THE SHAME OF MOTLEY
Being the Memoir of Certain Transactions in the Life of Lazzaro Biancomonte, of Biancomonte, sometime Fool of the Court of Pesaro.
By Rafael Sabatini
FLOWER OF THE QUINCE
I. THE CARDINAL OF VALENCIA
II. THE LIVERIES OF SANTAFIOR
III. MADONNA PAOLA
IV. THE COZENING OF RAMIRO
V. MADONNA'S INGRATITUDE
VI. FOOL'S LUCK
VII. THE SUMMONS FROM ROME
VIII. "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN"
IX. THE FOOL-AT-ARMS
X. THE FALL OF PESARO
THE OGRE OF CESENA
XI. MADONNA'S SUMMONS
XII. THE GOVERNOR OF CESENA
XV. AN ILL ENCOUNTER
XVI. IN THE CITADEL OF CESENA
XVII. THE SENESCHAL
XVIII. THE LETTER
XX. THE SUNSET
XXI. AVE CAESAR!
PART I. FLOWER OF THE QUINCE
CHAPTER I. THE CARDINAL OF VALENCIA
For three days I had been cooling my heels about the Vatican, vexed by suspense. It fretted me that I should have been so lightly dealt with after I had discharged the mission that had brought me all the way from Pesaro, and I wondered how long it might be ere his Most Illustrious Excellency the Cardinal of Valencia might see fit to offer me the honourable employment with which Madonna Lucrezia had promised me that he would reward the service I had rendered the House of Borgia by my journey.
Three days were sped, yet nought had happened to signify that things would shape the course by me so ardently desired; that the means would be afforded me of mending my miserable ways, and repairing the wreck my life had suffered on the shoals of Fate. True, I had been housed and fed, and the comforts of indolence had been mine; but, for the rest, I was still clothed in the livery of folly which I had worn on my arrival, and, wherever I might roam, there followed ever at my heels a crowd of underlings, seeking to have their tedium lightened by jests and capers, and voting me—when their hopes proved barren—the sorriest Fool that had ever worn the motley.
On that third day I speak of, my patience tried to its last strand, I had beaten a lacquey with my hands, and fled from the cursed gibes his fellows aimed at me, out into the misty gardens and the chill January air, whose sting I could, perhaps, the better disregard by virtue of the heat of indignation that consumed me. Was it ever to be so with me? Could nothing lift the curse of folly from me, that I must ever be a Fool, and worse, the sport of other fools?
It was there on one of the terraces crowning the splendid heights above immortal Rome that Messer Gianluca found me. He greeted me courteously; I answered with a snarl, deeming him come to pursue the plaguing from which I had fled.
"His Most Illustrious Excellency the Cardinal of Valencia is asking for you, Messer Boccadoro," he announced. And so despairing had been my mood of ever hearing such a summons that, for a moment, I accounted it some fresh jest of theirs. But the gravity of his fat countenance reassured me.
"Let us go, then," I answered with alacrity, and so confident was I that the interview to which he bade me was the first step along the road to better fortune, that I permitted myself a momentary return to the Fool's estate from which I thought myself on the point of being for ever freed.
"I shall use the interview to induce his Excellency to submit a tenth beatitude to the approval of our Holy Father: Blessed are the bearers of good tidings. Come on, Messer the seneschal."
I led the way, in my impatience forgetful of his great paunch and little legs, so that he was sorely tried to keep pace with me. Yet who would not have been in haste, urged by such a spur as had I? Here, then, was the end of my shameful travesty. To-morrow a soldier's harness should replace the motley of a jester; the name by which I should be known again to men would be that of Lazzaro Biancomonte, and no longer Boccadoro—the Fool of the golden mouth.
Thus much had Madonna Lucrezia's promises led me to expect, and it was with a soul full of joyous expectation that I entered the great man's closet.
He received me in a manner calculated to set me at my ease, and yet there was about him a something that overawed me. Cesare Borgia, Cardinal of Valencia, was then in his twenty-third year, for all that there hung about him the semblance of a greater age, just as his cardinalitial robes lent him the appearance of a height far above the middle stature that was his own. His face was pale and framed in a silky auburn beard; his nose was aquiline and strong; his eyes the keenest that I have ever seen; his forehead lofty and intelligent. He seemed pervaded by an air of feverish restlessness, something surpassing the vivida vis animi, something that marked him to discerning eyes for a man of incessant action of body and of mind.
"My sister tells me," he said in greeting, "that you are willing to take service under me, Messer Biancomonte."
"Such was the hope that guided me to Rome, Most Excellent," I answered him.
Surprise flashed into his eyes, and was gone as quickly as it had come. His thin lips parted in a smile, whose meaning was inscrutable.
"As some reward for the safe delivery of the letter you brought me from her?" he questioned mildly.
"Precisely, Illustrious," I answered in all frankness.
His open hand smote the table of wood-mosaics at which he sat.
"Praised be Heaven!" he cried. "You seem to promise that I shall have in you a follower who deals in truth."
"Could your Excellency, to whom my real name is known, expect ought else of one who bears it—however unworthily?"
There was amusement in his glance.
"Can you still swagger it, after having worn that livery for three years?" he asked, and his lean forefinger pointed at my hideous motley of red and black and yellow.
I flushed and hung my head, and—as if to mock that very expression of my shame—the bells on my cap gave forth a silvery tinkle at the movement.
"Excellency, spare me," I murmured. "Did you know all my miserable story you would be merciful. Did you know with what joy I turned my back on the Court of Pesaro—"
"Aye," he broke in mockingly, "when Giovanni Sforza threatened to have you hanged for the overboldness of your tongue. Not until then did it occur to you to turn from the shameful life in which the best years of your manhood were being wasted. There! Just now I commended your truthfulness; but the truth that dwells in you is no more, it seems, than the truth we may look for in the mouth of Folly. At heart, I fear, you are a hypocrite, Messer Biancomonte; the worst form of hypocrite—a hypocrite to your own self."
"Did your Excellency know all!" I cried.
"I know enough," he answered, with stern sorrow; "enough to make me marvel that the son of Ettore Biancomonte of Biancomonte should play the Fool to Costanzo Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. Oh you will tell me that you went there for revenge, to seek to right the wrong his father did your father."
"It was, it was!" I cried, with heated vehemence. "Be flames everlasting the dwelling of my soul if any other motive drove me to this shameful trade."
There was a pause. His beautiful eyes flamed with a sudden light as they rested on me. Then the lids drooped demurely, and he drew a deep breath. But when he spoke there was scorn in his voice.
"And, no doubt, it was that same motive kept you there, at peace for three whole years, in slothful ease, the motleyed Fool, jesting and capering for his enemy's delectation—you, a man with the knightly memory of your foully-wronged parent to cry hourly shame upon you. No doubt you lacked the opportunity to bring the tyrant to account. Or was it that you were content to let him make a mock of you so long as he housed and fed you and clothed you in your garish livery of shame?
"Spare me, Excellency," I cried again. "Of your charity let my past be done with. When he drove me forth with threats of hanging, from which your gracious sister saved me, I turned my steps to Rome at her bidding to—"
"To find honourable employment at my hands," he interrupted quietly. Then suddenly rising, and speaking in a voice of thunder—"And what, then, of your revenge?" he cried.
"It has been frustrated," I answered lamely. "Sufficient do I account the ruin that already I have wrought in my life by the pursuit of that phantom. I was trained to arms, my lord. Let me discard for good these tawdry rags, and strap a soldier's harness to my back."
"How came you to journey hither thus?" he asked, suddenly turning the subject.
"It was Madonna Lucrezia's wish. She held that my errand would be safer so, for a Fool may travel unmolested."
He nodded that he understood, and paced the chamber with bowed head. For a spell there was silence, broken only by the soft fall of his slippered feet and the swish of his silken purple. At last he paused before me and looked up into my face—for I was a good head taller than he was. His fingers combed his auburn beard, and his beautiful eyes were full on mine.
"That was a wise precaution of my sister's," he approved. "I will take a lesson from her in the matter. I have employment for you, Messer Biancomonte."
I bowed my head in token of my gratitude.
"You shall find me diligent and faithful, my lord," I promised him.
"I know it," he sniffed, "else should I not employ you."
He turned from me, and stepped back to his table. He took up a package, fingered it a moment, then dropped it again, and shot me one of his quiet glances.
"That is my answer to Madonna Lucrezia's letter," he said slowly, his voice as smooth as silk, "and I desire that you shall carry it to Pesaro for me, and deliver it safely and secretly into her hands."
I could do no more than stare at him. It seemed as if my mind were stricken numb.
"Well?" he asked at last; and in his voice there was now a suggestion of steel beneath the silk. "Do you hesitate?"
"And if I do," I answered, suddenly finding my voice, "I do no more than might a bolder man. How can I, who am banned by punishment of death, contrive to penetrate again into the Court of Pesaro and reach the Lady Lucrezia?"
"That is a matter that I shall leave to the shrewd wit which all Italy says is the heritage of Boccadoro, the Prince of Fools. Does the task daunt you?" His glance and voice were alike harsh.
In very truth it did, and I told him so, but in the terms which the shrewd wit he said was mine dictated.
"I hesitate, my lord, indeed; but more because I fear the frustration of your own ends—whatever they may be—than because I dread to earn a broken neck by again adventuring into Pesaro. Would not some other messenger—unknown at the Court of Giovanni Sforza—be in better case to acquit himself of such a task?
"Yes, if I had one I could trust," he answered frankly.
