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."































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

"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

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

"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

"So far, Excellency," he continued, "you cannot be in ignorance of the
general dissatisfaction prevailing among our most illustrious cousin's
subjects. There was the conspiracy of Bacolino, a year ago, which, had
it succeeded, would have cast us into the hands of Florence. It failed,
but another such might not fail again. The increased disfavour of his
Highness may bring more adherents to a fresh conspiracy of this
character, and we should be lost as an independent state. And the peril
that menaces us is the peril of being so loSt. Not only by defection of
our own, but by the force of arms of another. That other is Caesar
Borgia. His dominion is spreading like a plague upon the face of this
Italy, which he has threatened to eat up like an artichoke--leaf by leaf.
Already his greedy eyes are turned upon us, and what power have we--all
unready as we are--wherewith successfully to oppose the overwhelming
might of the Duke of Valentinois? All this his Highness realises, for we
have made it more than clear to him, as we have, too, made clear the
remedy. Yet does he seem as indifferent to his danger as to his
salvation. His time is spent in orgies, in dancing, in hawking and in
shameful dalliance, and if we dare throw out a word of warning, threats
and curses are the only answer we receive."

Da Lodi paused, as if growing conscious that his manner was becoming
over-vehement. But of this, his companions, at least, were all
unconscious, for they filled the pause with a murmur of angry
confirmation. Francesco wrinkled his brow, and sighed.

"I am--alas!--most fully conscious of this danger you speak of. But--
what do you expect of me? Why bear me your grievance? I am no

"Here is no statesman needed, lord. It is a soldier Babbiano requires; a
martial spirit to organise an army against the invasion that must come--
that is coming already. In short, Lord Count, we need such a warrior as
are you. What man is there in all Italy--or, indeed, what woman or what
child--that has not heard of the prowess of the Lord of Aquila? Your
knightly deeds in the wars 'twixt Pisa and Florence, your feats of arms
and generalship in the service of the Venetians, are matters for the
making of epic song."

"Messer Fabrizio!" murmured Paolo, seeking to restrain his eulogistic
interlocutor, what time a faint tinge crept into his bronzed cheeks. But
Da Lodi continued, all unheeding:

"And shall you, my lord, who have borne yourself so valiantly as a
condottiero in the service of the stranger, hesitate to employ your skill
and valour against the enemies of your own homeland? Not so, Excellency.
We know the patriotic soul of Francesco del Falco, and we count upon it."

"And you do well," he answered firmly. "When the time comes you shall
find me ready. But until then, and touching such preparation as must be
made--why do you not address his Highness as you do me?"

A sad smile crossed the noble face of Lodi, whilst Ferrabraccio laughed
outright in chill contempt, and with characteristic roughness made

"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

"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.



"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

"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

"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

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.



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

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

"Aye, is there--may a foul plague rot him!--lurking in the bushes yonder.
He is over-fat to run, or you had seen him at my heels, arrayed in that
panoply of avenging wrath that is the cognisance of the Church Militant."

"Go bring him hither," was the short answer.

"Gesù!" gasped the fool, in very real affright. "I'll not go near him
till his anger cools--not if you made me straight and bribed me with the
Patrimony of St. Peter."

The man turned from him impatiently, and rising his voice:

"Fanfulla!" he called over his shoulder, and then, after a moment's
pause, again: "Olá, Fanfulla!"

"I am here, my lord," came an answering voice from behind a clump of
bushes on their right, and almost immediately the very splendid youth who
had gone to sleep in its shadow stood up and came round to them. At
sight of the fool he paused to take stock of him, what time the fool
returned the compliment with wonder-stricken interest. For however much
Fanfulla's raiment might have suffered in yesternight's affray, it was
very gorgeous still, and in the velvet cap upon his head a string of
jewels was entwined. Yet not so much by the richness of his trappings
was the fool impressed, as by the fact that one so manifestly noble
should address by such a title, and in a tone of so much deference, this
indifferently apparelled fellow over whom he had stumbled. Then his gaze
wandered back to the man who lay supported on his elbow, and he noticed
now the gold net in which his hair was coiffed, and which was by no means
common to mean folk. His little twinkling eyes turned their attention
full upon the face before him, and of a sudden a gleam of recognition
entered them. His countenance underwent a change, and from grotesque
that it had been, it became more grotesque still in its hasty assumption
of reverence.

"My Lord of Aquila!" he murmured, scrambling to his feet.

