--and you shall have won me for your
own. But until then, let there be a truce to--to this, between us.
Here is a man's work to be done, and if I am weak as to-night, I may
weaken you, and then we should both be undone. It is upon your
strength I count, Franceschino mio, my true knight."
He would have answered her. He had much to tell her--who and what
he was. But she pointed to the head of the steps, where a man's
"Yonder comes the sentinel," she said. "Leave me now, dear
Francesco. Go. It is growing late."
He bowed low before her, obedient ever, like the true knight he
was, and took his leave of her, his soul on fire.
Valentina watched his retreating figure until it had vanished round
the angle of the wall. Then with a profound sigh, that was as a
prayer of thanksgiving for this great good that had come into her
life, she leaned upon the parapet and looked out into the darkness,
her cheeks flushed, her heart still beating high. She laughed softly
to herself out of the pure happiness of her mood. The camp of Gian
Maria became a subject for her scorn. What should his might avail
whilst she had such a champion to defend her now and hereafter?
There was an irony in that siege on which her fancy fastened. By
coming thus in arms against her Gian Maria sought to win her for his
wife; yet all that he had accomplished was to place her in the arms of
the one man whom she had learnt to love by virtue of this very siege.
The mellow warmth of the night, the ambient perfume of the fields
were well-sorted to her mood, and the faint breeze that breathed
caressingly upon her cheek seemed to re-echo the melodies her heart
was giving forth. In that hour those old grey walls of Roccaleone
seemed to enclose for her a very paradise, and the snatch of an old
love song stole softly from her parted lips. But like a
paradise--alas!--it had its snake that crept up unheard behind her,
and was presently hissing in her ear. And its voice was the voice of
"It comforts me, Madonna, that there is one, at least, in
Roccaleone has the heart to sing."
Startled out of her happy pensiveness by that smooth and now
unutterably sinister voice, she turned to face its owner.
She saw the white gleam of his face and something of the anger that
smouldered in his eye, and despite herself a thrill of alarm ran
through her like a shudder. She looked beyond him to a spot where
lately she had seen the sentry. There was no one there nor anywhere
upon that wall. They were alone, and Messer Gonzaga looked singularly
For a moment there was a tense silence, broken only by the tumbling
waters of the torrent-moat and the hoarse challenge of a sentry's "Chi
va là?" in Gian Maria's camp. Then she turned nervously, wondering
how much he might have heard of what had passed between herself and
Francesco, how much have seen.
"And yet, Gonzaga," she answered him, "I left you singing below
when I came away."
"--To wanton it here in the moonlight with that damned
swashbuckler, that brigand, that kennel-bred beast of a sbirro!"
"Gonzaga! You would dare!"
"Dare?" he mocked her, beside himself with passion. "Is it you who
speak of daring--you, the niece of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, a lady
of the noble and illustrious house of Rovere, who cast yourself into
the arms of a low-born vassal such as that, a masnadiero, a bandit, a
bravo? And can you yet speak of daring, and take that tone with me,
when shame should strike you either dead or dumb?"
"Gonzaga," she answered him, her face as white as his own, but her
voice steady and hard with anger, "leave me now--upon the instant, or
I will have you flogged--flogged to the bone."
A moment he stared at her like a man dazed. Then he tossed his
arms to Heaven, and letting them fall heavily to his sides, he
shrugged his shoulders and laughed evilly. But of going he made no
"Call your men," he answered her, in a choking voice. "Do your
will on me. Flog me to the bone or to the death--let that be the
reward of all that I have done, all that I have risked, all that I
have sacrificed to serve you. It were of a piece with your other
Her eyes sought his in the gloom, her bosom heaving wildly in her
endeavours to master herself before she spoke.
"Messer Gonzaga," said she at last, "I'll not deny that you served
me faithfully in the matter of my escape from Urbino----"
"Why speak of it?" he sneered. "It was a service of which you but
avail yourself until another offered on whom you might bestow your
favour and the supreme command of your fortress. Why speak of it?"
"To show you that the service you allude to is now paid," she
riposted sternly. "By reproaching me you have taken payment, and by
insulting me you have stamped out my gratitude."
"A most convenient logic yours," he mocked. "I am cast aside like
an outworn garment, and the garment is accounted paid for because
through much hard usage it has come to look a little threadbare."
And now it entered her mind that perhaps there was some justice in
what he said. Perhaps she had used him a little hardly.
"Do you think, Gonzaga," she said, and her tone was now a shade
more gentle, "that because you have served me you may affront me, and
that knight who has served me, also, and----"
"In what can such service as his compare with mine? What has he
done that I have not done more?"
"Why, when the men rebelled here----"
"Bah! Cite me not that. Body of God! it is his trade to lead such
swine. He is one of themselves. But for the rest, what has such a
man as this to lose by his share in your rebellion, compared with such
a loss as mine must be?"
"Why, if things go ill, I take it he may lose his life," she
answered, in a low voice. "Can you lose more?"
He made a gesture of impatience.
"If things go ill--yes. It may cost him dearly. But if they go
well, and this siege is raised, he has nothing more to fear. Mine is
a parlous case. However ends this siege, for me there will be no
escape from the vengeance of Gian Maria and Guidobaldo. They know my
share in it. They know that your action was helped by me, and that
without me you could never have equipped yourself for such resistance.
Whatever may betide you and this Ser Franceseo, for me there will be
She drew a deep breath, then set him the obvious question:
"Did you not consider it--did you not weigh these chances--before
you embarked upon this business, before you, yourself, urged me to
"Aye, did I," he answered sullenly.
"Then, why these complaints now?"
He was singularly, madly frank with her in his reply. He told her
that he had done it because he loved her, because she had given him
signs that his love was not in vain.
"I gave you signs?" she interrupted him. "Mother in Heaven!
Recite these signs that I may know them."
"Were you not ever kind to me?" he demanded. "Did you not ever
manifest a liking for my company? Were you not ever pleased that I
should sing to you the songs that in your honour I had made? Was it
not to me you turned in the hour of your need?"
"See now how poor a thing you are, Gonzaga?" she answered
witheringly. "A woman may not smile on you, may not give you a kind
word, may not suffer you to sing to her, but you must conclude she is
enamoured of you. And if I turned to you in my hour of need, as you
remind me, needs that be a sign of my infatuation? Does every
cavalier so think when a helpless woman turns to him in her distress?
But even so," she continued, "how should all that diminish the peril
you now talk of? Even were your suit with me to prosper, would that
make you any the less Romeo Gonzaga, the butt of the anger of my uncle
and Gian Maria? Rather do I think that it should make you more."
But he disillusioned her. He did not scruple, in his angry mood,
to lay before her his reasonings that as her husband he would be
She laughed aloud at that.
"And so it is by such sophistries as these that your presumption
came to life? " That stung him. Quivering with the passion that
obsessed him, he stepped close up to her.
"Tell me, Madonna--why shall we account presumption in Romeo
Gonzaga a suit that in a nameless adventurer we encourage?" he asked,
his voice thick and tremulous.
"Have a care," she bade him.
"A care of what?" he flashed back. "Answer me, Monna Valentina.
Am I so base a man that by the very thought of love for you I must
presume, whilst you can give yourself into the arms of this
swashbuckling bravo, and take his kisses? Your reasoning sorts ill
with your deeds."
"Craven!" she answered him. "Dog that you are!" And before the
blaze of passion in her eyes he recoiled, his courage faltering. She
cropped her anger in mid-career, and in a dangerously calm voice she
bade him see to it that by morning he was no longer in Roccaleone.
"Profit by the night," she counselled him," and escape the vigilance
of Gian Maria as best you can. Here you shall not stay."
At that a great fear took possession of him, putting to flight the
last remnant of his anger. Nor fear alone was it, to do him full
justice. It was also the realisation that if he would take payment
from her for this treatment of him, if he would slake his vengeance,
he must stay. One plan had failed him. But his mind was fertile, and
he might devise another that might succeed and place Gian Maria in
Roccaleone. Thus should he be amply venged. She was turning away,
having pronounced his banishment, but he sprang after her, and upon
his knees he now besought her piteously to hear him yet awhile.
And she, regretting her already of her harshness, and thinking that
perhaps in his jealousy he had been scarce responsible for what he had
said, stood still to hear him.
"Not that, not that, Madonna," he wailed, his tone suggesting the
imminence of tears. "Do not send me away. If die I must, let me die
here at Roccaleone, helping the defence to my last breath. But do not
cast me out to fall into the hands of Gian Maria. He will hang me for
my share in this business. Do not requite me thus, Madonna. You owe
me a little, surely, and if I was mad when I talked to you just now,
it was love of you that drove me--love of you and suspicion of that
man of whom none of us know anything. Madonna, be pitiful a little.
Suffer me to remain."
She looked down at him, her mind swayed between pity and contempt.
Then pity won the day in the wayward but ever gentle heart of
Valentina. She bade him rise.
"And go, Gonzaga. Get you to bed, and sleep you into a saner frame
of mind. We will forget all this that you have said, so that you
never speak of it again--nor of this love you say you bear me."
The hypocrite caught the hem of her cloak, and bore it to his lips.
"May God keep your heart ever as pure and noble and forgiving," he
murmured brokenly. "I know how little I am deserving of your
clemency. But I shall repay you, Madonna," he protested--and truly
meant it, though not in the sense it seemed.
CHAPTER XXI. THE PENITENT
A week passed peacefully at Roccaleone; so peacefully that it was
difficult to conceive that out there in the plain sat Gian Maria with
his five-score men besieging them.
This inaction fretted the Count of Aquila, as did the lack of news
from Fanfulla; and he wondered vaguely what might be taking place at
Babbiano that Gian Maria should be content to sit idly before them, as
though he had months at his disposal in which to starve them into
yielding. The mystery would have been dispelled had he known that he
had Gonzaga to thank for this singular patience of Gian Maria's. For
the courtier had found occasion to send another letter-carrying shaft
into the Duke's camp, informing him of how and why the last plot had
failed, and urging Gian Maria to wait and trust in him to devise a
better scheme for delivering the castle into his power. He had
promised boldly and confidently enough, and Gian Maria--facts
showed--had trusted to that promise of his, and awaited its
fulfilment. But tax his mind though he did incessantly, no
inspiration came to him, no scheme suggested itself by which he might
accomplish his treacherous purpose.