"I will be open with you, Biancomonte. There are such grave matters at issue, there are such secrets confided to that paper, that I would not for a kingdom, not for our Holy Father's triple crown, that they should fall into alien hands."
He approached me again, and his slender hand, upon which the sacred amethyst was glowing, fell lightly on my shoulder. He lowered his voice "You are the man, the one man in Italy, whose interests are bound up with mine in this; therefore are you the one man to whom I can entrust that package."
"I?" I gasped in amazement—as well I might, for what interests had Boccadoro, the Fool, in common with Cesare Borgia, Cardinal of Valencia?
"You," he answered vehemently, "you, Lazzaro Biancomonte of Biancomonte, whose father Costanzo of Pesaro stripped of his domains. The matters in those papers mean the ruin of the Lord of Pesaro. We are all but ripe to strike at him from Rome and when we strike he shall be so disfigured by the blow that all Italy shall hold its sides to laugh at the sorry figure he will cut. I would not say so much to any other living man but you and if I tell it you it is because I need your aid."
"The lion and mouse," I murmured.
"Why yes, if you will."
"And this man is the husband of your sister!" I exclaimed, almost involuntarily.
"Does that imply a doubt of what I have said?" he flashed, his head thrown back, his brows drawn suddenly together.
"No, no," I hastened to assure him. He smiled softly.
"Maddonna Lucrezia knows all—or nearly all. Of what else she may need to learn, that letter will inform her. It is the last thread, the last knot needed, before we can complete the net in which we are to hold that tyrant? Now, will you bear the letter?"
Would I bear it? Dear God! To achieve the end in view I would have spent my remaining days in motley, making sport for grooms and kitchen wenches. Some such answer did I make him, and he smiled his satisfaction.
"You shall journey as you are," he bade me. "I am guided by my sister, assured that the coat of a Fool is stouter protection than the best hauberk ever tempered. When you have done your errand come you back to me, and you shall have employment better suited to one who bears the name of Biancomonte."
"You may depend upon me in this, my lord," I promised gravely. "I shall not fail you."
"It is well" said he; and those wondrous eyes of his rested again upon my face. "How soon can you set out?"
"At once, my lord. Does not the by-word say that a fool makes little preparation for a journey?"
He nodded, and moved to a coffer, a beautiful piece of Venetian work in ultramarine and gold. From this he took a heavy bag.
"There," said he, "you will find the best of all travelling companions." I thanked him, and set the bag on the crook of my left arm, and by its weight I knew how true he was to the notorious splendour of his race. "And this," said he, "is a talisman that may serve to help you out of any evil plight, and open many a door that you may find locked." And he handed me a signet ring on which was graven the steer that is the emblem of the House of Borgia.
He raised aloft the hand on which was glistening the sacred amethyst—two fingers crooked and two erect. Wondering what this should mean, I stared inquiry.
"Kneel," he bade me. And realising what he would be about, I sank on to my knees whilst he murmured the Apostolic benediction over my bowed head. The rushes of the floor were the only witnesses of the smile that crept to my lips at this sudden assumption of his churchly office by that most worldly prince.
CHAPTER II. THE LIVERIES OF SANTAFIOR
Such preparations as I had to make were soon complete.
Although it was agreed that I was to travel in the motley, yet, in my lately-born shame of that apparel, I decided that I would conceal it as best might be, revealing it only should the need arise. Moreover, it was incumbent that I should afford myself more protection against the inclement January night than that of my foliated cape, my crested cap and silken hose. So, a black cloak, heavy and ample, a broad-brimmed hat, and a pair of riding boots of untanned leather were my further equipment. In the lining of one of those boots I concealed the Lord Cesare's package; his money—some twenty ducats—I carried in a belt about my waist, and his ring I set boldly on my finger.
Few moments did it need me to make ready, yet fewer, it seems, would the Borgia impatience have had me employ; for scarce was I booted when someone knocked at my door. I opened, and there entered a very mountain of a man, whose corselet flashed back the yellow light of my tapers, as might have done a mirror, and whose harsh voice barked out to ask if I was ready.
I had had some former acquaintance with this fellow, having first met him during the previous year, on the occasion of the Court of Pesaro's sojourn at Rome. His name was Ramiro del' Orca, and throughout the Papal army it stood synonymous for masterfulness and grim brutality. He was, as I have said, an enormous man, of prodigious bodily strength, heavy, yet of good proportions. Of his face one gathered the impression of a blazing furnace. His cheeks and nose were of a vivid red, and still more fiery was the hair, now hidden 'neath his morion, and the beard that tapered to a dagger's point. His very eyes kept tune with the red harmony of his ferocious countenance, for the whites were ever bloodshot as a drunkard's—which, with no want of truth, men said he was.
"Come," grunted that fiery, self-sufficient vassal, "be stirring, sir Fool. I have orders to see you to the gates. There is a horse ready saddled for you. It is the Lord Cardinal's parting gift. Resolve me now, which will be the greater ass—the one that rides, or the one that is ridden?"
"O monstrous riddle!" I exclaimed, as I took up my cloak and hat. "Who am I that I should solve it?"
"It baffles you, sir Fool?" quoth he.
"In very truth it does." I ruefully wagged my head so that my bells set up a jangle. "For the rider is a man and the ridden a horse. But," I pursued, in that back-biting strain, which is the very essence of the jester's wit, "were you to make a trio of us, including Messer Ramiro del' Orca, Captain in the army of his Holiness, no doubt would then afflict me. I should never hesitate which of the three to pronounce the ass."
"What shall that mean?" he asked, with darkening brows.
"That its meaning proves obscure to you confirms the verdict I was hinting at," I taunted him. "For asses are notoriously of dull perceptions." Then stepping forward briskly: "Come, sir," I sharply urged him, "whilst we engage upon this pretty play of wit, his Excellency's business waits, which is an ill thing. Where is this horse you spoke of?"
He showed me his strong, white teeth in a very evil smile.
"Were it not for that same business—" he began.
"You would do fine things, I am assured," I interrupted him.
"Would I not?" he snarled. "By the Host! I should be wringing your pert neck, or laying bare your bones with a thong of bullock-hide, you ill conditioned Fool!"
I looked at him with pleasant, smiling eyes.
"You confirm the opinion that is popularly held of you," said I.
"What may that be?" quoth he, his eyes very evil. "In Rome, I'm told, they call you hangman."
He growled in his throat like an angered cur, and his hands were jerked to the level of his breast, the fingers bending talon-wise.
"Body of God!" he muttered fiercely, "I'll teach one fool, at least—"
"Let us cease these pleasantries, I entreat you," I laughed. "Saints defend me! If your mood incline to raillery you'll find your match in some lad of the stables. As for me, I have not the time, had I the will, to engage you further. Let me remind you that I would be gone."
The reminder was well-timed. He bethought him of the journey I must go, on which he was charged to see me safely started.
"Come on, then," he growled, in a white heat of passion that was only curbed by the consideration of that slender, pale young cardinal, his master.
Still, some of his rage he vented in roughly taking me by the collar of my doublet, and dragging the almost headlong from the room, and so a-down a flight of steps out into the courtyard. Meet treatment for a Fool—a treatment to which time might have inured me; for had I not for three years already been exposed to rough usage of this kind at the hands of every man above the rank of groom? And had I once rebelled in act as I did in soul, and used the strength wherewith God endowed me to punish my ill-users, a whip would have reminded me into what sorry slavery had I sold myself when I put on the motley.
It had been snowing for the past hour, and the ground was white in the courtyard when we descended.
At our appearance there was a movement of serving-men and a fall of hoofs, muffled by the snow. Some held torches that cast a ruddy glare upon the all-encompassing whiteness, and a groom was leading forward the horse that was destined to bear me. I donned my broad-brimmed hat, and wrapped my cloak about me. Some murmurs of farewell caught my ears, from those minions with whom I had herded during my three days at the Vatican. Then Messer del' Orca thrust me forward.
"Mount, Fool, and be off," he rasped.
I mounted, and turned to him. He was a surly dog; if ever surly dog wore human shape, and the shape was the only human thing about Captain Ramiro.
"Brother, farewell," I simpered.
"No brother of yours, Fool," snarled he.
"True—my cousin only. The fool of art is no brother to the fool of nature."
"A whip!" he roared to his grooms. "Fetch me a whip."
I left him calling for it, as I urged my nag across the snow and over the narrow drawbridge. Beyond, I stayed a moment to look over my shoulder. They stood gazing after me, a group of some half-dozen men, looking black against the whiteness of the ground. Behind them rose the brown walls of the rocca illumined by the flare of torches, from which the smell of rosin reached my nostrils as I paused. I waved my hat to them in token of farewell, and digging my spurless heels into the flanks of my horse, I ambled down through the biting wind and drifting snow, into the town.
The streets were deserted and dark, save for the ray that here fell from a window, and there stole through the chink of a door to glow upon the snow in earnest of the snug warmth within. Silence reigned, broken only by the moan of the wind under the eaves, for although it was no more than approaching the second hour of night, yet who but the wight whom necessity compelled would be abroad in such weather?
All night I rode despite that weather's foulness—a foulness that might have given pause to one whose haste to bear a letter was less attuned to his own supreme desires.
Betimes next morning I paused at a small locanda on the road to Magliano, and there I broke my fast and took some rest. My horse had suffered by the journey more than had I, and I would have taken a fresh one at Magliano, but there was none to be had—so they told me—this side of Narni, wherefore I was forced to set out once more upon that poor jaded beast that had carried me all night.