Scarcely had he got erect when a hand gripped him by the shoulder, and
Fanfulla's dagger flashed before his startled eyes.

"Swear on the cross of this, never to divulge his Excellency's presence
here, or take you the point of it in your foolish heart."

"I swear, I swear!" he cried, in fearful haste, his hand upon the hilt,
which Fanfulla now held towards him.

"Now fetch the priest, good fool," said the Count, with a smile at the
hunchback's sudden terror. "You have nothing to fear from us."

When the jester had left them to go upon his errand, Francesco turned to
his companion.

"Fanfulla, you are over-cautious," he said, with an easy smile. "What
shall it matter that I am recognised?"

"I would not have it happen for a kingdom while you are so near Sant'
Angelo. The six of us who met last night are doomed--those of us who are
not dead already. For me, and for Lodi if he was not taken, there may be
safety in flight. Into the territory of Babbiano I shall never again set
foot whilst Gian Maria is Duke, unless I be weary of this world. But of
the seventh--yourself--you heard old Lodi swear that the secret could not
have transpired. Yet should his Highness come to hear of your presence
in these parts and in my company, suspicion might set him on the road
that leads to knowledge."

"Ah! And then?"

"Then?" returned the other, eyeing Francesco in surprise. "Why, then,
the hopes we found on you--the hopes of every man in Babbiano worthy of
the name--would be frustrated. But here comes our friend the fool, and,
in his wake, the friar."

Fra Domenico--so was he very fitly named, this follower of St. Dominic--
approached with a solemnity that proceeded rather from his great girth
than from any inflated sense of the dignity of his calling. He bowed
before Fanfulla until his great crimson face was hidden, and he displayed
instead a yellow, shaven crown. It was as if the sun had set, and the
moon had risen in its place.

"Are you skilled in medicine?" quoth Fanfulla shortly.

"I have some knowledge, Illustrious."

"Then see to this gentleman's wounds."

"Eh? Dio mio! You are wounded, then?" he began, turning to the Count,
and he would have added other questions as pregnant, but that Aquila,
drawing aside his hacketon at the shoulder, answered him 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

"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.



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

"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

Francesco stirred, and a sigh fluttered through his pallid lips. Then he
raised his heavy lids, and their glances met and held each other. And
so, eyes that were brown and tender looked down into feverish languid
eyes of black, what time her gentle hand held the moist cloth to his
aching brow.

"Angel of beauty!" he murmured dreamily, being but half-awake as yet to
his position. Then, becoming conscious of her ministrations, "Angel of
goodness!" he added, with yet deeper fervour.

She had no answer for him, saving such answer--and in itself it was
eloquent enough--as her blushes made, for she was fresh from a convent
and all innocent of worldly ways and tricks of gallant speech.

"Do you suffer?" she asked at last.

"Suffer?" quoth he, now waking more and more, and his voice sounding a
note of scorn. "Suffer? My head so pillowed and a saint from Heaven
ministering to my ills? Nay, I am in no pain, Madonna, but in a joy more
sweet than I have ever known."

"Gesù! What a nimble tongue!" gibed the fool from the background.

"Are you there, too, Master Buffoon?" quoth Francesco. "And Fanfulla?
Is he not here? Why, now I bethink me; he went to Acquasparta with the
friar." He thrust his elbow under him for more 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

"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? Gesù! What would his Highness say?
How would he deal with me were he to learn of this? Who is the man,

"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

"I beg, lady, that you will bid your pretty page stand back a little. I
am still faint, and his perfumes overpower me."

Under the mask of the polite request Gonzaga detected the mocking,
contemptuous note, and it gave fuel to his anger.

"I am no page, fool," he answered, then clapping his hands together, he
raised his voice to shout--"Olá, Beltrame! To me!"

"What would you do?" cried the lady, rising to confront him.

"Carry this ruffian in bonds to Urbino, as is my duty."

"Sir, you may wound your pretty hands in grasping me," replied the Count,
in chill indifference.

"Ah! You would threaten me with violence, vassal?" cried the other,
retreating some paces farther as he spoke. Beltrame!" he called again.
"Are you never coming? A voice answered him from the thicket, and with a
clank of steel a half-dozen men flung themselves into the glade.

"Your orders, sir?" craved he that led them, his eyes wandering to the
still prostrate Count.

"Tie me up this dog," Gonzaga bade him. But before the fellow could move
a foot to carry out the order Valentina barred his way.