He employed the time cunningly to win back Valentina's favour and
confidence. On the morning after his stormy interview with
Guidobaldo's niece, he had confessed himself to Fra Domenico, and
approached the Sacrament. Every morning thereafter he appeared at
Mass, and by the piety and fervour of his devotions became an example
to all the others. Now this was not lost on Valentina, who was
convent-bred, and in a measure devout. She read in this singular
alteration of his ways the undoubtable indication of an altered
character. That he had approached the Sacrament on the morning after
his wild words to her, she took to mean that he repented him the
viciousness of the animosity he had entertained that he continued so
extremely devout thereafter she construed into meaning that his
repentance was sincere and persistent.
And so she came to ask herself whether, indeed, he had not been as
much sinned against as sinning, and she ended by assuring herself that
in a measure the fault was hers. Seeing him so penitent, and
concluding from it that he was not likely to transgress again, she
readmitted him to her favour, and, little by little, the old friendly
state was re-established and was the sounder, perhaps, by virtue of
her confidence that after what had passed he would not again
He did not, nor did he again allow his optimism and ever-ready
vanity to cozen him with false hopes. He read her with exact
precision, and whilst the reading but served to embitter him the more
and render him more steadfast in his vengeful purpose, it,
nevertheless, made him smile the more sweetly and fawn the more
And not content with this, he did not limit his sycophancy to
Valentina, but sought also by a smiling persistence to ingratiate
himself with Francesco. No voice in Roccaleone--not even that of the
bully Ercole-- was raised more often or more enthusiastically to
praise and glorify their Provost. Valentina, observing this, and
accepting it as another sign of his contrition for the past and
purpose of amendment for the future, grew yet more cordial towards
him. He was not lacking in astuteness, this pretty Ser Romeo, nor in
knowledge of a woman's heart, and the apprehension of the fact that
there is no flattery she prefers to that which has for object the man
Thus did Gonzaga conquer the confidence and esteem of all during
that peaceful week. He seemed a changed man, and all save Peppe saw
in this change a matter for increased trust and friendship towards
him. But the astute fool looked on and pondered. Such
transformations as these were not effected in a night. He was no
believer in any human chrysalis that shall make of the grub of
yesterday the butterfly of to-day. And so, in this fawning, smiling,
subservient Gonzaga, he saw nothing but an object of mistrust, a
fellow to be watched with the utmost vigilance. To this vigilance the
hunchback applied himself with a zeal born of his cordial detestation
of the courtier. But Gonzaga, aware of the fool's mistrust and
watchfulness, contrived for once to elude him, and to get a letter to
Gian Maria setting forth the ingenious plan he had hatched.
The notion had come to him that Sunday at Mass. On all sanctified
days it was Monna Valentina's way to insist that the entire garrison,
with the exception of one single sentinel--and this only at
Francesco's very earnest urging--should attend the morning service.
Like an inspiration it came to him that such a half-hour as that
would be a most opportune season in which to throw open the gates of
Roccaleone to the besiegers. The following Wednesday was the feast of
Corpus Christi. Then would be his opportunity.
Kneeling there, with head bent in ecstatic devotion, he matured his
treacherous plan. The single sentry he could suborn, or else--if
bribery failed--poniard. He realised that single-handed he might not
lower the cumbrous drawbridge, nor would it be wise, even if possible,
for the noise of it might give the alarm. But there was the postern.
Gian Maria must construct him a light, portable bridge, and have it
in readiness to span the moat and silently pour his soldiers into the
castle through that little gate.
And so, the plot matured and every detail clear, he got him to his
chamber and penned the letter that was to rejoice the heart of Gian
Maria. He chose a favourable moment to despatch it, as he had
despatched the former ones, tied about the quarrel of an arbalest, and
he saw Gian Maria's signal--for which the letter had provided--that
the plan would be adopted. Humming a gay measure, jubilant at the
prospect of seeing himself so amply avenged, Gonzaga passed down and
out into the castle gardens to join the ladies in their merry-making
over a game of hoodman blind.
Now, however much the Duke of Babbiano may have congratulated
himself upon the ally he possessed in Gonzaga, and the cunning scheme
the latter had devised for placing him in possession of Roccaleone,
there came news to him on the morrow that caused him to rejoice a
hundredfold more fervently. His subjects of Babbiano were in a
condition approaching open rebellion, resulting from the disquieting
rumours that Caesar Borgia was arming at Rome for a decent upon the
Duchy, and the continued absence of Gian Maria in such a season, upon
a wooing that they deemed ill-timed. A strong party had been formed,
and the leaders had nailed upon the Palace gates a proclamation that,
unless Gian Maria returned within three days to organise the defence
of Babbiano, they would depose him and repair to Aquila to invite his
cousin, Francesco del Falco--whose patriotism and military skill were
known to all--to assume the crown of Babbiano and protect them.
At the news, and upon reading the proclamation, which Alvari had
brought with him, Gian Maria flew into one of those fits of rage that
made his name a byword in Babbiano. Presently, however, he cooled.
There was Gonzaga yonder, who had promised to admit him to Roccaleone
on Wednesday. That left him time to first possess himself of his
reluctant bride, and then ride hard to Babbiano, to arrive there
before the expiry of the three days' grace his subjects gave him.
He conferred with Guidobaldo, and urged that a priest should be in
waiting to wed them so soon as he should have brought her out of the
fortress. Upon that detail they were within an ace of quarrelling.
Guidobaldo would not at first agree to such hasty nuptials; they were
unfitting the dignity and the station of his niece, and if Gian Maria
would wed her he must come to Urbino and let the ceremony be performed
by a cardinal. Well was it then for Gian Maria that he mastered his
wonted hastiness and curbed the hot, defiant retort that rose to his
lips. Had he done so, an enduring rupture between them would probably
have ensued; for Guidobaldo was not one to permit himself to be
hectored, and, after all, he amply realised that Gian Maria had more
need of him than he of Gian Maria. And this in that moment the Duke
of Babbiano realised too, and realising it he set himself to plead
where otherwise he might have demanded, to beg as a favour that which
otherwise he might have commanded with a threat. And so he won
Guidobaldo--although reluctant--to his wishes in the matter, and in
his good-nature the Duke of Urbino consented to pocket the dignity
that prompted him to see the ceremony performed with princely pomp.
This being settled, Gian Maria blessed Gonzaga who rendered it all
possible, and came most opportunely to his aid where without him he
should have been forced to resort to cannon and bloodshed.
With Gonzaga the only shadow of doubt that remained to mar the
perfect certainty of his success lay in his appreciation of
Francesco's daring character and resourceful mind, and now as if the
gods were eager to favour him to the very last degree--a strange
weapon to combat this was unexpectedly thrust into his hand.
It happened that Alvari was not the only messenger who travelled
that day to Roccaleone. There followed him by some hours, the Count
of Aquila's servant, Zaccaria, who rode hard and reached the
approaches of the castle by sunset. His destination being the
fortress itself, he was forced to wait in the woods until night had
fallen, and even then his mission was fraught with peril.
It befell that somewhere near the second hour of night, the moon
being overcast at the time--for there were threats of a storm in the
sky--the sentinel on the eastern wall heard a sound of splashing in
the moat below, accompanied by the stertorous breathing of a swimmer
whose mouth is not well above water. He challenged the sound, but
receiving no reply he turned to go and give the alarm, and ran into
the arms of Gonzaga, who had come up to take the air.
"Illustrious," he exclaimed, "there is someone swimming the moat."
"Eh?" cried Gonzaga, a hundred suspicions of Gian Maria running
through his mind. "Treachery?"
"It is what I thought."
Gonzaga took the man by the sleeve of his doublet, and drew him
back to the parapet. They peered over, and from out of the blackness
they were hailed by a faint "Olá!"
"Who goes there?" demanded Romeo.
"A friend," came the answer softly. "A messenger from Babbiano
with letters for the Lord Count of Aquila. Throw me a rope, friends,
before I drown in this trough."
"You rave, fool!" answered him Gonzaga. "We have no counts at
"Surely, sir sentinel," replied the voice, "my master, Messer
Francesco del Falco, is here. Throw me a rope, I say."
"Messer Fran----" began Gonzaga. Then he made a noise like a man
choking. It was as if a sudden light of revelation had flooded his
brain. "Get a rope," he harshly bade the sentry. "In the armoury
yard. Despatch, fool!" he added sharply, now fearing interruption.
In a moment the man was back, and the rope was lowered to the
visitor below. A few seconds later Zaccaria stood on the ramparts of
Roccaleone, the water dripping from his sodden garments, and gathering
in a pool about his feet.
"This way," said Gonzaga, leading the man towards the armoury
tower, where a lanthorn was burning. By the light of it he surveyed
the newcomer, and bade the sentry close the door and remain within
Zaccaria looked startled at the order. This was scarcely the
reception he had expected after so imperilling his life to reach the
castle with his letter.
"Where is my lord?" he inquired, through teeth that chattered from
the cold of his immersion, wondering vaguely who this very magnificent
gentleman might be.
"Is Messer Francesco del Falco your lord?" asked Romeo.
"He is, sir. I have had the honour to serve him these ten years.
I bring him letters from Messer Fanfulla degli Arcipreti. They are
very urgent. Will you lead me to him?"
"You are very wet," murmured Gonzaga solicitously. "You will take
your death from cold, and the death of a man so brave as to have found
a way through Gian Maria's lines were truly deplorable." He stepped
to the door. "Olá!" he called to the sentry. "Take this brave fellow
up there and find him a change of raiment." He pointed to the upper
chamber of the tower, where, indeed, such things were stored.
"But my letters, sir!" cried Zaccaria impatiently. "They are very
urgent, and hours have I wasted already in waiting for the night."