It was high noon when I came, at last, to Narni, the last league of the journey accomplished at a walk, for my nag could go no faster. Here I paused to dine, but here, again, they told me that no horses might be had. And so, leading by the bridle the animal I dared no longer ride, lest I should kill it outright, I entered the territory of Urbino on foot, and trudged wearily amain through the snow that was some inches deep by now. In this miserable fashion I covered the seven leagues, or so, to Spoleto, where I arrived exhausted as night was falling.
There, at the Osteria del Sole, I supped and lay. I found a company of gentlemen in the common-room, who upon espying my motley—when I had thrown off my sodden cloak and hat—pressed me, willy-nilly, into amusing them. And so I spent the night at my Fool's trade, giving them drolleries from the works of Boccacci and Sacchetti—the horn-books of all jesters.
I obtained a fresh horse next morning, and I set out betimes, intending to travel with a better speed. The snow was thick and soft at first, but as I approached the hills it grew more crisp. Overhead the sky was of an unbroken blue, and for all that the air was sharp there was warmth in the sunshine. All day I rode hard, and never rested until towards nightfall I found myself on the spurs of the Apennines in the neighborhood of Gualdo, the better half of my journey well-accomplished. The weather had changed again at sunset. It was snowing anew, and the north wind was howling like a choir of the damned.
Before me gleamed the lights of a little wayside tavern, and since it might suit me better to lie there than to journey on to Gualdo, I drew rein before that humble door, and got down from my wearied horse. Despite the early hour the door was already barred, for the bedding of travellers formed no part of the traffic of so lowly a house as this nameless, wayside wine-shop. Theirs was a trade that ended with the daylight. Nevertheless I was assured they could be made to find me a rag of straw to lie on, and so I knocked boldly with my whip.
The taverner who opened for me, and stood a moment surveying me by the light of the torch he held aloft, was a slim, mild-mannered man, not over-clean. Behind him surged the figure of his wife; just such a woman as you might look to find the mate of such a man: broad and tall of frame and most scurvily cross-grained of face. It may well be that had he bidden me welcome, she had driven me back into the night; but since he made some demur when I asked for lodging, and protested that in his house was but accommodation too rude to offer my magnificence, the woman thrust him aside, and loudly bade me enter.
I obeyed her readily, hat on head and cloak about me, lest my interests should suffer were my trade disclosed. I bade the man see to my horse, and then escorted by the woman, I made my way to the single room above, which, in obedience to my demand, she made haste to set at my convenience.
It was an evil-smelling, squalid hole; a bed of wattles in a corner, and in the centre a greasy table with a three-legged stool and a crazy chair beside it. The floor was black with age and filth, and broken everywhere by rat-holes. She set her noisome, smoking oil lamp on the table, and with some apology for the rudeness of the chamber she asked in tones almost defiant if my excellency would be content.
"Perforce," said I ungraciously, perceiving surliness to be the key to the respect of such a creature; "a king might thank Heaven for a kennel on such a night as this."
She bent her back in a clumsy bow, and with a growing humility wondered had I supped. I had not, but sooner would I have starved than have been poisoned by such foulnesses as they might have set before me. So I answered her that all I needed was a cup of wine.
When she had brought me that, and, at last, I was alone, I closed the door. It had no lock, nor any sort of fastening, so I set the three legged stool against it that it might give me warning of intrusion. Next I threw off my cloak and hat and boots, and all dressed as I was I flung myself upon my miserable couch. But jaded though I might be, it was not yet my intent to sleep. Now that the half of my journey was accomplished, I found myself beset by doubts which had not before assailed me, touching the manner in which this mission of mine was to be accomplished. It would prove no easy thing for me to penetrate unnoticed into the town of Pesaro, much less into the Sforza Court, where for three years I had pursued my Fool's trade. There was scarce a man, a woman or a child in the entire domains of Giovanni Sforza to whom Boccadoro, the Fool, was not known; and many a villano, who had never noticed the features of the Lord of Pesaro, could have told you the very colour of his jester's eyes; which, after all, is no strange thing, for—sad reflection!—in a world in which Wisdom may be overlooked, Folly goes never disregarded.
The garments I wore might be well enough to journey in; but if I would gain the presence of Lucrezia Borgia I must see that I arrived in others. And then my thoughts wandered into speculation. What might be this momentous letter that I carried? What was this secret traffic 'twixt Cesare Borgia and his sister? Since Cesare had said that it meant the ruin of Giovanni Sforza—a ruin so utter, so complete and humiliating that it must provoke the scornful mirth of all Italy—the knowledge of it must soon be mine. Meanwhile I was an agent of that ruin. Dear God! how that reflection warmed me! What joy I took in the thought that, though he knew it not, nor could come to know it, I Lazzaro Biancomonte, whom he had abused and whose spirit he had broken—was become a tool to expedite the work of abasement and destruction that was ripening for him. And realizing all this, that letter I vowed to Heaven I would carry, suffering no obstacle to daunt me, suffering nothing to turn me from my path.
And then another voice seemed to arise within me, to cry out impatiently: "Yes, yes; but how?"
I rose, and approaching the table, I took up the jug of wine and poured myself a draught. I drank it off, and cast the dregs at an inquisitive rat that had thrust its head above the boards. Then I quenched the light, and flung myself once more upon my bed, in the hope that darkness would prove a stimulant to thought and bring me to the solution I was seeking. It brought me sleep instead. Unconsciously I sank to it, my riddle all unsolved.
I did not wake until the pale sun of that January morning was drawing the pattern of my lattice on the ceiling. The stormy night had been succeeded by a calm and sunlit day. And by its light the place wore a more loathsome look than it had done last night, so that at the very sight of it I leapt from my couch and grew eager to be gone. I set a ducat on the table, and going to the door I called my hostess. The stairs creaked presently 'neath her portentous weight, and, panting slightly, she stood before me.
At sight of me, for I was without my cloak, and my motley was revealed in the cold, morning light, she cried out in amazement first, and then in rage—deeming me one of those parasites who tramp the world in the garb of folly, seeking here a dinner, there a bed, in exchange for some scurvy tumbling or some witless jests.
"Ossa di Cristo!" was her cry. "Have I housed a Fool?"
"If I am the first you have housed, your tumbling ruin of a tavern has been a singularly choice resort. Woman—"
"Would you 'woman' me?" she stormed.
"Why, no," said I politely. "I was at fault. I'll keep the title for your husband—God help him!"
She smiled grimly.
"And are these," she asked, with a ferocious sarcasm, "the jests with which you pay the score?"
"Jests?" quoth I. "Score? Pish! More eyes, less tongue would more befit a hostess who has never housed a fool." And with a splendid gesture I pointed to the ducat gleaming on the table. At sight of the gold her eyes grew big with greed.
"My master—" she began, and coming forward took the piece in her hand, to assure herself that she was not the dupe of magic. "A fool with gold!" she marvelled.
"Is a shame to his calling," I acknowledged. Then—"Get me a needle and a length of thread," said I. She scuttled off to do my bidding, like nothing so much as one of the rats that tenanted her unclean sty. She was back in a moment, all servility, and wondering whether there was a rent about me she might make bold to stitch. What a key to courtesy is gold, my masters! I drove her out, and eager to conciliate me, she went at once.
With my own hands I effected in my doublet the slight repair of which it stood in need. Then I donned my hat, and, cloak on shoulder, made my way below, calling for my horse as I descended.
I scorned the wine they proffered me ere I departed. That last night's draught had quenched my thirst for ever of such grape-juice as it was theirs to tender. I urged the taverner to hasten with my horse, and stood waiting in the squalid common-room, my mind divided 'twixt impatience to resume the road to Pesaro and fresh speculations upon the means I was to adopt to enter it and yet save my neck—for this was now become an obsessing problem.
As I stood waiting, there broke upon my ears the sound of an approaching cavalcade: the noise of voices and the soft fall of hoofs upon the thick snow carpet. The company halted at the door, and a loud, gruff voice was raised to cry:
"Locandiere! Afoot, sluggard!"
I stepped to the door, with very natural curiosity, a company of four mounted men escorting a mule-litter, the curtains of which were drawn so that nothing might be seen of him or her that rode within. Grooms were those four, as all the world might see at the first glance, and the livery they wore was that of the noble House of Santafior—the holy white flower of the quince being embroidered on the breast of their gabardines.
They bore upon them such signs of hard and hasty travelling that it was soon guessed they had spent the night in the saddle. Their horses were in a foam of sweat; and the men themselves were splashed with mud from foot to cap.
Even as I was going forward to regard them the taverner appeared, leading my horse by the bridle. Now at an inn the traveller that arrives is ever of more importance than he that departs. At sight of those horsemen, the taverner forgot my impatience, for he paused to bow in welcome to the one that seemed the leader.
"Most Magnificent," said he to that liveried hind, "command me."
"We need a guide," the fellow answered with an ill grace.
"A guide, Illustrious?" quoth the host. "A guide?"
"I said a guide, fool," answered him the groom. "Heard you never of such animals? We need a man who knows the hills, to lead us by the shortest road to Cagli."
The taverner shook his grey head stupidly. He bowed again until I fancied I could hear the creak of his old joints.
"Here be no guides, Magnificent," he deplored. "Perhaps at Gualdo—"
"Animal," was the retort—for true courtesy commend me to a lacquey!—"it is not our wish to pursue the road as far as Gualdo, else had we not stopped at this kennel of yours."