"You shall not," she commanded, and so transformed was she from the
ingenuous child that lately had talked with him, that Francesco gaped in
pure astonishment. "In my uncle's name, I bid you leave this gentleman
where he lies. He is a wounded knight whom I have been pleased to tend--
a matter which seems to have aroused Messer Gonzaga's anger against him."

Beltrame paused, and looked from Valentina to Gonzaga, undecided.

"Madonna," said Gonzaga, with assumed humility, "your word is law with
us. But I would have you consider that, what I bid Beltrame do is in the
interest of his Highness, whose territory is infested by these
vagabonding robbers. It is a fact that may not have reached you in your
convent retreat, no more than has sufficient knowledge reached you yet--
in your incomparable innocence--to distinguish between rogues and honest
men. Beltrame, do my bidding."

Valentina's foot tapped the ground impatiently, and into her eyes there
came a look of anger that heightened her likeness to her martial uncle.
But Peppe it was who spoke.

"For all that there seem to be fools enough, already, meddling in this
business," he said, in tones of mock lament, "permit that I join their
number, Ser Romeo, and listen to my counsel."

"Out, fool," cried Gonzaga, cutting at him with his riding-switch, "we
need not your capers."

"No, but you need my wisdom," retorted Ser Peppe, as he leapt beyond
Gonzaga's reach. "Hear me, Beltrame! For all that we do not doubt
Messer Gonzaga's keen discrimination in judging 'twixt a rogue and an
honest man, I do promise you, as surely as though I were Fate herself,
that if you obey him now and tie up that gentleman, you will yourself be
tied up for it, later on, in a yet uglier fashion."

Beltrame looked alarmed, Gonzaga incredulous. Valentina thanked Peppe
with her eyes, thinking that he had but hit upon a subterfuge to serve
her wishes, whilst Francesco, who had now risen to his feet, looked on
with an amused smile as though the matter concerned him nowise
personally. And then, in the very crux of the situation, Fanfulla and
Fra Domenico appeared upon the scene.

"You are, well-returned, Fanfulla!" the Count called to him, "This pretty
gentleman would have had me bound."

"Have you bound?" echoed Fanfulla, in angry horror. "Upon what grounds,
pray?" he demanded, turning fiercely upon Gonzaga.

Impressed by Fanfulla's lordly air, Romeo Gonzaga grew amazingly humble
for one that but a moment back had been so overbearing.

"It would seem, sir, that my judgment was at fault in esteeming his
condition," he excused himself.

"Your judgment?" returned the hot Fanfulla. "And who bade you judge? Go
cut your milk-teeth, boy, and meddle not with men if you would live to be
a man yourself some day."

Valentina smiled, Peppe laughed outright, whilst even Beltrame and his
followers grinned, all of which added not a little to Gonzaga's choler.
But scant though his wisdom might be, it was yet enough to dictate

"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.



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

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

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

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.



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 merry­making 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

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

"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

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

Readily accepting this advice, Gian Maria went in quest of Guidobaldo,
and laid before him his proposals, together with the news which had
arrived and which was the cause of the haste he now manifested.
Guidobaldo listened gravely. In its way the news affected him as well,
for he feared the might of Caesar Borgia as much as any man in Italy, and
he was, by virtue of it, the readier to hasten forward an alliance which
should bring another of the neighbouring states into the powerful
coalition he was forming.

"It shall be as you wish," answered him the gracious Lord of Urbino, "and
the betrothal shall be proclaimed to-day, so that you can hear news of it
to Valentino's messenger. When you have heard this envoy, deliver him an
answer of such defiance or such caution as you please. Then return in
ten days' time to Urbino, and all shall be ready for the nuptials. But,
first of all, go you and tell Monna 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 più bella assai che 'l sole...

came the words of Petrarch, and he heard them still, though muffled, for
a moment or two after the boy had gone. Then it ceased abruptly, and a
pause followed, at the end of which the page returned. Raising the
portière of blue and gold, he invited Gian Maria to 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

In that choice apartment of hers the Duke found Valentina surrounded by
her ladies, Peppe the fool, a couple of pages, and a half-dozen gentlemen
of her uncle's court. One of these--that same Gonzaga who had escorted
her from the Convent of Santa Sofia--most splendidly arrayed in white
taby, his vest and doublet rich with gold, sat upon a low stool, idly
fingering the lute in his lap, from which Gian Maria inferred that his
had been the voice that had reached him in the ante-chamber.