"Surely you can wait until you have changed your garments? Your
life, I take it, is of more account than the loss of a few moments."
"But my orders from Messer degli Arcipreti were that I must not
lose an instant."
"Oh, si, si!" cried Gonzaga, with a show of good-tempered
impatience. "Give me the letters, then, and I will take them to the
Count while you are stripping those wet clothes."
Zaccaria eyed him a moment in doubt. But he looked so harmless in
his finery, and the expression of his comely face was so winning and
honest, that the man's hesitancy faded as soon as it sprang up.
Removing his cap, he drew from within the crown the letter, which he
had placed there to keep dry. This package he now handed to Gonzaga,
who, with a final word of instruction to the sentry touching the
finding of raiment for the messenger, stepped out to go his errand.
But outside the door he paused, and called the sentry to him again.
"Here is a ducat for you," he whispered. "Do my bidding and you
shall have more. Detain him in the tower till I return, and on no
account let him be seen or heard by anyone."
"Yes, Excellency," the man replied. "But what if the captain comes
and finds me absent from my post?"
"I will provide for that. I will tell Messer Fortemani that I have
employed you on a special matter, and ask him to replace you. You are
dispensed sentry duty for to-night."
The man bowed, and quietly withdrew to attend to his prisoner, for
in that light he now regarded Zaccaria.
Gonzaga sought Fortemani in the guard-room below, and did as he had
promised the sentry.
"But," snapped Ercole, reddening, "by whose authority have you done
this? By what right do you send sentinels on missions of your own?
Christo Santo! Is the castle to be invaded while you send my
watchmen to fetch your comfitbox or a book of verses?"
"You will remember----" began Romeo, with an air of overwhelming
"Devil take you and him that sent you!" broke in the bully. "The
Messer Provost shall hear of this."
"On no account," cried Gonzaga, now passing from anger to alarm,
and snatching the skirts of Fortemani's cloak as the captain was in
the act of going out to execute his threat. "Ser Ercole be
reasonable, I beg of you. Are we to alarm the castle and disturb
Monna Valentina over a trumpery affair such as this? Man, they will
laugh at you."
"Eh?" There was nothing Ercole relished less than to be laughed
at. He pondered a moment, and it occurred to him that perhaps he was
making much of nothing. Then:
"You, Aventano," he called, "take your partisan, and patrol the
eastern rampart. There, Messer Gonzaga, I have obeyed your wishes;
but Messer Francesco shall hear of it when he comes his rounds."
Gonzaga left him. Francesco would not make his rounds for another
hour, and by then it would not matter what Fortemani told him. In one
way or another he would be able to account for his action.
He crossed the courtyard, and mounted the steps leading to his own
chamber. Once there, he closed and barred the door. He kindled a
light, and flinging the letter on the table, he sat and contemplated
its exterior and the great red seal that gleamed in the yellow light
of his taper.
So! This knight-errant, this man whom he had accounted a low-born
hind, was none other than the famous Count of Aquila, the well-beloved
of the people of Babbiano, the beau-ideal of all military folk from
Sicily to the Alps. And he had never suspected it! Dull-witted did
he now account himself. Enough descriptions had he heard of that
famous condottiero, that mirror of Italian chivalry. He might have
known that there did not live two men of such commanding ways as he
had seen instanced at Roccaleone. What was his object there? Was it
love of Valentina, or was it----? He paused, as in his mind he made a
swift review of the politics of Babbiano. A sudden possibility
occurred to him that made his eyes sparkle and his hands tremble with
eagerness. Was this but a political scheme to undermine his cousin's
throne, to which Gonzaga had heard it rumoured that Francesco del
Falco was an aspirant? If it were so, what a vengeance would be his
to unmask him! How it must humble Valentina! The letter lay before
him. Within it the true facts would be disclosed. What did his friend
Fanfulla write him?
He took the letter up and made a close inspection of the seal.
Then softly, quietly, slowly he drew his dagger. If his suspicions
were unfounded, his dagger heated in the taper should afford him the
means to conceal the fact that he had tampered with that missive. He
slipped his blade under the seal, and worked it cautiously until it
came up and set the letter open. He unfolded it, and as he read his
eyes dilated. He seemed to crouch on his chair, and the hand that
held the paper shook. He drew the candle nearer, and shading his eyes
he read it again, word for word:
"MY DEAR LORD COUNT,--I have delayed writing until the time when
the signs I observed should have become more definite, as they have
now done, so that I may delay no longer. This, then, goes by the hand
of Zaccaria, to tell you that to-day has word been sent Gian Maria
giving him three days in which to return to Babbiano, or to abandon
all hope of his crown, of which the people will send the offer then to
you at Aquila, where you are believed to be. So now, my dear lord,
you have the tyrant at your mercy, tossed between Scylla and
Charybdis. Yours it is to resolve how you will act; but I rejoice in
being the one to send you word that your presence at Roccaleone and
your stubborn defence of the fortress has not been vain, and that
presently you are to reap the well-earned reward of it. The people
have been stirred to this extreme action by the confusion prevailing
"News has reached us that Caesar Borgia is arming, at Rome, a
condotta to invade Babbiano, and the people are exasperated at Gian
Maria's continued absence in such a season. They are short-sighted in
this, for they overlook the results that must attend the alliance with
Urbino. May God protect and prosper your Excellency, whose most
devoted servant is
"FANFULLA DEGLI AROIPRETI."
CHAPTER XXII. A REVELATION
"Francesco," said Valentina, and the name came from her lips as if
it were an endearment, "why that frowning, careworn look?"
They were in the dining-room alone, where the others had left them,
and they were still seated at the table at which they had supped.
Francesco raised his dark, thoughtful eyes, and as they lighted now
on Valentina the thoughtfulness that was in them gave place to
"I am fretted by this lack of news," he acknowledged. "I would I
knew what is being done in Babbiano. I had thought that ere now
Caesar Borgia had stirred Gian Maria's subjects into some manner of
action. I would I knew!"
She rose, and coming close to him, she stood with one hand resting
upon his shoulder, her eyes smiling down upon his upturned face.
"And shall such a trifle fret you--you who professed a week ago
that you would this siege might last for ever?"
"Account me not fickle, anima mia," he answered her, and he kissed
the ivory fingers that rested on his shoulder. "For that was before
the world changed for me at the magic of your bidding. And so," he
repeated, "I would I knew what is toward at Babbiano!"
"But why sigh over a wish so idle?" she exclaimed. "By what means
can news reach you here of the happenings of the world without?"
He pondered a moment, seeking words in which to answer her. A
score of times during that week had he been on the point of disclosing
himself, of telling her who and what he was. Yet ever had he
hesitated, putting off that disclosure until the season should appear
more fitting. This he now considered the present. She trusted him,
and there was no reason to remain silent longer. Perhaps already he
had delayed too long, and so he was about to speak when she started
from his side, and crossed hastily to the window, alarmed by the sound
of approaching steps. A second later the door opened, and Gonzaga
A moment he hesitated in the doorway, looking from one to the
other, and Francesco, lazily regarding him in his turn, noted that his
cheeks were pale and that his eyes glittered like those of a man with
the fever. Then he stepped forward, and, leaving the door open behind
him, he advanced into the room.
"Monna Valentina, I have something to communicate to you." His
voice shook slightly. "Messer--Francesco, will you give us leave?"
And his feverish eyes moved to the open door with an eloquence that
asked no words.
Francesco rose slowly, endeavouring to repress his surprise and
glanced across at Valentina, as if awaiting her confirmation or
refusal of this request that he should leave them.
"A communication for me?" she marvelled, a slight frown drawing her
brows together. "Of what nature, sir?"
"Of a nature as important as it is private."
She raised her chin, and with a patient smile she seemed to beg of
Francesco that he would suffer her to humour this mood of Gonzaga's.
In quick obedience Francesco inclined his head.
"I shall be in my chamber until the hour of my rounds, Madonna," he
announced, and with that took his departure.
Gonzaga attended him to the door, which he closed after him, and
composing his features to an expression of sorrowing indignation, he
came back and stood facing Valentina across the table.
"Madonna," he said, "I would to Heaven this communication I have to
make to you came from other lips. In the light of what has
passed--here at Roccaleone--through my folly--you--you may think my
mission charged with vindictiveness."
Perplexity stared at him from her eyes.
"You fill me with alarm, my good Gonzaga," she answered him, though
"Alas it has fallen to my unfortunate lot to do more than that. I
have made the discovery of as foul a piece of treachery here in your
fortress as ever traitor hatched."
She looked at him more seriously now. The vehemence of his tone,
and the suggestion of sorrow that ran through it and gave it so frank
an accent, commanded her attention.
"Treachery!" she echoed, in a low voice, her eyes dilating. "And
He hesitated a moment, then waving his hand:
"Will you not sit, Madonna?" he suggested nervously.
Mechanically she seated herself at the table, her eyes ever on his
face, alarm spreading in her heart, born of suspense.
"Be seated too," she bade him, "and tell me."
He drew up a chair, sat down opposite to her, and taking a deep
breath: "Heard you ever of the Count of Aquila?" he inquired.
"It were odd if I had not. The most valiant knight in Italy, fame
His eyes were intently on her face, and what he saw there satisfied
"You know how he stands with the people of Babbiano?"
"I know that he is beloved of them."
"And do you know that he is a pretender to the throne of Babbiano?
You will remember that he is cousin to Gian Maria?"
"His relationship to Gian Maria I know. That he pretends to the
throne of Babbiano I was not aware. But whither are we straying?"
"We are not straying, Madonna," answered Gonzaga, "we are making a
straight line for the very heart and soul of this treachery I spoke
of. Would you believe me if I told you that here, in Roccaleone, we
have an agent of the Count of Aquila one who in the Count's interest
is protracting this siege with the pretended aim of driving Gian Maria
"Gonzaga----" she began, more than half guessing the drift of his
explanation. But he interrupted her with unusual brusqueness.