I scarce know what it can have been that moved me to act as I then did, for, in the truth, the manner of that rascal of a groom was little prepossessing, and his master, I doubted, could be little better that he left the fellow to hector it thus over that wretched tavern oaf. But I stepped forward.
"Did you say that you were journeying to Cagli?" questioned I.
He eyed me sourly, suspicion writ athwart his round, ill-favoured face, But my motley was hidden from his sight. My cloak, my hat and boots allowed naught of my true condition to appear, and might as well have covered a lordling as a jester. Yet his inveterate surliness the rascal could not wholly conquer.
"What may be the purpose of your question?" he growled.
"To serve your master, whoever he may be," I answered him serenely, "although it is a service I do not press upon him. I, too, am journeying to Cagli, and like yourselves, I am in haste and go the shorter way across the hills, with which I am well acquainted. If it so please you to follow me your need of a guide may thus be satisfied."
It was the tone to take if I would be respected. Had I proposed that we should journey in company I should not have earned me the half of the deference which was accorded to my haughtily granted leave that they might follow me if they so chose.
With marked submission did he give me thanks in his master's name.
I mounted and set out, and at my heels came now the litter and its escort. Thus did we quit the plain and breast the slopes, where the snow grew deeper and firmer underfoot as we advanced. And as I went, still plaguing my mind to devise a means by which I might penetrate to the Court of Pesaro, little did I dream that the matter was being solved for me—the solution having begun with my offer to guide that company across the hills.
CHAPTER III. MADONNA PAOLA
We gained the heights in the forenoon, and there we dismounted and paused awhile to breathe our horses ere we took the path that was to lead us down to Cagli. The air was sharp and cold, for all that overhead was spread a cloudless, cobalt dome of sky, and the sun poured down its light upon the wide expanse of snow-clad earth, of a whiteness so dazzling as to be hurtful to the sight.
Hitherto I had ridden stolidly ahead, as unheeding of that following company as if I had been unconscious of its existence. But now that we paused, their fat, white-faced leader, whose name was Giacopo, approached me and sought to draw me into conversation. I yielded readily enough, for I scented a mystery about that closely-curtained litter, and mysteries are ever provoking to such a mind as mine. For all that it might profit me naught to learn who rode there, and why with all this haste, yet these were matters, I confess, on which my curiosity was aroused.
"Are you journeying beyond Cagli?" I asked him presently, in an idle tone.
He cocked his head, and eyed me aslant, the suspicion in his eyes confirming the existence of the mystery I scented.
"Yes," he answered, after a pause. "We hope to reach Urbino before night. And you? Are you journeying far?"
"That far, at least," I answered him, emulating the caution he had shown.
And then, ere more might pass between us, the leather curtains of the litter were sharply drawn aside. At the sound I turned my head, and so far was the vision different from that which—for no reason that I can give—I had expected, that I was stricken with surprise and wonder. A lady—a very child, indeed—had leapt nimbly to the ground ere any of those grooms could offer her assistance.
She was, I thought, the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen, and to one who had read the famous work of Messer Firenzuola on feminine beauty it might seem, at first, that here stood the incarnation of that writer's catalogue of womanly perfections. She was of a good shape and stature, despite her tender years; her face was oval, delicately featured and of an ivory pallor. Her eyes—blue as the heavens overhead—were not of the colour most approved by Firenzuola, nor was her hair of the golden brown which that arbiter commends. Had Firenzuola seen her, it may well be that he had altered or modified his views. She was sumptuously arrayed in a loose-sleeved camorra of grey velvet that was heavy with costly furs; above the lenza of fine linen on her head gleamed the gold thread of a jewelled net, and at her waist a girdle of surpassing richness, all set with gems, glowed like a thing of fire in the bright sunshine.
She took a deep breath of the sharp, invigorating air, then looked about her, and espying me in conversation with Giacopo she approached us across the gleaming snow.
"Is this," she inquired, and her sweet, melodious voice was a perfect match to the graceful charm of her whole presence, "the traveller who so kindly consented to fill for us the office of a guide?"
Giacopo answered briefly that I was that man.
"I am in your debt, sir," she protested, with an odd earnestness. "You do not know how great a service you have rendered me. But if at any time Paola Sforza di Santafior may be able to discharge this obligation, you shall find me very willing."
White-faced, black-browed Giacopo scowled at this proclamation of her identity.
I made her a low bow, and answered coldly, brusquely almost, for I hated the very name of Sforza, and every living thing that bore it.
"Madonna, you overrate my service. It so chanced that I was travelling this way."
She looked more closely at me, as if she would have sought the reason of my churlish tone, and I was strangely thankful that she could not see the motley worn by the muffled stranger who confronted her. No doubt she accounted me a clown, whose nature inclined to surliness, and so she turned away, telling Giacopo that as soon as the horses were breathed they might push on.
"We must rest them yet awhile, Madonna," answered he, "if they are to carry us as far as Cagli. Heaven send that we may obtain fresh cattle there, else is all lost."
Her frown proclaimed how much his words displeased her.
"You forget that if there are no horses for us, neither are there any for those others." And she waved her hand towards the valley below and the road by which we had come. From this and from what was said I gathered that they were a party of fugitives with pursuers at their heels.
"They have a warrant which we have not," was Giacopo's answer, gloomily delivered, "and they will seize cattle where they can find it."
With a little gesture of impatience, more at his fears than at the peril that aroused them, she moved away towards her litter.
"Your horse would be better for the loan of your cloak, sir stranger," said Giacopo to me.
I knew him to be right, but shrugged my shoulders.
"Better the horse should die of cold than I," I answered gruffly, and turning from him I set myself to pace the snow and stir the blood that was chilling in my veins.
There was a beauty in the white, sunlit landscape spread before me that compelled my glance. To some it might compare but ill with the luxuriant splendour that is of the vernal season; but to me there was a wondrously impressive charm about that solemn, silent, virginal expanse of snow, expressionless as the Sphinx, and imposing and majestic by virtue of that very lack of expression. From Fabriano, at our feet, was spread to the east, the broad plain that lies twixt the Esino and the Masone, as far as Mount Comero, which, in the distance, lifted its round shoulder from the haze of sea. To the west the country lay under the same winding-sheet of snow as far as eye might range, to the towers of distant Perugia, to the Lake Trasimeno—a silver sheen that broke the white monotony—to Etruscan Cortona, perched like an eyrie on its mountain top, and to the line of Tuscan hills, like heavy, low-lying clouds upon the blue horizon.
Lost was I in the contemplation of that scene when a cry, succeeded by a volley of horrid blasphemy, drew my attention of a sudden to my companions. They stood grouped together, and their eyes were on the road by which we had scaled those heights. Their first expression of loud astonishment had been succeeded by an utter silence. I stepped forward to command a better view of what they contemplated, and in the plain below, midway between Narni and the slopes, a mile or so behind us, I caught a glitter as of a hundred mirrors in the sunshine. A company of some dozen men-at-arms it was, riding briskly along the tracks we had left behind us in the snow. Could these be the pursuers?
Even as I formed the question in my mind, the lady's silvery voice, behind me, put it into words. She had drawn aside the curtains of her litter and she was leaning out, her eyes upon those dancing points of brilliance.
"Madonna," cried one of her grooms, in a quaver of alarm, "they are Borgia soldiers."
"Your fear is father to that opinion," she answered scornfully. "How can you descry it at this distance?"
Now, either God had given that knave an eagle's sight, or else, as she suggested, fear spurred his imagination and begot his certainty of what he thought he saw.
"The leader's bannerol bears the device of a red bull," he answered promptly.
I thought she paled a little, and her brows contracted.
"In God's name, let us get forward, then!" cried Giacopo. "Orsu! To horse, knaves!"
No second bidding did they need. In the twinkling of an eye they were in the saddle, and one of them had caught the bridle of the leading mule of the litter. Giacopo called to me to lead the way with him, with no more ceremony than if I had been one of themselves. But I made no ado. A chase is an interesting business, whatever your point of view, and if a greater safety lies with the hunter, there is a keener excitement with the hunted.
Down that steep and slippery hillside we blundered, making for Cagli at a pace in which there lay a myriad-fold more danger than could menace us from any party of pursuers. But fear was spur and whip to the unreasoning minds of those poltroons, and so from the danger behind us we fled, and courted a more deadly and certain peril in the fleeing. At first I sought to remonstrate with Giacopo; but he was deaf to the wisdom that I spoke. He turned upon me a face which terror had rendered whiter than its natural habit, white as the egg of a duck, with a hint of blue or green behind it. I had, besides, an ugly impression of teeth and eyeballs.
"Death is behind us, sir," he snarled. "Let us get on."
"Death is more assuredly before you," I answered grimly. "If you will court it, go your way. As for me, I am over-young to break my neck and be left on the mountain-side to fatten crows. I shall follow at my leisure."
"Gesu!" he cried, through chattering teeth. "Are you a coward, then?"
The taunt would have angered me had his condition been other than it was; but coming from one so possessed of the devil of terror, it did no more than provoke my mirth.
"Come on, then, valiant runagate," I laughed at him.
And on we went, our horses now plunging, now sliding down yard upon yard of moving snow, snorting and trembling, more reasoning far than these rational animals that bestrode them. Twice did it chance that a man was flung from his saddle, yet I know not what prayers Madonna may have been uttering in her litter, to obtain for us the miracle of reaching the plain with never so much as a broken bone.
Thus far had we come, but no farther, it seemed, was it possible to go. The horses, which by dint of slipping and sliding had encompassed the descent at a good pace, were so winded that we could get no more than an amble out of them, saving mine, which was tolerably fresh.
