Being a narrative excerpted from the chronicles of Urbino during the dominion of the High and Mighty Messer Guidobaldo da Montefeltro
By Raphael Sabatini
"Le donne, i cavalier', l'arme, gli amori, Le cortesie, l'audace imprese io canto."
I. VOX POPULI
II. ON A MOUNTAIN PATH
III. SACKCLOTH AND MOTLEY
IV. MONNA VALENTINA
V. GIAN MARIA
VI. THE AMOROUS DUKE
VII. GONZAGA THE INSIDIOUS
VIII. AMONG THE DREGS OF WINE
IX. THE "TRATTA DI CORDE"
X. THE BRAYING OF AN ASS
XI. WANDERING KNIGHTS
XII. THE FOOL'S INQUISITIVENESS
XIII. GIAN MARIA MAKES A VOW
XIV. FORTEMANI DRINKS WATER
XV. THE MERCY OF FRANCESCO
XVI. GONZAGA UNMASKS
XVII. THE ENEMY
XIX. PLOT AND COUNTERPLOT
XX. THE LOVERS
XXI. THE PENITENT
XXII. A REVELATION
XXIII. IN THE ARMOURY TOWER
XXIV. THE INTERRUPTED MASS
XXV. THE CAPITULATION OF ROCCALEONE
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 betrayed?"
"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 pass unchallenged."
"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 statesman."
"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 made answer:
"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 who——"
"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 breathe.
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 Torri."
"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 this precipice?"
"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, sirs!"
"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 begone."
"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 venture desperate.
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 Francesco.
"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 other.
"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 prodigious mouth.
"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 Dominican brother."
"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.
"Gesu!" 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: "Ola, 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 quickly:
"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 thither.
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 feet.
"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 her countenance.
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 Paradise.
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. "And alone?"
"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."
"Gesu! 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 support.
"You must not move," said she, thinking that he would essay to rise.
"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 elder."
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 him.
"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? Gesu! What would his Highness say? How would he deal with me were he to learn of this? Who is the man, Madonna?"
"Why, as you see, Messer Gonzaga," she answered, with some heat, "a wounded knight."
"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—"Ola, 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 dictate prudence.
"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 gibes.
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 lengths.
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 honoured."
"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 sit.
"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 back captive?"
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 this."
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 of Perugia."
"And you deem this security?" rejoined Francesco, with a smile of scorn. "To hedge your throne with foreign spears commanded by a foreigner?"
"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 Valentino?"
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 late."
"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 me?"
"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 mockery.
"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 no fools.
"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 supreme satisfaction.
"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 merry-making and no real mirth—loveless, isolated and vain."
"But," cried the amazed Fanfulla, "assuredly there are compensations?"
"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 her?"
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 seen her."
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 too ambitious.
"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 conduct.
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 left.
"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 Valentino's messenger."
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 bear 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 Valentina."
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 piu 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 portiere of blue and gold, he invited Gian Maria to enter.
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.