"Wait, Madonna," he cried, his eyes upon her face, his hand
imperiously raised. "Hear me out in patience. I am not talking idly.
Of what I tell you I am armed with proof and witness. Such an agent
of--of the Count's interests we have among us, and his true object in
protracting this siege, and encouraging and aiding you in your
resistance, is to outwear the patience of the people of Babbiano with
Gian Maria, and drive them in the hour of their approaching peril from
Caesar Borgia's armies to bestow the throne on Aquila."
"Where learnt you this foul lie?" she asked him, her cheeks
crimson, her eyes on fire.
"Madonna," he said, in a patient voice, "this that you call a lie
is already an accomplished fact. I am not laying before you the
fruits of idle speculation. I have upon me the most positive proof
that such a result as was hoped for has already been reached. Gian
Maria has received from his subjects a notification that unless he is
in his capital within three days from this, they will invest the Lord
of Aquila with the ducal crown."
She rose, her anger well controlled, her voice calm.
"Where is this proof? No, no; I don't need to see it. Whatever it
is, what shall it prove to me? That your words, in so far as the
politics of Babbiano are concerned, may be true; our resistance of
Gian Maria may indeed be losing him his throne and doing good service
to the cause of the Count of Aquila; but how shall all this prove that
lie of yours, that Messer Francesco--for it is clearly of him you
speak--that Messer Francesco should be this agent of the Count's? It
is a lie, Gonzaga, for which you shall be punished as you deserve."
She ceased, and stood awaiting his reply, and as she watched him
his calm demeanour struck a chill into her heart. He was so
confident, so full of assurance; and that, in Gonzaga, she had learnt
to know meant a strong bulwark 'twixt himself and danger. He sighed
"Madonna, these cruel words of yours do not wound me, since they
are no more than I expected. But it will wound me--and sorely--if
when you shall have learnt the rest you do not humbly acknowledge how
you have wronged me, how grossly you have misjudged me. You think I
come to you with evil in my heart, urged by a spirit of vindictiveness
against Messer Francesco. Instead, I come to you with nothing but a
profound sorrow that mine must be the voice to disillusion you, and a
deep indignation against him that has so foully used you to his own
ends. Wait, Madonna! In a measure you are right. It was not strictly
true to say that this Messer Francesco is the agent of the Count of
"Ah! You are recanting already?"
"Only a little--an insignificant little. He is no agent
because----" He hesitated, and glanced swiftly up. Then he sighed,
lowered his voice, and with consummately simulated sorrow, he
concluded "Because he is, himself, Francesco del Falco. Count of
She swayed a moment, and the colour died from her cheeks, leaving
them ivory pale. She leaned heavily against the table, and turned
over in her mind what she had heard. And then, as suddenly as it had
gone, the blood rushed back into her face, mounting to her very
"It's a lie!" she blazed at him; "a lie for which you shall be
He shrugged his shoulders, and cast Francesco's letter on to the
"There, Madonna, is something that will prove all that I have
She eyed the paper coldly. Her first impulse was to call Fortemani
and carry out her threat of having Gonzaga whipped, refusing so much
as to see this thing that he so confidently termed a proof; but it may
be that his confidence wrought upon her, touching a chord of feminine
curiosity. That he was wrong she never doubted; but that he believed
himself right she was also assured, and she wondered what this thing
might be that had so convinced him. Still she did not touch it, but
asked in an indifferent voice:
"What is it?"
"A letter that was brought hither to-night by a man who swam the
moat, and whom I have ordered to be detained in the armoury tower. It
is from Fanfulla degli Arcipreti to the Count of Aquila. If your
memory will bear you back to a certain day at Acquasparta, you may
recall that Fanfulla was the name of a very gallant cavalier who
addressed this Messer Francesco with marked respect."
She took that backward mental glance he bade her, and remembered.
Then she remembered, too, how that very evening Francesco had said
that he was fretting for news of Babbiano, and that when she had asked
how he hoped that news could reach him at Roccaleone, Gonzaga had
entered before he answered her. Indeed, he had seemed to hesitate
upon that answer. A sudden chill encompassed her at that reflection.
Oh, it was impossible, absurd! And yet she took the letter from the
table. With knit brows she read it, whilst Gonzaga watched her,
scarce able to keep the satisfaction from gleaming in his eyes.
She read it slowly, and as she read her face grew deathly pale.
When she had finished she stood silent for a long minute, her eyes
upon the signature and her mind harking back to what Gonzaga had said,
and drawing comparison between that and such things as had been done
and uttered, and nowhere did she find the slightest gleam of that
discrepancy which so ardently she sought.
It was as if a hand were crushing the heart in her bosom. This man
whom she had trusted, this peerless champion of her cause, to be
nothing but a self-seeker, an intriguer, who, to advance his own ends,
had made a pawn of her. She thought of how for a moment he had held
her in his arms and kissed her, and at that her whole soul revolted
against the notion that here was no more than treachery.
"It's all a plot against him!" she cried, her cheeks scarlet again.
"It's an infamous thing of your devising, Messer Gonzaga, an odious
"Madonna, the man that brought the letter is still detained.
Confront him with Messer Francesco; or apply the question to him, and
learn his master's true name and station. As for the rest, if that
letter is insufficient proof for you, I beg that you will look back at
facts. Why should he lie to you? and say that his name was Francesco
Franceschi? Why should he have urged you--against all reason--to
remain here, when he brought you news that Gian Maria was advancing?
Surely had he but sought to serve you he had better accomplished this
by placing his own castle of Aquila at your disposal, and leaving here
an empty nest for Gian Maria, as I urged."
She sank to a chair, a fever in her mind.
"I tell you, Madonna, there is no mistake. What I have said is
true. Another three days would he have held Gian Maria here, whilst if
you gave him that letter, it is odds he would slip away in the night
of to-morrow, that he might be in Babbiano on the third day to take
the throne his cousin treats so lightly. Sainted God!" he cried out.
"I think this is the most diabolically treacherous plot that ever
mind of man conceived and human heartlessness executed."
"But--but----" she faltered, "all this is presupposing that Messer
Francesco is indeed the Count of Aquila. May there--may it not be
that this letter was meant for some other destination?"
"Will you confront this messenger with the Count?"
"With the Count?" she inquired dully. "With Messer Francesco, you
mean?" She shuddered, and with strange inconsistence: "No," she said,
in a choking voice, her lip twisting oddly at the corner. "I do not
wish to see his face again."
A light gleamed in Gonzaga's eye, and was extinguished on the
"Best make certain," he suggested, rising. "I have ordered
Fortemani to bring Lanciotto here. He will be waiting now, without.
Shall I admit them?"
She nodded without speaking, and Gonzaga opened the door, and
called Fortemani. A voice answered him from the gloom of the
"Bring Lanciotto here," he commanded.
When Francesco's servant entered, a look of surprise on his face at
these mysterious proceedings, it was Valentina who questioned him, and
that in a voice as cold as though the issue concerned her no whit.
"Tell me, sirrah," she said, "and as you value your neck, see that
you answer me truly--what is your master's name?"
Lanciotto looked from her to Gonzaga, who stood by, a cynical curl
on his sensual lips.
"Answer Monna Valentina," the courtier urged him. "State your
master's true name and station."
"But, lady," began Lanciotto, bewildered.
"Answer me!" she stormed, her small clenched hands beating the
table in harsh impatience. And Lanciotto, seeing no help for it,
"Messer Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila."
Something that began in a sob and ended in a laugh burst from the
lips of Valentina. Ercole's eyes were wide at the news, and he might
have gone the length of interposing a question, when Gonzaga curtly
bade him go to the armoury tower, and bring thence the soldier and the
man Gonzaga had left in his care.
"I will leave no shadow of doubt in your mind, Madonna," he said in
They waited in silence--for Lanciotto's presence hindered
conversation-- until Ercole returned accompanied by the man-at-arms
and Zaccaria, who had now changed his raiment. Before they could
question the new-comer, such questions as they might have put were
answered by the greeting that passed between him and his
Gonzaga turned to Valentina. She sat very still, her tawny head
bowed and in her eyes a look of sore distress. And in that instant a
brisk step sounded without. The door was thrust open, and Francesco
himself stood upon the threshold, with Peppe's alarmed face showing
behind him. Gonzaga instinctively drew back a pace, and his
countenance lost some of its colour.
At sight of Francesco, Zaccaria rushed forward and bowed
"My lord!" he greeted him.
And if one little thing had been wanting to complete the evidence
against the Count, that thing, by an odd mischance, Francesco himself
seemed to supply. The strange group in that dining-room claiming his
attention, and the portentous air that hung about those present,
confirmed the warning Peppe had brought him that something was amiss.
He disregarded utterly his servant's greeting, and with eyes of a
perplexity that may have worn the look of alarm he sought the face of
She rose upon the instant, an angry red colouring her cheeks. His
very glance, it seemed, was become an affront unbearable after what
had passed--for the memory of his kiss bit like a poisoned fang into
her brain. An odd laugh broke from her. She made a gesture towards
"Fortemani, you will place the Count of Aquila under arrest," she
commanded, in a stern, steady voice, "and as you value your life you
will see that he does not elude you."
The great bully hesitated. His knowledge of Francesco's methods
was not encouraging.
"Madonna!" gasped Francesco, his bewilderment increasing.
"Did you hear me, Fortemani," she demanded. "Remove him."
"My lord?" cried Lanciotto, laying hand to his sword his eyes upon
his master's, ready to draw and lay about him at a glance of bidding.
"Sh! Let be," answered Franeesco coldly. "Here, Messer Fortemani."
And he proffered his dagger, the only weapon that he carried.
Valentina, calling Gonzaga to attend her, made shift to quit the
apartment. At that Francesco seemed to awaken to his position.
"Madonna, wait," he cried, and he stepped deliberately before her.
"You must hear me. I have surrendered in earnest of my faith and
confident that once you have heard me----"
"Captain Fortemani," she cried, almost angrily, "will you restrain
your prisoner? I wish to pass."