At this a new terror assailed the timorous Giacopo. His head was ever turned to look behind—unfailing index of a frightened spirit; his eyes were ever on the crest of the hills, expecting at every moment to behold the flash of the pursuers' steel. The end soon followed. He drew rein and called a halt, sullenly sitting his horse like a man deprived of wit—which is to pay him the compliment of supposing that he ever had wit to be deprived of.
Instantly the curtain-rings rasped, and Madonna Paola's head appeared, her voice inquiring the reason of this fresh delay.
Sullenly Giacopo moved his horse nearer, and sullenly he answered her.
"Madonna, our horses are done. It is useless to go farther."
"Useless?" she cried, and I had an instance of how sharply could ring the voice that I had heard so gentle. "Of what do you talk, you knave? Ride on at once."
"It is vain to ride on," he answered obdurately, insolence rising in his voice. "Another half-league—another league at most, and we are taken."
"Cagli is less than a league distant," she reminded him. "Once there, we can obtain fresh horses. You will not fail me now, Giacopo!"
"There will be delays, perforce, at Cagli," he reminded her, "and, meanwhile, there are these to guide the Borgia sbirri." And he pointed to the tracks we were leaving in the snow.
She turned from him, and addressed herself to the other three.
"You will stand by me, my friends," she cried. "Giacopo, here, is a coward; but you are better men." They stirred, and one of them was momentarily moved into a faint semblance of valour.
"We will go with you, Madonna," he exclaimed. "Let Giacopo remain behind, if so he will."
But Giacopo was a very ill-conditioned rogue; neither true himself, nor tolerant, it seemed, of truth in others.
"You will be hanged for your pains when you are caught!" he exclaimed, "as caught you will be, and within the hour. If you would save your necks, stay here and make surrender."
His speech was not without effect upon them, beholding which, Madonna leapt from the litter, the better to confront them. The corners of her sensitive little mouth were quivering now with the emotion that possessed her, and on her eyes there was a film of tears.
"You cowards!" she blazed at them, "you hinds, that lack the spirit even to run! Were I asking you to stand and fight in defence of me, you could not show yourselves more palsied. I was a fool," she sobbed, stamping her foot so that the snow squelched under it. "I was a fool to entrust myself to you."
"Madonna," answered one of them, "if flight could still avail us, you should not find us stubborn. But it were useless. I tell you again, Madonna, that when I espied them from the hill-top yonder, they were but a half-league behind. Soon we shall have them over the mountain, and we shall be seen."
"Fool!" she cried, "a half-league behind, you say; and you forget that we were on the summit, and they had yet to scale it. If you but press on we shall treble that distance, at least, ere they begin the descent. Besides, Giacopo," she added, turning again to the leader, "you may be at fault; you may be scared by a shadow; you may be wrong in accounting them our pursuers."
The man shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and grunted.
"Arnaldo, there, made no mistake. He told us what he saw."
"Now Heaven help a poor, deserted maid, who set her trust in curs!" she exclaimed, between grief and anger.
I had been no better than those hinds of hers had I remained unmoved. I have said that I hated the very name of Sforza; but what had this tender child to do with my wrongs that she should be brought within the compass of that hatred? I had inferred that her pursuers were of the House of Borgia, and in a flash it came to me that were I so inclined I might prove, by virtue of the ring I carried, the one man in Italy to serve her in this extremity. And to be of service to her, her winsome beauty had already inflamed me. For there was I know not what about this child that seemed to take me in its toils, and so wrought upon me that there and then I would have risked my life in her good service. Oh, you may laugh who read. Indeed, deep down in my heart I laughed myself, I think, at the heroics to which I was yielding—I, the Fool, most base of lacqueys—over a damsel of the noble House of Santafior. It was shame of my motley, maybe, that caused me to draw my cloak more tightly about me as I urged forward my horse, until I had come into their midst.
"Lady," said I bluntly and without preamble, "can I assist you? I have inferred your case from what I have overheard."
All eyes were on me, gaping with surprise—hers no less than her grooms'.
"What can you do alone, sir?" she asked, her gentle glance upraised to mine.
"If, as I gather, your pursuers are servants of the House of Borgia, I may do something."
"They are," she answered, without hesitation, some eagerness, even, investing her tones.
It may seem an odd thing that this lady should so readily have taken a stranger into her confidence. Yet reflect upon the parlous condition in which she found herself. Deserted by her dispirited grooms, her enemies hot upon her heels, she was in no case to trifle with assistance, or to despise an offer of services, however frail it might seem. With both hands she clutched at the slender hope I brought her in the hour of her despair.
"Sir," she cried, "if indeed it lies in your power to help me, you could not find it in your heart to be sparing of that power did you but know the details of my sorry circumstance."
"That power, Madonna, it may be that I have," said I, and at those words of mine her servants seemed to honour me with a greater interest. They leaned forward on their horses and eyed me with eyes grown of a sudden hopeful. "And," I continued, "if you will have utter faith in me, I see a way to render doubly certain your escape."
She looked up into my face, and what she saw there may have reassured her that I promised no more than I could accomplish. For the rest she had to choose between trusting me and suffering capture.
"Sir," said she, "I do not know you, nor why you should interest yourself in the concerns of a desolated woman. But, Heaven knows, I am in no case to stand pondering the aid you offer, nor, indeed, do I doubt the good faith that moves you. Let me hear, sir, how you would propose to serve me."
"Whence are you?" I inquired.
"From Rome," she informed me without hesitation, "to seek at my cousin's Court of Pesaro shelter from a persecution to which the Borgia family is submitting me."
At her cousin's Court of Pesaro! An odd coincidence, this—and while I was pondering it, it flashed into my mind that by helping her I might assist myself. Had aught been needed o strengthen my purpose to serve her, I had it now.
"Yet," said I, surprise investing my voice, "at Pesaro there is Madonna Lucrezia of that same House of Borgia."
She smiled away the doubt my words implied.
"Madonna Lucrezia is my friend," said she; "as sweet and gentle a friend as ever woman had, and she will stand by me even against her own family."
Since she was satisfied of that, I waived the point, and returned to what was of more immediate interest.
"And you fled," said I, "with these?" And I indicated her attendants. "Not content to leave the clearest of tracks behind you in the snow, you have had yourself attended by four grooms in the livery of Santafior. So that by asking a few questions any that were so inclined might follow you with ease."
She opened wide her eyes at that. Oftentimes have I observed that it needs a fool to teach some elementary wisdom to the wise ones of this world. I leapt from my saddle and stood in the road beside her, the bridle on my arm.
"Listen now, Madonna. If you would make good your escape it first imports that you should rid yourself of this valiant escort. Separate from it for a little while. Take you my horse—it is a very gentle beast, and it wilt carry you with safety—and ride on, alone, to Cagli."
"Alone?" quoth she, in some surprise.
"Why, yes," I answered gruffly. "What of that? At the Inn of 'The Full Moon' ask for the hostess, and tell her that you are to await an escort there, begging her, meanwhile, to place you under her protection. She is a worthy soul, or else I do not know one, and she will befriend you readily. But see to it that you tell her nothing of your affairs."
"And then?" she inquired eagerly.
"Then, wait you there until to-night, or even until to-morrow morning, for these knaves to rejoin you to the end that you may resume your journey."
"But we—" began Giacopo. Scenting his protest, I cut him short.
"You four," said I, "shall escort me—for I shall replace Madonna in the litter—you shall escort me towards Fabriano. Thus shall we draw the pursuit upon ourselves, and assure your lady a clear road of escape."
They swore most roundly and with great circumstance of oaths that they would lend themselves to no such madness, and it took me some moments to persuade them that I was possessed of a talisman that should keep us all from harm.
"Were it otherwise, dolts, do you think I should be eager to go with you? Would any chance wayfarer so wantonly imperil his neck for the sake of a lady with whom he can scarce be called acquainted?"
It was an argument that had weight with them, as indeed, it must have had with the dullest. I flashed my ring before their eyes.
"This escutcheon," said I, "is the shield that shall stand between us and danger from any of the house that bears these arms."
Thus I convinced and wrought upon them until they were ready to obey me—the more ready since any alternative was really to be preferred to their present situation. In danger they already stood from those that followed as they well knew; and now it seemed to them that by obeying one who was armed with such credentials, it might be theirs to escape that danger. But even as I was convincing them, by the same arguments was I sowing doubts in the lady's subtler mind.
"You are attached to that house?" quoth she, in accents of mistrust. She wanted to say more. I saw it in her eyes that she was wondering was there treachery underlying an action so singularly disinterested as to justify suspicion.
"Madonna," said I, "if you would save yourself I implore that you will trust me. Very soon your pursuers will be appearing on those heights, and then your chance of flight will be lost to you. I will ask you but this: Did I propose to betray you into their hands, could I have done better than to have left you with your grooms?"
Her face lighted. A sunny smile broke on me from her heavenly eyes.
"I should have thought of that," said she. And what more she would have added I put off by urging her to mount.
Sitting the man's saddle as best she might—well enough, indeed, to fill us all with surprise and admiration—she took her leave of me with pretty words of thanks, which again I interrupted.
"You have but to follow the road," said I, "and it will bring you straight to Cagli. The distance is a short league, and you should come there safely. Farewell, Madonna!"
"May I not know," she asked at parting, "the name of him that has so generously befriended me?"
I hesitated a second. Then—"They call me Boccadoro," answered I.