Ercole, with visible reluctance, laid a hand on Francesco's
shoulder; but it was unnecessary. Before her words, the Count
recoiled as if he had been struck. He stood clear of her path with a
gasp at once of unbelief and angry resignation. An instant his eyes
rested on Gonzaga, so fiercely that the faint smile withered on the
courtier's lips, and his knees trembled under him as he hastened from
the room in Valentina's wake.
CHAPTER XXIII. IN THE ARMOURY TOWER
The rough stones of the inner courtyard shone clean and bright in
the morning sun, still wet with the heavy rains that had washed them
The fool sat on a rude stool within the porch of the long gallery,
and, moodily eyeing that glistening pavement, ruminated. He was
angry, which, saving where Fra Domenico was concerned, was a rare
thing with good- humoured Peppe. He had sought to reason with Monna
Valentina touching the imprisonment in his chamber of Messer
Francesco, and she had bidden him confine his attention to his capers
with a harshness he had never known in her before. But he had braved
her commands, and astonished her with the information that the true
identity of this Messer Francesco had been known to him since that day
when they had first met him at Acquasparta. He had meant to say more.
He had meant to add the announcement of Francesco's banishment from
Babbiano and his notorious unwillingness to mount his cousin's throne.
He had meant to make her understand that had Francesco been so
minded, he had no need to stoop to such an act as this that she
imputed to him. But she had cut him short, and with angry words and
angrier threats she had driven him from her presence.
And so she was gone to Mass, and the fool had taken shelter in the
porch of the gallery, that there he might vent some of his
ill-humour--or indeed indulge it--in pondering the obtuseness of woman
and the insidiousness of Gonzaga, to whom he never doubted that this
miserable state of things was due.
And as he sat there--a grotesque, misshapen figure in gaudy
motley--an ungovernable rage possessed him. What was to become of
them now? Without the Count of Aquila's stern support the garrison
would have forced her to capitulate a week ago. What would betide,
now that the restraint of his formidable command was withdrawn?
"She will know her folly when it's too late. It's the way of
women," he assured himself. And, loving his mistress as he did, his
faithful soul was stricken at the thought. He would wait there until
she returned from Mass, and then she should hear him--all should hear
him. He would not permit himself to be driven away again so easily.
He was intently turning over in his mind what he would say, with what
startling, pregnant sentence he would compel attention, when he was
startled by the appearance of a figure on the chapel steps. Sudden
and quietly as an apparition it came, but it bore the semblance of
At sight of him, Peppe instinctively drew back into the shadows of
the porch, his eyes discerning the suspicious furtiveness of the
courtier's movements, and watching them with a grim eagerness. He saw
Romeo look carefully about him, and then descend the steps on tiptoe,
evidently so that no echo of his footfalls should reach those within
the chapel. Then, never suspecting the presence of Peppe, he sped
briskly across the yard and vanished through the archway that led to
the outer court. And the fool, assured that some knowledge of the
courtier's purpose would not be amiss, set out to follow him.
In his room under the Lion's Tower the Count of Aquila had spent a
restless night, exercised by those same fears touching the fate of the
castle that had beset the fool, but less readily attributing his
confinement to Gonzaga's scheming. Zaccaria's presence had told him
that Fanfulla must at last have written, and he could but assume that
the letter, falling into Monna Valentina's hands, should have
contained something that she construed into treason on his part.
Bitterly he reproached himself now with not having from the very
outset been frank with her touching his identity; bitterly he
reproached her with not so much as giving a hearing to the man she had
professed to love. Had she but told him upon what grounds her
suspicions against him had been founded, he was assured that he could
have dispelled them at a word, making clear their baselessness and his
own honesty of purpose towards her. Most of all was he fretted by the
fact that Zaccaria's presence, after a coming so long expected and so
long delayed, argued that the news he bore was momentous. From this
it might result that Gian Maria should move at any moment and that his
action might be of a desperate character.
Now through the ranks of Fortemani's men there had run an
inevitable dismay at Francesco's arrest, and a resentment against
Valentina who had encompassed it. His hand it was that had held them
together, his judgment--of which they had had unequivocal signs--that
had given them courage. He was a leader who had shown himself capable
of leading, and out of confidence for whom they would have undertaken
anything that he bade them. Whom had they now? Fortemani was but one
of themselves, placed in command over them by an event purely
adventitious. Gonzaga was a fop whose capers they mimicked and whose
wits they despised; whilst Valentina, though brave enough and
high-spirited, remained a girl of no worldly and less military
knowledge, whose orders it might be suicidal to carry out.
Now by none were these opinions more strongly entertained than by
Ercole Fortemani himself. Never had he performed anything with
greater reluctance than the apprehension of Francesco, and when he
thought of what was likely to follow his consternation knew no bounds.
He had come to respect and, in his rough way, even to love their
masterful Provost, and since learning his true identity, in the hour
of arresting him, his admiration had grown to something akin to
reverence for the condottiero whose name to the men-at-arms of Italy
was like the name of some patron saint.
To ensure the safe keeping of his captive, he had been ordered by
Gonzaga, who now resumed command of Roccaleone, to spend the night in
the ante-room of Francesco's chamber. These orders he had exceeded by
spending a considerable portion of the night in the Count's very room.
"You have but to speak," the bully had sworn, by way of showing
Francesco the true nature of his feelings, "and the castle is yours.
At a word from you my men will flock to obey you, and you may do your
will at Roccaleone."
"Foul traitor that you are," Francesco had laughed at him. "Do you
forget under whom you have taken service? Let be what is, Ercole.
But if a favour you would do me, let me see Zaccaria--the man that
came to Roccaleone to-night."
This Ercole had done for him. Now Zaccaria was fully aware of the
contents of the letter he had carried, having been instructed by
Fanfulla against the chance arising of his being compelled, for his
safety, to destroy it--an expedient to which he now bitterly repented
him that he had not had recourse. From Zaccaria, then, Francesco
learnt all that there was to learn, and since the knowledge but
confirmed his fears that Gian Maria would delay action no longer, he
fell a prey to the most passionate impatience at his own detention.
In the grey hours of the morning he grew calmer, and by the light
of a lamp that he had called Ercole to replenish, he sat down to write
a letter to Valentina, which he thought should carry conviction of his
honesty to her heart. Since she would not hear him, this was the only
course. At the end of an hour--his moribund light grown yellow now
that the sun was risen--his letter was accomplished, and he summoned
Ercole again, to charge him to deliver it at once to Monna Valentina.
"I shall await her return from chapel," answered Ercole. He took
the letter and departed. As he emerged into the courtyard he was
startled to see the fool dash towards him, gasping for breath, and
with excitement in every line of his quaint face.
"Quickly, Ercole!" Peppe enjoined him. "Come with me."
"Devil take you, spawn of Satan--whither?" growled the soldier.
"I will tell you as we go. We have not a moment to spare. There
is treachery afoot---- Gonzaga----" he gasped, and ended desperately:
"Will you come?"
Fortemani needed no second bidding. The chance of catching pretty
Messer Romeo at a treachery was too sweet a lure. Snorting and
puffing--for hard drinking had sorely impaired his wind--the great
captain hurried the fool along, listening as they went to the gasps in
which he brought out his story. It was not much, after all. Peppe
had seen Messer Gonzaga repair to the armoury tower. Through an
arrow-slit he had watched him take down and examine an arbalest, place
it on the table and sit down to write.
"Well?" demanded Ercole. "What else?"
"Naught else. That is all," answered the hunchback.
"Heaven and hell!" roared the swashbuckler, coming to a standstill
and glowering down upon his impatient companion. "And you have made
me run for this?"
"And is it not enough?" retorted Peppe testily. "Will you come
"Not a foot farther," returned the captain, getting very angry.
"is this a miserable jest? What of the treachery you spoke of?"
"A letter and an arbalest!" panted the maddened Peppe, grimacing
horribly at this delay. "God, was there ever such a fool! Does this
mean nothing to that thick, empty thing you call a head? Have you
forgotten how Gian Maria's offer of a thousand florins came to
Roccaleone? On an arbalest quarrel, stupid! Come on, I say, and
afterwards you shall have my motley--the only livery you have a right
In the shock of enlightenment Ercole forgot to cuff the jester for
his insolence, and allowed himself once more to be hurried along,
across the outer court and up the steps that led to the battlements.
"You think----" he began.
"I think you had best tread more softly," snapped the fool, under
his breath, "and control that thunderous wheeze, if you would surprise
Ercole accepted the hint, meek as a lamb, and leaving the fool
behind him on the steps, he went softly up, and approached the armoury
tower. Peering cautiously through the arrow-slit, and favoured by the
fact that Gonzaga's back was towards him, he saw that he was no more
than in time.
The courtier was bending down, and by the creaking sound that
reached him Ercole guessed his occupation to be the winding of the
arbalest string. On the table at his side lay a quarrel swathed in a
sheet of paper.
Swiftly and silently Ercole moved round the tower, and the next
instant he had pushed open the unfastened door and entered.
A scream of terror greeted him, and a very startled face was turned
upon him by Gonzaga, who instantly sprang upright. Then, seeing who
it was, the courtier's face reassumed some of its normal composure,
but his glance was uneasy and his cheek pale.
"Sant Iddio!" he gasped. "You startled me, Ercole. I did not hear
And now something in the bully's face heightened the alarm in
Gonzaga. He still made an effort at self-control, as planting himself
between Ercole and the table, so as to screen the tell-tale shaft, he
asked him what he sought there.
"That letter you have written Gian Maria," was the gruff,
uncompromising answer, for Ercole reeked nothing of diplomatic issues.
Gonzaga's mouth jerked itself open, and his upper lip shuddered
against his teeth.
"Give me that letter," Ercole insisted, now advancing upon him, and
wearing an air of ferocity that drove back into Gonzaga's throat such
resentful words as he bethought him of. Then, like an animal at
bay--and even a rat will assert itself then--he swung aloft the heavy
arbalest he held, and stood barring Ercole's way.
"Stand back!" he cried; "or by God and His saints, I'll beat your
There was a guttural laugh from the swashbuckler, and then his arms
were round Gonzaga's shapely waist, and the popinjay was lifted from
his feet. Viciously he brought down the cross-bow, as he had
threatened; but it smote the empty air. The next instant Gonzaga was
hurtled, bruised, into a corner of the tower.
In a rage so great that he felt it draining him of his very
strength and choking the breath in his body, he made a movement to
rise and fling himself again upon his aggressor. But Fortemani was
down upon him, and for all his struggles contrived to turn him over on
his face, twisting his arms behind him, and making them fast with a
belt that lay at hand.
"Lie still, you scorpion!" growled the ruffler, breathing hard from
his exertions. He rose, took the shaft with the letter tied about it,
read the superscription--"To the High and Mighty Lord Gian Maria
Sforza"--and with a chuckle of mingled relish and scorn, he was gone,
locking the door.
Left alone, Gonzaga lay face downward where he had been flung, able
to do little more than groan and sweat in the extremity of his
despair, whilst he awaited the coming of those who would probably make
an end of him. Not even from Valentina could he hope for mercy, so
incriminating was the note he had penned. His letter was to enjoin
the Duke to hold his men in readiness at the hour of the Angelus next
morning, and to wait until Gonzaga should wave a handkerchief from the
battlements. At that he was to advance immediately to the postern,
which he would find open, and the rest, Gonzaga promised him, would be
easy. He would take the whole garrison at their prayers and
When Francesco read it a light leapt to his eye and an oath to his
lips; but neither glance nor oath were of execration, as Ercole stood
expecting. A sudden idea flashed through the Count's mind, so strange
and humorous and yet so full of promise of easy accomplishment, that
he burst into a laugh.
"Now may God bless this fool for the most opportune of traitors!"
he exclaimed, in surprise at which Fortemani's mouth fell open, and
the eyes of Peppe grew very round.
"Ercole, my friend, here is a bait to trap that lout my cousin,
such as I could never have devised myself."
"Take it back to him," cried the Count, holding out the letter with
a hand that trembled in the eagerness of his spirit. "Take it back,
and get him by fair means or foul to shoot it as he intended; or if he
refuses, why, then, do you seal it up and shoot it yourself. But see
that it gets to Gian Maria!"
"May I not know what you intend?" quoth the bewildered Ercole.
"All in good time, my friend. First do my bidding with that
letter. Listen! It were best that having read it you agree to join
him in his betrayal of Roccaleone, your own fears as to the ultimate
fate awaiting you at Gian Maria's hands being aroused. Urge him to
promise you money, immunity, what you will, as your reward; but make
him believe you sincere, and induce him to shoot his precious bolt.
Now go! Lose no time, or they may be returning from chapel, and your
opportunity will be lost. Come to me here, afterwards, and I will
tell you what is in my mind. We shall have a busy night of it
to-night, Ercole, and you must set me free when the others are abed.
Ercole went, and Peppe, remaining, plagued the Count with questions
which he answered until in the end the fool caught the drift of his
scheme, and swore impudently that a greater jester than his Excellency
did not live. Then Ercole returned.
"Is it done? Has the letter gone?" cried Francesco. Fortemani
"We are sworn brothers in this business, he and I. He added a line
to his note to say that he had gained my cooperation, and that,
therefore, immunity was expected for me too."
"You have done well, Ercole." Francesco applauded him. "Now
return me the letter I gave you for Monna Valentina. There is no
longer the need for it. But return to me to-night toward the fourth
hour, when all are abed, and bring with you my men, Lanciotto and
CHAPTER XXIV. THE INTERRUPTED MASS
The morning of that Wednesday of Corpus Christi, fateful to all
concerned in this chronicle, dawned misty and grey, and the air was
chilled by the wind that blew from the sea. The chapel bell tinkled
out its summons, and the garrison trooped faithfully to Mass.
Presently came Monna Valentina, followed by her ladies, her pages,
and lastly, Peppe, wearing under his thin mask of piety an air of
eager anxiety and unrest. Valentina was very pale, and round her eyes
there were dark circles that told of sleeplessness, and as she bowed
her head in prayer, her ladies observed that tears were falling on the
illuminated Mass-book over which she bent. And now came Fra Domenico
from the sacristy in the white chasuble that the Church ordains for
the Corpus Christi feast, followed by a page in a clerkly gown of
black, and the Mass commenced.
There were absent only from the gathering Gonzaga and Fortemani,
besides a sentry and the three prisoners. Francesco and his two
Gonzaga had presented himself to Valentina with the plausible tale
that, as the events of which Fanfulla's letter had given them
knowledge might lead Gian Maria at any moment to desperate measures,
it might be well that he should reinforce the single man-at-arms
patrolling the walls. Valentina, little recking now whether the castle
held or fell, and still less such trifles as Gonzaga's attendance at
Mass, had assented without heeding the import of what he said.
And so, his face drawn and his body quivering with the excitement
of what he was about to do, Gonzaga had repaired to the ramparts so
soon as he had seen them all safely into chapel. The sentinel was
that same clerkly youth Aventano, who had read to the soldiers that
letter Gian Maria had sent Gonzaga. This the courtier accepted as a
good omen. If a man there was among the soldiery at Roccaleone with
whom he deemed that he had an account to settle, that man was
The mist was rapidly lightening, and the country grew visible for
miles around. In the camp of Gian Maria he observed a coming and
going of men that argued an inordinate bustle for so early an hour.
They awaited his signal.
He approached the young sentinel, growing more and more nervous as
the time for action advanced. He cursed Fortemani, who had selfishly
refused to take an active part in the admission of Gian Maria. Here
was a task that Fortemani could perform more satisfactorily than he.
He had urged this fact on Ercole's attention, but the swashbuckler
had grinned and shook his head. To Gonzaga fell the greater reward,
and so Gonzaga must do the greater work. It was only fair, the knave
had urged; and while Gonzaga was about it, he would watch the chapel
door against interruption. And so Gonzaga had been forced to come
alone to try conclusions with the sentry.
He gave the young man a nervous but pleasant "Good-morrow," and
observed with satisfaction that he wore no body armour. His original
intention had been to attempt to suborn him, and render him pliable by
bribery; but now that the moment for action was arrived he dared not
make the offer. He lacked for words in which to present his proposal,
and he was afraid lest the man should resent it, and in a fit of
indignation attack him with his partisan. He little imagined that
Aventano had been forewarned by Ercole that a bribe would be offered
him and that he was to accept it promptly. Ercole had chosen this man
because he was intelligent, and had made him understand enough of what
was toward, besides offering a substantial reward if he played his
part well, and Aventano waited. But Gonzaga, knowing naught of this,
abandoned at the last moment the notion of bribing him--which Ercole
had enjoined him, and which he in his turn had promised Ercole was the
course he would pursue.
"You seem cold, Excellency," said the young man deferentially, for
he had observed that Gonzaga shivered.
"A chill morning, Aventano," returned the gallant, with a grin.
"True; but the sun is breaking through yonder. It will be warmer
"Why, yes," answered the other abstractedly, and still he remained
by the sentinel, his hand, under the gay mantle of blue velvet,
nervously fingering the hilt of a dagger that he dared not draw. It
came to him that moments were passing, and that the thing must be
done. Yet Aventano was a sinewy youth, and if the sudden stab he
meditated failed him, he would be at the fellow's mercy. At the
thought he shivered again, and his face turned grey. He moved away a
step, and then inspiration brought him a cruel ruse. He uttered a
"What is that?" he exclaimed, his eyes on the ground.
In an instant Aventano was beside him, for his voice had sounded
alarmed --a tone, in his present condition, not difficult to simulate.
"Down there," cried Gonzaga excitedly. "There from that fissure in
the stone. Saw you nothing?" And he pointed to the ground at a spot
where two slabs met.
"I saw nothing, Illustrious."
"It was like a flash of yellow light below there. What is under us
here? I'll swear there's treachery at work. Get down on your knees,
and try if anything is to be seen."
With a wondering glance at the courtier's white, twitching face,
the unfortunate young man went down on all fours to do his bidding.
After all--poor fellow!--he was hardly intelligent as Fortemani
"There is nothing, Excellency," he said. "The plaster is cracked.
In a panic of haste Gonzaga had whipped the dagger from its sheath
and sunk it into the middle of Aventano's broad back. The fellow's
arms slid out, and with a long-drawn, gurgling sigh he sank down and
stretched himself horribly on the stones.
In that instant the clouds parted overhead and the sun came out in
a blaze of golden glory. High above Gonzaga's head a lark burst into
For a moment the assassin remained standing above the body of his
victim with head sunk between the shoulders like a man who expects a
blow, his face grey, his teeth chattering, and his mouth twitching
hideously. A shudder shook him. It was the first life he had taken,
and that carrion at his feet filled him with sickly horror. Not for a
kingdom--not to save his vile soul from the eternal damnation that act
had earned it-- would he have dared stoop to pluck the dagger from the
back of the wretch he had murdered. With something like a scream he
turned, and fled in a panic from the spot. Panting with horror, yet
subconsciously aware of the work he had to do, he paused a moment to
wave a kerchief, then dashed down the steps to the postern.
With trembling fingers he unlocked the door and set it wide to Gian
Maria's men, who, in answer to his signal, were now hurrying forward
with a bridge composed of pine trees, that they had hastily and
roughly put together during the previous day. This, with some efforts
and more noise than Gonzaga relished, was thrust across the moat. One
of the men crept across, and assisted Gonzaga to make fast his end.
A moment later Gian Maria and Guidobaldo stood in the castle-yard,
and after them came almost every man of the five score that Gian Maria
had brought to that siege. This was what Francesco had confidently
expected, knowing that it was not his cousin's way to run any risks.
The Duke of Babbiauo, whose face was disfigured by a bristling
hedge of reddish stubble--for in obedience to the vow he had made, he
now carried a fortnight's growth of beard on his round face--turned to
"Is all well?" he asked, in a friendly tone, whilst Guidobaldo
contemptuously eyed the popinjay.