"If your mouth be as truly golden as your heart, then are you well-named," said she. Then, gathering her mantle about her, and waving me farewell, she rode off without so much as a glance at the cowardly hinds who had failed her in the hour of her need.
A moment I stood watching her as she cantered away in the sunshine; then stepping to the litter, I vaulted in.
"Now, rogues," said I to the escort, "strike me that road to Fabriano."
"I know you not, sir," protested Giacopo. "But this I know—that if you intend us treachery you shall have my knife in your gullet for your pains."
"Fool!" I scorned him, "since when has it been worth the while of any man to betray such creatures as are you? Plague me no more! Be moving, else I leave you to your coward's fate."
It was the tone best understood by hinds of their lily-livered quality. It quelled their faint spark of mutiny, and a moment later one of those knaves had caught the bridle of the leading mule and the litter moved forward, whilst Giacopo and the others came on behind at as brisk a pace as their weary horses would yield. In this guise we took the road south, in the direction opposite to that travelled by the lady. As we rode, I summoned Giacopo to my side.
"Take your daggers," I bade him, "and rip me that blazon from your coats. See that you leave no sign about you to proclaim you of the House of Santafior, or all is lost. It is a precaution you would have taken earlier if God had given you the wit of a grasshopper."
He nodded that he understood my order, and scowled his disapproval of my comment on his wit. For the rest, they did my bidding there and then.
Having satisfied myself that no betraying sign remained about them, I drew the curtains of my litter, and reclining there I gave myself up to pondering the manner in which I should greet the Borgia sbirri when they overtook me. From that I passed on to the contemplation of the position in which I found myself, and the thing that I had done. And the proportions of the jest that I was perpetrating afforded me no little amusement. It was a burla not unworthy the peerless gifts of Boccadoro, and a fitting one on which to close his wild career of folly. For had I not vowed that Boccadoro I would be no more once the errand on which I travelled was accomplished? By Cesare Borgia's grace I looked to—
A sudden jolt brought me back to the immediate present, and the realisation that in the last few moments we had increased our pace. I put out my head.
"Giacopo!" I shouted. He was at my side in an instant. "Why are we galloping?"
"They are behind," he answered, and fear was again overspreading his fat face. "We caught a glimpse of them as we mounted the last hill."
"You caught a glimpse of whom?" quoth I.
"Why, of the Borgia soldiers."
"Animal," I answered him, "what have we to do with them? They may have mistaken us for some party of which they are in pursuit. But since we are not that party, let your jaded beasts travel at a more reasonable speed. We do not wish to have the air of fugitives."
He understood me, and I was obeyed. For a half-hour we rode at a more gentle pace. That was about the time they took to come up with us, still a league or so from Fabriano. We heard their cantering hoofs crushing the snow, and then a loud imperious voice shouting to us a command to stay. Instantly we brought up in unconcerned obedience, and they thundered alongside with cries of triumph at having run their prey to earth.
I cast aside my hat, and thrust my motleyed head through the curtains with a jangle of bells, to inquire into the reason of this halt. Whom my appearance astounded the more—whether the lacqueys of Santafior, or the Borgia men-at-arms that now encircled us—I cannot guess. But in the crowd of faces that confronted me there was not one but wore a look of deep amazement.
CHAPTER IV. THE COZENING OF RAMIRO
The cavalcade that had overtaken us proved to number some twenty men-at-arms, whose leader was no less a person than Ramiro del' Orca—that same mountain of a man who had attended my departure from the Vatican three nights ago. From the circumstance that so important a personage should have been charged with the pursuit of the Lady of Santafior, I inferred that great issues were at stake.
He was clad in mail and leather, and from his lance fluttered the bannerol bearing the Borgia arms, which had announced his quality to Madonna's servants.
At sight of me his bloodshot eyes grew round with wonder, and for a little season a deathly calm preceded the thunder of his voice.
"Sainted Host!" he roared at last. "What trickery may this be?" And sidling his horse nearer he tore aside the curtains of my litter.
Out of faces pale as death the craven grooms looked on, to behold me reclining there, my cloak flung down across my legs to hide my boots, and my motley garb of red and black and yellow all revealed. I believe their astonishment by far surpassed the Captain's own.
"You are choicely met, Ser Ramiro," I greeted him. Then, seeing that he only stared, and made no shift to speak: "Maybe," quoth I, "you'll explain why you detain me. I am in haste."
"Explain?" he thundered. "Sangue di Cristo! The burden of explaining lies with you. What make you here?"
"Why," answered I, in tones of deep astonishment, "I am about the business of the Lord Cardinal of Valencia, our master."
"Davvero?" he jeered. He stretched out a mighty paw, and took me by the collar of my doublet. "Now, bethink you how you answer me, or there will be a fool the less in the world."
"Indeed, the world might spare more."
He scowled at my pleasantry. To him, apparently, the situation afforded no scope for philosophical reflections.
"Where is the girl?" he asked abruptly.
"Girl?" quoth I. "What girl? Am I a mother-abbess, that you should set me such a question?"
Two dark lines showed between his brows. His voice quivered with passion.
"I ask you again—where is the girl?"
I laughed like one who is a little wearied by the entertainment provided for him.
"Here be no girls, Messer del' Orca," I answered him in the same tone. "Nor can I think what this babble of girls portends."
My seeming innocence, and the assurance with which I maintained the expression of it, whispered a doubt into his mind. He released me, and turned upon his men, a baffled look in his eyes.
"Was not this the party?" he inquired ferociously. "Have you misled me, beasts?
"It seemed the party, Illustrious," answered one of them.
"Do you dare tell me that 'it seemed'?" he roared, seeking to father upon them the blunder he was beginning to fear that he had made. "But—What is the livery of these knaves?
"They wear none," someone answered him, and at that answer he seemed to turn limp and lose his fierce assurance.
Then he bridled afresh.
"Yet the party, I'll swear, is this!" he insisted; and turning once more to me: "Explain, animal!" he bade me in terrifying tones. "Explain, or, by the Host! be you ignorant or not, I'll have you hanged."
I accounted it high time to take another tone with him. Hanging was a discomfort I was never less minded to suffer.
"Draw nearer, fool," said I contemptuously, and at the epithet, so greatly did my audacity amaze him, he mildly did my bidding.
"I know not what doubts are battling in your thick head, sir captain," I pursued. "But this I know—that if you persist in hindering me, or commit the egregious folly of offering me violence, you will answer for it, hereafter, to the Lord Cardinal of Valencia.
"I am going upon a secret mission"—and here I sank my voice to a whisper for his ears alone—"in the service of the house that hires you, as for yourself you might easily have inferred. Behold." And I revealed my ring. "Detain me longer at your peril."
He must have had some notion of the fact that I was journeying in Cesare Borgia's service, and this coupled with the sight of that talisman effected in his manner a swift and wholesome change. Had I, arrayed in the panoply of Mother Church, defied the devil, my victory could not have been more complete.
He looked about him like a man whose wits have been scattered suddenly to the four winds of Heaven.
"But this litter," he mumbled, riveting his dazed eyes upon me, "and these four knaves—?"
"Tell me," I questioned, with sudden earnestness, "are you in quest of just such a party?"
"Aye that I am," he answered sharply, intelligence returning to his glance, inquiry burning in it.
"And would the men, peradventure, be wearing the livery of the House of Santafior?"
His quick assent came almost choked in a company of oaths.
"Why then, if that be your quarry, you are but wasting time. Such a party passed us at the gallop about an hour ago. It would be an hour, would it not, Giacopo?"
"I should say an hour," answered the lacquey dully.
"In what direction?" came Ramiro's frenzied question. He doubted me no longer.
"In the direction of Fabriano I should say," I answered. "Although it may well be that they were making for Sinigaglia. The road branches farther on."
He waited for no more. Without word of thanks for the priceless information I had given him, he wheeled his horse, and shouted a hoarse command to his followers. A moment later and they were cantering past us, the snow flying beneath their hoofs; within five minutes the last of them had vanished round an angle of the road, and the only indication of the halt they had made was the broad path of dirty brown where their horses had crushed the snow.
I have been an actor in few more entertaining comedies than the cozening of Ser Ramiro, and a witness of nothing that afforded me at once so much relief and relish as his abrupt departure. I sank back on the cushions of my litter, and gave myself over to a burst of full-souled laughter which was interrupted ere it was half done by Giacopo, who had dismounted and approached me.
"You have fooled us finely," said he, with venom.
I quenched my laughter to regard him. Of what did he babble? Was he, and were his fellows, too, so ungrateful as to bear a grudge against the man who had saved them?
"You have fooled us finely," he insisted in a louder voice.
"That, knave, is my trade," said I. "But it rather seems to me that it was Messer Ramiro del' Orca whom I fooled."
"Aye," he answered querulously. "But what when he discerns how you have played upon him? What when he discovers the trick by which you have thrown him off the scent? What when he returns?"
"Spare me," I begged, "I am but indifferently skilful at conjecture."
"Nay, but you shall answer me," he cried, livid with a passion that my bantering tone had quickened.
"Can it be that you are indeed curious to know what will befall when he returns?" I questioned meekly.
"I am," he snorted, with an angry twist of the lips.
"It should be easy to gratify the morbid spirit of curiosity that actuates you. Remain here, and await his return. Thus shall you learn."
"That will not I," he vowed.
"Nor I, nor I, nor I!" chorused his followers.
"Then, why plague me with unprofitable questions? What concern is it of ours how Messer del' Orca shall vent his wrath when he is disillusioned. Your duty now is to rejoin your mistress. Ride hard for Cagli. Seek her at the sign of 'The Full Moon,' and then away for Pesaro. If you are brisk you will gain the shelter of the Lord Giovanni Sforza's fortress long before Messer del' Orca again picks up the scent, if, indeed, he ever does so."