Gonzaga assured them that the whole thing had been effected without
disturbing the garrison at their prayers. Now that he deemed himself
well protected his usual serenity of manner returned.
"You may felicitate yourself, Highness," he ventured to say, with a
grin, to Guidobaldo, "that you have reared your niece in devout ways."
"Did you address me?" quoth the Duke of Urbino coldly. "I trust it
may not again be necessary."
Before the look of loathing in his handsome face Gonzaga cringed.
Gian Maria laughed in his piping treble.
"Have I not served your Highness faithfully?" fawned the gallant.
"So has the meanest scullion in my kitchens, the lowliest groom in
my stables--and with more honour to himself," answered the proud Duke.
"Yet he does not go the length of jesting with me." His eye carried
a menace so eloquent that Gonzaga drew back, afraid; but Gian Maria
clapped him on the shoulder in a friendly manner.
"Be of good heart, Judas," he laughed, his pale face a-grin, "I
shall find room for you in Babbiano, and work too, if you do it as
well as this. Come; the men are here now. Let us go forward whilst
they are at their prayers. But we must not disturb them," he added,
more seriously. "I will not be guilty of an impiety. We can lie in
wait for them without."
He laughed gaily, for he seemed in a preposterously good humour,
and bidding Gonzaga lead the way he followed, with Guidobaldo at his
side. They crossed the courtyard, where his men were ranged, armed to
the teeth, and at the door of the archway leading to the inner court
they paused for Gonzaga to open it.
A moment the gallant stood staring. Then he turned a face of
consternation on the Dukes. His knees shook visibly.
"It is locked," he announced, in a husky voice.
"We made too much noise in entering," suggested Guidobaldo, "and
they have taken the alarm."
The explanation relieved the growing uneasiness in Gian Maria's
mind. He turned with an oath to his men.
"Here, some of you," his sharp voice commanded. "Beat me down this
door. By the Host! Do the fools think to keep me out so easily?"
The door was broken down, and they advanced. But only some
half-dozen paces, for at the end of that short gallery they found the
second door barring their progress. Through this, too, they broke,
Gian Maria fiercely blaspheming at the delay. Yet when it was done he
was none so eager to lead the way.
In the second courtyard he deemed it extremely probable that they
should find Valentina's soldiers awaiting them. So bidding his men
pass on, he remained behind with Guidobaldo until he heard word that
the inner court was likewise empty.
And now the entire hundred of his followers were assembled there to
overpower the twenty that served Monna Valentina; and
Guidobaldo--despite Gian Maria's scruples--strode coolly forward to
the chapel door.
* * * * * * *
Within the chapel Mass had started. Fra Domenico at the foot of
the altar had pattered through the Confiteor, his deep voice responded
to by the soprano of the ministering page. The Kyrie was being
uttered when the attention of the congregation was attracted by the
sound of steps approaching the chapel door to the accompaniment of an
ominous clank of steel. The men rose in a body, fearing treachery,
and cursing--despite the sanctity of the place--the circumstance that
they were without weapons.
Then the door opened, and down the steps rang the armed heels of
the new- comers, so that every eye was turned upon them, including
that of Fra Domenico, who had pronounced the last "Christe eleison" in
a quavering voice.
A gasp of relief, followed by an angry cry from Valentina, went up
when they recognised those that came. First stepped the Count of
Aquila in full armour, sword at side and dagger on hip, carrying his
head-piece on the crook of his left arm. Behind him towered the bulk
of Fortemani, his great face flushed with a strange excitement, a
leather hacketon over his steel cuirass, girt, too, with sword and
dagger, and carrying his shining morion in his hand. Last came
Lanciotto and Zaccaria, both fully equipped and armed at all points.
"Who are you that come thus accoutred into God's House to interrupt
the holy Mass?" cried the bass voice of the friar.
"Patience, good father," answered Francesco calmly, "The occasion
is our justification."
"What does this mean, Fortemani?" demanded Valentina imperiously,
her eyes angrily set upon her captain, utterly ignoring the Count.
"Do you betray me too?"
"It means, Madonna," answered the giant bluntly, "that your
lap-dog, Messer Gonzaga, is at this very moment admitting Gian Maria
and his forces to Roccaleone, by the postern."
There was a hoarse cry from the men, which Francesco silenced by a
wave of his mailed hand.
Valentina looked wildly at Fortemani, and then, as if drawn by a
greater will than her own, her eyes were forced to travel to the
Count. He instantly advanced, and bowed his head before her.
"Madonna, this is no hour for explanations. Action is needed, and
that at once. I was wrong in not disclosing my identity to you before
you discovered it by such unfortunate means and with the assistance of
the only traitor Roccaleone has harboured, Romeo Gonzaga--who, as
Fortemani has just told you, is at this moment admitting my cousin and
your uncle to the castle. But that my object was ever other than to
serve you, or that I sought, as was represented to you, to turn this
siege to my own political profit, that, Madonna, I implore you in your
own interests to believe untrue."
She sank on to her knees and with folded hands began to pray to the
Mother of Mercy, deeming herself lost, for his tone carried
conviction, and he had said that Gian Maria was entering the castle.
"Madonna," he cried, touching her lightly on the shoulder; "let
your prayers wait until they can be of thanksgiving. Listen. By the
vigilance of Peppe there, who, good soul that he is, never lost faith
in me or deemed me a dastard, we were informed last night--Fortemani
and I-- of this that Gonzaga was preparing. And we have made our
plans and prepared the ground. When Gian Maria's soldiers enter, they
will find the outer doors barred and locked, and we shall gain a
little time while they break through them. My men, as you will
observe, are even now barring the door of the chapel to impose a
further obstacle. Now while they are thus engaged we must act.
Briefly, then, if you will trust us we will bear you out of this, for
we four have worked through the night to some purpose."
She looked at him through a film of tears, her face drawn and
startled. Then she put her hands to her brow in a gesture of
"But they will follow us," she complained.
"Not so," he answered, smiling. "For that, too, have we provided.
Come, Madonna, time presses."
A long moment she looked at him. Then brushing aside the tears
that dimmed her sight, she set a hand on either of his shoulders, and
stood so, before them all, gazing up into his calm face.
"How shall I know that what you say is true--that I may trust you?"
she asked, but her voice was not the voice of one that demands an
overwhelming proof ere she will believe.
"By my honour and my knighthood," he answered, in a ringing voice,
"I make oath here, at the foot of God's altar, that my purpose--my
only purpose--has been, is, and shall be to serve you, Monna
"I believe you," she cried; to sob a moment later:
"Forgive me, Francesco, and may God, too, forgive my lack of faith
He softly breathed her name in such sweet accents that a happy
peace pervaded her, and the bright courage of yore shone in her brown
"Come, sirs!" he cried now, with a sudden briskness that startled
them into feverish obedience. "You, Fra Domenico, cut off your
sacerdotals, and gird high your habit. There is climbing for you.
Here, a couple of you, move aside that altar-step. My men and I have
spent the night in loosening its old hinges."
They raised the slab, and in the gap beneath it was disclosed a
flight of steps leading down to the dungeons and cellars of
Down this they went in haste but in good order, marshalled by
Francesco, and when the last had passed down, he and Lanciotto, aided
by others below, who had seized a rope that he had lowered them,
replaced the slab from underneath, so that no trace should remain of
the way by which they had come.
A postern had been unbarred below by Fortemani, who had led the way
with a half-dozen of the men; and a huge scaling ladder that lay in
readiness in that subterranean gallery was rushed out across the moat,
which at this point was a roaring torrent.
Fortemani was the first to descend that sloping bridge, and upon
reaching the ground he made fast the lower end.
Next went a dozen men at Francesco's bidding, armed with the pikes
that had been left overnight in the gallery. At a word of command
they slipped quietly away. Then came the women, and lastly, the
remainder of the men.
Of the enemy they caught no glimpse; not so much as a sentry, for
every one of Gian Maria's men had been pressed into the investment of
the castle. Thus they emerged from Roccaleone, and made their way
down that rough bridge into the pleasant meadows to the south.
Already Fortemani and his dozen men had disappeared at the trot,
making for the front of the castle, when Francesco stepped last upon
the bridge, and closed the postern after him. Then he glided rapidly
to the ground, and with the assistance of a dozen ready hands he
dragged away the scaling ladder. They carried it some yards from the
brink of the torrent, and deposited it in the meadow. With a laugh of
purest relish Francesco stepped to Valentina's side.
"It will exercise their minds to discover how we got out," he
cried, "and they will be forced to the conclusion that we are angels
all, with wings beneath our armour. We have not left them a single
ladder or a strand of rope in Roccaleone by which to attempt to follow
us, even if they discover how we came. But come, Valentina mia, the
comedy is not finished yet. Already Fortemani will have removed the
bridge by which they entered and engaged such few men as may have been
left behind, and we have the High and Mighty Gian Maria in the
tightest trap that was ever fashioned."
CHAPTER XXV. THE CAPITULATION OF
In the sunshine of that bright May morning Francesco and his men
went merrily to work to possess themselves of the ducal camp, and the
first business of the day was to arm those soldiers who had come out
unarmed. Of weapons there was no lack, and to these they helped
themselves in liberal fashion, whilst here and there a man would pause
to don a haubergeon or press a steel cap on his head.
Three sentries only had been left to guard the tents, and of these
Fortemani and a couple of his men had made prisoners whilst the others
were removing the bridge by which the invaders had entered. And now
beneath the open postern by the drawbridge gaped a surging torrent
that no man would have the hardihood to attempt to swim.
In that opening, presently, appeared Gian Maria, his face red for
once, and behind him a clamouring crowd of men-at-arms who shared
their master's rage at the manner in which they had been trapped.
At the rear of the tents Valentina and her ladies awaited the issue
of the parley that now seemed toward. The bulk of the men were busy
at Gian Maria's cannons, and under Francesco's supervision they were
training them upon the drawbridge.