Giacopo laughed derisively till his fat body shook with the scornful mirth of him.
"By my faith, I'm done with the business," he cried, and the other three expressed a very hearty agreement with that attitude.
"How done with it?" I asked.
"I shall make my way back across the hills and so retrace my steps to Rome. I'll risk my head no more for any lady or any Fool."
"If you should ever chance to risk it for yourself," said I, with unmeasured scorn, "you'll risk it for the greatest fool and the cowardliest rogue that ever shamed the name of man. And your mistress? Is she to wait at Cagli until doomsday? If anywhere within the bulk of that elephant's body there lurks the heart of a rabbit, you'll get you to horse and ride to the help of that poor lady."
They resented my tone, and showed their resentment plainly. Messer Giacopo went the length of raising his hand to me. But I am a man of amazing strength—amazing inasmuch as being slender of shape I do not have the air of it. Leaping suddenly from the litter, I caught that miserable vassal by the breast of his doublet, shook him once or twice, then tossed him headlong into a drift of snow by the roadside.
At that they bared their knives and made shift to attack me. But I flung myself on to one of the mules of the litter, and showing them the stout Pistoja dagger that I carried, I presented with it a bold and truculent front, no whit intimidated by their numbers. Four to one though they were, they thought better of it. A moment they stood off, consulting among themselves; then Giacopo mounted, and with some mocking counsel as to how I should dispose of the litter and the mules, they made off, no doubt, to find their way back to Rome. Giacopo, as I was afterwards to discover, was Madonna Paola's purse-bearer, so that they would not lack for means.
Awhile I stayed there, cursing them for the white-livered cravens that they were, and thinking of that poor child who had ridden on to Cagli, and who would await them in vain. There, on the mule, I sat in the noontide sunlight, and pondered this, so absorbed in her affairs as to have grown forgetful of my own. At last I resolved to ride on to Cagli alone, and inform her that her men were fled.
There was no time to lose, for as that rogue Giacopo had said, Ramiro del' Orca might discover at any moment how he had been tricked, and return hot-foot to find me and extort the truth from me by such means as I had no stomach for enduring.
First, then, it was of moment thoroughly to efface our tracks, leaving no sign that might guide Meser Ramiro to repair the error into which I had tricked him. Slowly, says the proverb, one journeys far and safely. Slowly, then, did I consider! The escort was, no doubt, on its way back to Rome, and if I could but rid myself of that cumbrous litter, Ser Ramiro would find himself mightily hard put to it to again pick up the trail. I remembered a ravine a little way behind, and I rode my mule back to that as fast as it would travel with the litter and the other mule attached to it. Arrived there, I unharnessed the beasts on the very edge of that shallow precipice. Then exerting all my strength, I contrived to roll the litter over. Down that steep incline it went, over and over, gathering more snow to itself at every revolution, and sinking at last into the drift at the bottom. There were signs enough to show its presence, but those signs would hardly be read by any but the sharpest eyes, or by such as might be looking for it in precisely such a position. I must trust to luck that it escaped the notice of Messer Ramiro. But even if he did discover it, I did not think that it would tell him overmuch.
That done I resumed my hat and cloak—which I had retained—mounted once more, and urging the other mule along, I proceeded thus as fast as might be for a half-league or so in the direction of Cagli. That distance covered, again I halted. There was not a soul in sight. I stripped one of the mules of all its harness, which I buried in the snow, behind a hedge, then I drove the beast loose into a field. The peasant-owner of that land might conclude upon the morrow that it had rained asses in the night.
And now I was able to travel at a brisker pace, and in an hour or so I had passed the point where the road diverged, and I caught a glimpse of the four grooms, already high up in the hills which they were crossing. Whether they saw me or not I do not know, but with a last curse at their cowardice I put them from my mind, and cantered briskly on towards Cagli. It was a short league farther, and in little more than half an hour, my mule half-dead, I halted at the door of "The Full Moon."
Flinging my reins to the ostler, I strode into the inn, swaddled in my cloak, and called for the hostess. The place was empty, as indeed all Cagli had seemed when I rode up. She came forward—a woman with a brown, full face, and large kindly eyes—and I asked her whether a lady had arrived there in safety that morning. At first she seemed mistrustful, but when I had assured her that I was in that lady's service, she frankly owned that Madonna was safe in her own room. Thither I allowed her to lead me, at once eager and reluctant. Eager with my own eyes to assure myself of her perfect safety; reluctant that, since a man may not penetrate to a lady's chamber hat on head, by uncovering I must disclose my shameful trade. Yet there was nothing for it but a bold face, and as I mounted the stairs in the woman's wake, I told myself that I was doubly a fool to be tormented by qualms of such a nature.
Hat in hand I followed the hostess into Madonna's room. The lady rose from the window-seat to greet me, her face pale and her gentle eyes wearing an anxious look. At sight of my head crowned with the crested, horned hood of folly, a frown of bewilderment drew her brows together, and she looked more closely to see whether I was indeed the man who had befriended her that morning in her extremity. In the eyes of the hostess I caught a gleam of recognition. She knew me for the merry loon who had entertained her guests one night a fortnight since, when on my way from Pesaro to Rome. But before she could give expression to this discovery of hers, the lady spoke.
"Leave us awhile, my woman," she commanded. But I stayed the hostess as she was withdrawing.
"This lady," said I, "will need an escort of three or four stout knaves upon a journey that she is going. She will be setting out as soon as may be."
"But what of my grooms?" cried the lady.
"Madonna," I informed her, "they have deserted you. That is the reason of my presence here. You shall hear the story of it presently. Meanwhile, we must arrange to replace them." And I turned again to the hostess.
She was standing in thought, a doubtful expression on her face. But as I looked at her she shook her head.
"There is no such escort to be found to-day in Cagli," she made answer. "The town is all but empty, and every lusty man is either gone on the pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loretto, or else is at Pesaro for the Feast of the Epiphany."
It was in vain that I protested that a couple of knaves might surely be found. She answered me that such as were in Cagli were there because they would not be elsewhere.
The lady's face grew clouded as she listened, for from my insistence she shrewdly inferred that it imported to be gone.
"There is your ostler," quoth I at last. "He will do for one."
"He is the only man I have. My husband and my sons are gone to Pesaro."
"Yet spare us this one, and you shall be well paid his services."
But no bribe could tempt her to give way, and no doubt she was well-advised, for she contended that there was work to be done such as was beyond her years and strength, and that if she sent her ostler off, as well might she close her inn—a thing that was impossible.
Here, then, was an obstacle with which I had not reckoned. It was impossible to send the lady off alone, to travel a distance of some ten leagues, and the most of it by night—for if she would make sure of escaping, she must journey now without pause until she came to Pesaro.
And then, in a flash, it occurred to me that here lay the means, ready to my hand, by avail of which I might boldly re-enter Pesaro despite my banishment, and discharge my errand to Lucrezia Borgia. For, surely, considering the mission on which ostensibly I should be returning—as the saviour and protector of his kinswoman—Giovanni Sforza could not enforce that ban against me. Next I bethought me of the other aspect that the business wore. In fooling Ramiro I had thwarted the Borgia ends; in rescuing Madonna Paola I had perhaps set at naught the Cardinal of Valencia's aims. If so, what then? It would seem that because the lady's eyes were mild and sweet, and because her beauty had so deeply wrought upon me, I had indeed fooled away my chance of salvation from the life and trade that were grown hateful to me. For back to Rome and Cesare Borgia I should dare go no more. Clearly I had burned my boats, and I had done it almost unthinkingly, acting upon the good impulse to befriend this lady, and never reckoning the cost down to its total. For all that the thing I had done, and what I might yet do, should offer me the means I needed to enter Pesaro without danger to my neck, I did not see that I was to derive great profit in the end—unless my profit lay in knowing that I had advanced the ruin of Giovanni Sforza by delivering my letter to Lucrezia. That at any rate was enough incentive clearly to define for me the line that I should take through this tangle into which the ever-jesting Fates had thrust me.
I was still at my thoughts, still pondering this most perplexing situation, the hostess standing silent by the door, when suddenly Madonna Paola spoke.
"Sir," said she, in faltering accents, "I—I have not the right to ask you, and I stand already so deeply in your debt. Not a doubt of it, but it will have inconvenienced you to have journeyed thus far to inform me of the flight of my grooms. Yet if you could—" She paused, timid of proceeding, and her glance fell.
The hostess was all ears, struck by the respectful manner in which this very evidently noble lady addressed a Fool. I opened the door for her.
"You may leave us now," said I. "I will come to you presently."
When she was gone I turned once more to the lady, my course resolved upon. My hate had conquered my last doubt. What first imported was that I should get to Pesaro and to Madonna Lucrezia.
"You were about to ask me," said I, "that I should accompany you to Pesaro."
"I hesitated, sir," she murmured. I bowed respectfully.
"There was not the need, Madonna," I assured her. "I am at your service."
"But, Messer Boccadoro, I have no claim upon you."
"Surely," said I, "the claim that every distressed lady has upon a man of heart. Let us say no more. It were best not to delay in setting out, although I can scarcely think that there is any imminent danger from Ramiro del' Orca now."
"Who is he?" she inquired.
"I told her, whereupon—"
"Did they come up with you?" she asked. "What passed between you?"