From the castle a mighty shout went up. The men disappeared from
the postern to reappear a moment later on the ramparts, and Francesco
laughed deep down in his throat as he perceived the purpose of this.
They had bethought them of the guns that were mounted there, and were
gone to use them against Valentina's little army. Gun after gun they
tried, and a fierce cry of rage burst forth when they realised by what
dummies they had been held in check during the past week. This was
followed by a silence of some moments, terminated at last by the sound
of a bugle.
Answering that summons to a parley, and with a last word of
injunction to Fortemani, who was left in charge of the men at the
guns, Francesco rode forward on one of Gian Maria's horses, escorted
by Lanciotto and Zaccaria similarly mounted, and each armed with a
Under the walls of Roccaleone he drew rein, laughing to himself at
this monstrous change of sides. As he halted--helmet on head, but
beaver open--a body came hurtling over the battlements and splashed
into the foaming waters below. It was the corpse of Aventano, which
Gian Maria had peremptorily bidden them to remove from his sight.
"I desire to speak with Monna Valentina della Rovere," cried the
"You may speak with me, Gian Maria," answered Francesco's voice,
clear and metallic. "I am her representative, her sometime Provost of
"Who are you?" quoth the Duke, struck by a familiar note in that
"Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila."
"By God! You!"
"An age of marvels, is it not?" laughed Francesco.
"Which will you lose, my cousin--a wife or a duchy?"
Rage struck Gian Maria speechless for a moment. Then he turned to
Guidobaldo and whispered something; but Guidobaldo, who seemed vastly
interested now in this knight below, merely shrugged his shoulders.
"I will lose neither, Messer Francesco," roared the Duke.
"Neither, by God!" he screamed. "Neither, do you hear me?"
"I should be deaf else," was the easy answer, "But you are gravely
at fault. One or the other you must relinquish, and it is yours to
make a choice between them. The game has gone against you, Gian
Maria, and you must pay."
"But have I no voice in the bartering of my niece?" asked
Guidobaldo, with cold dignity. "Is it for you, Lord Count, to say
whether your cousin shall wed her or not?"
"Why, no. He may wed her if he will, but he will be a duke no
longer. In fact, he will be an outcast with no title to lay claim to,
if indeed the Babbianians will leave him a head at all; whilst I, at
least, though not a duke with a tottering throne, am a count with
lands, small but securely held, and shall become a duke if Gian Maria
refuses to relinquish me your niece. So that if he be disposed to
marry her, will you be disposed to let her marry a homeless vagrant or
a headless corpse?"
Guidobaldo's face seemed to change, and his eyes looked curiously
at the white-faced Duke beside him.
"So you are the other pretender to my niece's hand, Lord Count?" he
asked, in his coldest voice.
"I am, Highness," answered Francesco quietly. "The matter stands
thus: Unless Gian Maria is in Babbiano by morning, he forfeits his
crown, and it passes to me by the voice of the people; but if he will
relinquish his claim to Monna Valentina in my favour, then I shall
journey straight to Aquila, and I shall trouble Babbiano no more. If
he refuses, and insists upon this wedding, abhorrent to Monna
Valentina, why, then, my men shall hold him captive behind those walls
until it be too late for him to reach his duchy in time to save the
crown. In the meantime I will ride to Babbiano in his stead,
and--reluctant though I be to play the duke--I shall accept the throne
and silence the people's importunities. He can then endeavour to win
your Highness's consent to the union."
For perhaps the first time in his life Guidobaldo was guilty of an
act of positive discourtesy. He broke into a laugh--a boisterous,
amused laugh that cut into Gian Maria's heart like a knife.
"Why, Lord Count," he said, "I confess that you have us very much
in your hands to mould us as you will. Now, you are such a soldier
and such a strategist as it would pleasure me to have about my person
in Urbino. What says your Highness?" he continued, turning now to the
almost speechless Gian Maria. "I have yet another niece with whom we
might cement the union of the two duchies; and she might prove more
willing. Women, it seems, will insist upon being women. Do you not
think that Monna Valentina and this your valiant cousin----"
"Heed him not!" screamed Gian Maria, now in a white heat of
passion. "He is a smooth-tongued dog that would argue the very devil
out of hell. Make no terms with the hind! I have a hundred men,
and----" He swung suddenly round. "Let down that drawbridge,
cowards!" he bawled at them, "and sweep me those animals from my
"Gian Maria, I give you warning," cried Francesco, loudly and
firmly. "I have trained your own guns on to that bridge, and at the
first attempt to lower it I'll blow it into splinters. You come not
out of Roccaleone save at my pleasure and upon my terms, and if you
lose your duchy by your obstinacy, it will be your own work; but
answer me now, that I may take my course."
Guidobaldo, too, restrained Gian Maria, and countermanded his order
for the lowering of the bridge. And now on his other side Gonzaga
crept up to him, and whispered into his ear the suggestion that he
should wait until night had fallen.
"Wait until night, fool!" blazed the Duke, turning on him, in a
fierce joy at finding one whom he might rend. "If I wait until then,
my throne is lost to me. This comes of sorting with traitors. It is
your fault, you Judas!" he cried more fiercely still, his face
distorted; "but you at least shall pay for what you have done."
Gonzaga saw a sudden flash of steel before his eyes, and a piercing
scream broke from him as Gian Maria's dagger buried itself in his
breast. Too late Guidobaldo put forward a hand to stay the Duke.
And so, by a strangely avenging justice, the magnificent Gonzaga
sank dead on the very spot on which he had so cravenly and dastardly
"Throw me that carrion into the moat," growled Gian Maria, still
quivering with rage that had prompted his ferocious act.
He was obeyed, and thus murdered and murderer were united in a
After the first attempt to restrain Gian Maria, Guidobaldo had
looked on in unconcern, deeming the act a very fitting punishment of a
man with whose treachery he, at least, had never been in sympathy.
As he saw the body vanish in the torrent below, Gian Maria seemed
to realise what he had done. His anger fell from him, and with bent
head he piously crossed himself. Then turning to an attendant who
stood at his elbow:
"See that a Mass is said for his soul to-morrow," he solemnly bade
As if the act had served to pacify him and restore him to his
senses, Gian Maria now stepped forward and asked his cousin, in calmer
tones than he had hitherto employed, to make clear the terms on which
he would permit him to return to Babbiano within the time to which his
people limited him.
"They are no more than that you relinquish your claim to Monna
Valentina, and that you find consolation--as I think his Highness of
Urbino has himself suggested--in the Lord Guidobaldo's younger niece."
Before he could reply Guidobaldo was urging him, in a low voice to
accept the terms.
"What else is there for you?" Montefeltro ended pregnantly.
"And this other niece of yours----?" quoth Gian Maria lamely.
"I have already passed my word," answered Guidobaldo.
"And Monna Valentina?" the other almost whined.
"May wed this headstrong condottiero of hers. I'll not withstand
them. Come; I am your friend in this. I am even sacrificing Valentina
to your interests. For if you persist, he will ruin you. The game is
his, my lord. Acknowledge your defeat, as I acknowledge mine, and
"But what is your defeat to mine?" cried Gian Maria, who saw
through Guidobaldo's appreciation of the fact that such a
nephew-in-law as Francesco del Falco was far from undesirable in the
troublous times that threatened.
"It is at least as absolute," returned Guidobaldo, with a shrug.
And in this vein the Duke of Urbino continued for some moments, till,
in the end, Gian Maria found himself not only deserted by his ally,
but having this ally now combating on his cousin's side and pressing
him to accept his cousin's terms, distasteful though they were. Thus
urged, Gian Maria lamely acknowledged his defeat and his willingness
to pay the forfeit. With that he asked how soon he might be permitted
to leave the castle.
"Why, at once, now that I have your word," answered Francesco
readily, whereat treachery gleamed from Gian Maria's eye, to be
swiftly quenched by Francesco's next words. "But lest your men and
mine should come to trouble with one another, you will order yours to
come forth without arms or armour, and you will depose your own. His
Highness Guidobaldo is the only man in whose favour I can make an
exception to this condition. Let it be broken, and I promise you that
you will very bitterly regret it. At sight of the first armed man
issuing from those gates, I'll give the word to fire on you, and your
own guns shall work your destruction."
Thus was the second siege of Roccaleone ended almost as soon as it
was begun, and thus did Gian Maria capitulate to the conqueror. The
Duke of Babbiano and his men marched out sheepishly and silently, and
took their way to Babbiano, no word--not even so much as a
glance--passing between Gian Maria and the lady who had been the cause
of his discomfiture, and who blithely looked on at his departure.
Guidobaldo and his few attendants lingered after his late ally had
gone. Then he bade Francesco lead him to his niece, in which Francesco
readily obeyed him.
The Duke embraced her coldly--still that he embraced her at all
after what was passed augured well.
"You will come with me to Urbino, Lord Count?" he said suddenly to
Francesco. "It were best to celebrate the nuptials there. Everything
is in readiness--for all had been prepared for Gian Maria."
A great joy came into Valentina's eyes; her cheeks flushed and her
glance fell; but Francesco scanned the Duke's face with the keen eye
of one who is incredulous of so much good fortune.
"Your Highness means me well?" he made bold to ask. Guidobaldo
stiffened, and a frown broke the serenity of his lofty brow.
"You have my princely word," he answered solemnly, at which, with
bended knee, Francesco stooped to kiss his ducal hand.
And so they departed on the horses that they kept as the spoils of
war. They made a goodly show, Guidobaldo riding at their head, with
Francesco and Valentina, whilst the rear was brought up by Peppe and
Fra Domenico, who, touched by this epidemic of goodwill, were at last
fraternising with each other.
And as they rode it chanced that presently Guidobaldo fell behind,
so that for a moment Francesco and Valentina found themselves alone a
little ahead of the others. She turned to him, a shyness in her brown
eyes, a tremble at the corners of her red lips:
"You have not yet said that you forgive me, Francesco," she
complained, in a timerous whisper. "Were it not seemly that you did
since we are to be wed so soon?"