Succinctly I related what had chanced, and how I had sent Ramiro on a fool's errand, adding the particulars of the flight of her grooms, and of how I had rid myself of the litter and the second mule. She heard me, her eyes sparkling, and at times she clapped her hands with a glee that was almost childish, vowing that this was splendid, that was brave. I allayed what little fears remained her by pointing out how effectively we had effaced our tracks, and how vainly now Messer del' Orca might beat the country in quest of a lady in a litter, escorted by four grooms.
And now she beset me with fresh thanks and fresh expressions of wonder at my generous readiness to befriend her—a wonder all devoid of suspicion touching the single-mindedness of my purpose. But I reminded her that we had little leisure to stand talking, and left her to make her preparations for the journey, whilst I went below to see that my mule and her horse were saddled. I made bold to pay the reckoning, and when presently she spoke of it, with flaming cheeks, and would have pledged me a jewel, I bade her look upon it as a loan which anon she might repay me when I had brought her safely to her kinsman's Court at Pesaro.
Thus, at last, we left Cagli, and took the road north, riding side by side and talking pleasantly the while, ever concerning the matter of her flight and of her hopes of shelter at Pesaro, which, being nearest to her heart, found readiest expression. I went wrapped in my cloak once more, my head-dress hidden 'neath my broad-brimmed hat, so that the few wayfarers we chanced on need not marvel to see a lady in such friendly intercourse with a Fool. And so dull was I that day as not to marvel, myself, at such a state of things.
The sun was declining, a red ball of fire, towards the mountains on our left, casting a blood-red glow upon the snow that everywhere encompassed us, as we cantered briskly on towards Fossombrone.
In that hour I fell to pondering, and I even caught myself hoping that Messer Ramiro del' Orca might not chance upon the discovery of how egregiously I had fooled him. He was dull-witted and slow at inference, and upon that I built the hope that he might fail to associate me with Madonna Paola's elusion of his pursuit. Thus the chance might yet be mine of returning to Rome and the honourable employment Cesare Borgia had promised me. If only that were so to fall out, I might yet contrive to mend the wreckage of my life. I was returned, it seems, to the ways of early youth, when we build our hopes of future greatness upon untenable foundations!
Great hopes and great ambitions rose within my breast that January evening, fired by the gentle child that rode beside me. Fate had sent me to her aid that day, and I seemed to have acquired, by virtue of that circumstance, a certain right in her. Had Fate no other favours for me in her lap! I bethought me of the very House of Sforza, to which I had been so shamefully attached, and of its humble source in that peasant, Giacomuzzo Attendolo, surnamed Sforza for his abnormal strength of body, who rose to great and princely heights.
Assuredly I had the advantage of such an one, and were the chance but given me—
I went no further. Down in my heart I laughed to scorn my own wild musings. Cesare Borgia would come to know—he must, whether Ramiro told him, or whether he inferred it for himself from the account Ramiro must give him of our meeting—how I had thwarted him in one thing, whilst I had served him in another. Fate was against me. I had fallen too low to ever rise again, and no dreams indulged in a sunset hour, and inspired, perhaps, by a child who was beautiful as one of the saints of God, would ever come to be realised by poor Boccadoro.
Night was falling as we clattered through the slippery streets of Fossombrone.
CHAPTER V. MADONNA'S INGRATITUDE
We stayed in Fossombrone little more than a half-hour, and having made a hasty supper we resumed our way, giving out that we wished to reach Fano ere we slept. And so by the first hour of night Fossombrone was a league or so behind us, and we were advancing briskly towards the sea. Overhead a moon rode at the full in a clear sky, and its light was reflected by the snow, so that we were not discomforted by any darkness. We fell, presently, into a gentler pace, for, after all, there could be no advantage in reaching Pesaro before morning, and as we rode we talked, and I made bold to ask her the cause of her flight from Rome.
She told me then that she was Madonna Paola Sforza di Santafior, and that Pope Alexander, in his nepotism and his desire to make rich and powerful alliances for his family, had settled upon her as the wife for his nephew, Ignacio Borgia. He had been emboldened to this step by the fact that her only protector was her brother, Filippo di Santafior, whom they had sought to coerce. It was her brother, who, seeing himself in a dangerous and unenviable position, had secretly suggested flight to her, urging her to repair to her kinsman Giovanni Sforza at Pesaro. Her flight, however, must have been speedily discovered and the Borgias, who saw in that act a defiance of their supreme authority, had ordered her pursuit.
But for me, she concluded, that pursuits must have resulted in her capture, and once they had her back in Rome, willing or unwilling, they would have driven her into the alliance by means of which they sought to bring her fortune into their own house. This drew her into fresh protestations of the undying gratitude she entertained towards me, protestations which I would have stemmed, but that she persisted in them.
"It is a good and noble thing that you have done," said she, "and I think that Heaven must have directed you to my aid, for it is scarce likely that in all Italy I should have found another man who would have done so much."
"Why, what, after all, is this much that I have done?" I cried. "It is no less than my manhood bade me do; no less than any other would have done seeing you so beset."
"Nay, that is more than I can ever think," she answered. "Who for the sake of an unknown would have suffered such inconveniences as have you? Who would have returned as you have returned to advise me of the defection of my grooms? Who, when other escort failed, would have gone the length of journeying all this way to render a service that is beyond repayment? And, above all, who for the sake of an unknown maid would have submitted to this travesty of yours?"
"Travesty?" quoth I, so struck by that as to interrupt her at last. "What travesty, Madonna?"
"Why, this garb of motley that you donned the better to fool my pursuers and that you still wear in my poor service."
I turned in the saddle to stare at her, and in the moonlight I clearly saw her eyes meet mine. So! that was the reason of her kindness and of the easy familiarity of her speech with me! She deemed me some knight-errant who caracoled through Italy in quest of imperilled maidens needing aid. Of a certainty she had gathered her knowledge of the world from the works of Messer Bojardo, or perhaps from the "Amadis of Gaul" of Messer Bernardo Tasso. And, no doubt, she thought that suits of motley grew on bushes by the roadside, whence those who had a fancy for disguise might cull them.
Well, well, it were better she should know the truth at once, and choose such a demeanour as she considered fitting towards a Fool. I had no stomach for the courtesies that were meant for such a man as I was not.
"Madonna, you are in error," I informed her, speaking slowly. "This garb is no travesty. It is my usual raiment."
There was a pause and I saw the slackening of her reins. No doubt, had we been afoot she would have halted, the better to confront me.
"How?" she asked, and a new note, imperious and chill, was sounding already in her voice. "You would not have me understand that you are by trade a Fool?
"Allowing that I am not a fool by birth, under what other circumstances, think you, I should be likely to wear the garments of a Fool?"
"But this morning," she protested, after a brief pause, "when first I met you, you were not so arrayed."
"I was arrayed even as I am now, in a cloak and hat and boots that hid my motley from such undiscerning eyes as were yours and your grooms'—all taken up with your own fears as you then were."
There was in the tail of that a sting, as I meant there should be, for the sudden haughtiness of her tone was cutting into me. Was I less worthy of thanks because I was a Fool? Had I on that account done less to serve and save her? Or was it that the action which, in a spurred and armoured knight, had been accounted noble was deemed unworthy of thanks in a crested, motleyed jester? It seemed, indeed, that some such reasoning she followed, for after that we spoke no more until we were approaching Fano.
A many times before had I felt the shame of my ignoble trade, but never so acutely as at that moment. It had seared my soul when Giovanni Sforza had told my story to his Court, ere he had driven me from Pesaro with threats of hanging, and it had burned even deeper when later, Madonna Lucrezia, upon entrusting me with her letter to her brother, had upbraided me with the supineness that so long had held me in that vile bondage. But deepest of all went now the burning iron of that disgrace. For my companion's silence seemed to argue that had she known my quality she would have scorned the aid of which she had availed herself to such good purpose. If any doubt of this had mercifully remained me, her next words would have served to have resolved it. It was when the lights of Fano gleamed ahead; we were coming to a cross-roads, and I urged the turning to the left.
"But Fano is in front," she remonstrated coldly.
"This way we can avoid the town and gain the Pesaro road beyond it," answered I, my tone as cool as hers.
"Yet may it not be that at Fano I might find an escort?"
I could have cried out at her cruelty, for in her words I could but read my dismissal from her service. There had been no more talk of an escort other than that which I afforded, and with which at first she had been well content.
I sat my mule in silence for a moment. She had been very justly served had I been the vassal that she deemed me, and had I borne myself in that character without consideration of her sex, her station or her years. She had been very justly served had I wheeled about and left her there to make her way to Fano, and thence to Pesaro, as best she might. She was without money, as I knew, and she would have found in Fano such a reception as would have brought the bitter tears of late repentance to her pretty eyes.
But I was soft-hearted, and, so, I reasoned with her; yet in a manner that was to leave her no doubt of the true nature of her situation, and the need to use me with a little courtesy for the sake of what I might yet do, if she lacked the grace to treat me with gratitude for the sake of that which I had done already.
"Madonna," said I. "It were wiser to choose the by-road and forego the escort, since we have dispensed with it so far. There are many reasons why a lady should not seek to enter Fano at this hour of night."
"I know of none," she interrupted me.
"That may well be. Nevertheless they exist."
"This night-riding in so lonely a fashion is little to my taste," she told me sullenly. "I am for Fano."
She had the mercy to spare me the actual words, yet her tone told me as plainly as if she had uttered them that I could go with her or not, as I should choose. In silence, very sore at heart, I turned my mule's head once more towards the lights of the town.