At the Duke's advent they all rose saving Valentina and received him with
a ceremony that somewhat chilled his ardour. He advanced; then halted
clumsily, and in a clumsy manner framed a request that he might speak
with her alone. In a tired, long-suffering way she dismissed that court
of hers, and Gian Maria stood waiting until the last of them had passed
out through the tall windows that abutted on to a delightful terrace,
where, in the midst of a green square, a marble fountain flashed and
glimmered in the sunlight.

"Lady," he said, when they were at last alone, "I have news from Babbiano
that demands my instant return." And he approached her by another step.

In truth he was a dull-witted fellow or else too blinded by fatuity to
see and interpret aright the sudden sparkle in her eye, the sudden,
unmistakable expression of relief that spread itself upon her face.

"My lord," she answered, in a low, collected voice, "we shall grieve at
your departure."

Fool of a Duke that he was! Blind, crass and most fatuous of wooers!
Had he been bred in courts and his ears attuned to words that meant
nothing, that were but the empty echoes of what should have been meant;
was he so new to courtesies in which the heart had no share, that those
words of Valentina's must bring him down upon his knees beside her, to
take her dainty fingers in his fat hands, and to become transformed into
a boorish lover of the most outrageous type?

"Shall you so?" he lisped, his glance growing mighty amorous. "Shall you
indeed grieve?"

She rose abruptly to her feet.

"I beg that your Highness will rise," she enjoined him coldly, a coldness
which changed swiftly to alarm as her endeavours to release her hand
proved vain. For despite her struggles he held on stoutly. This was
mere coyness, he assured himself, mere maidenly artifice which he must
bear with until he had overcome it for all time.

"My lord, I implore you!" she continued. "Bethink you of where you are--
of who you are."

"Here will I stay until the crack of doom," he answered, with an odd
mixture of humour, ardour and ferocity, "unless you consent to listen to

"I am ready to listen, my lord," she answered, without veiling a
repugnance that he lacked the wit to see. "But it is not necessary that
you should hold my hand, nor fitting that you should kneel."

"Not fitting?" he exclaimed. "Lady, you do not apprehend me rightly. Is
it not fitting that all of us--be we princes or vassals--shall kneel

"At your prayers, my lord, yes, most fitting."

"And is not a man at his prayers when he woos? What fitter shrine in all
the world than his mistress's feet?"

"Release me," she commanded, still struggling. "Your Highness grows
tiresome and ridiculous."


His great, sensual mouth fell open. His white cheeks grew mottled, and
his little eyes looked up with a mighty evil gleam in their cruel blue.
A moment he stayed so, then he rose up. He released her hands as she had
bidden him, but he clutched her arms instead, which was yet worse.

"Valentina," he said, in a voice that was far from steady, "why do you
use me thus unkindly?"

"But I do not," she protested wearily, drawing back with a shudder from
the white face that was so near her own, inspiring her with a loathing
she could not repress. "I would not have your Highness look foolish, and
you cannot conceive how----"

"Can you conceive how deeply, how passionately I love you?" he broke in,
his grasp tightening.

"My lord, you are hurting me!"

"And are you not hurting me?" he snarled. "What is a pinched arm when
compared with such wounds as your eyes are dealing me? Are you not----"

She had twisted from his grasp, and in a bound she had reached the
window-door through which her attendants had passed.

"Valentina!" he cried, as he sprang after her, and it was more like the
growl of a beast than the cry of a lover. He caught her, and with scant
ceremony he dragged her back into the room.

At this, her latent loathing, contempt and indignation rose up in arms.
Never had she heard tell of a woman of her rank being used in this
fashion. She abhorred him, yet she had spared him the humiliation of
hearing it from her lips, intending to fight for her liberty with her
uncle. But now, since he handled her as though she had been a serving-
wench; since he appeared to know nothing of the deference due to her,
nothing of the delicacies of people well-born and well-bred, she would
endure his odious love-making no further. Since he elected to pursue his
wooing like a clown, the high-spirited daughter of Urbino promised
herself that in like fashion would she deal with him.

Swinging herself free from his grasp a second time, she caught him a
stinging buffet on the ducal cheek which--so greatly did it take him by
surprise--all but sent him sprawling.

"Madonna!" he panted. "This indignity to me!"

"And what indignities have not I suffered at your hands?" she retorted,
with a fierceness of glance before which he recoiled. And as she now
towered before him, a beautiful embodiment of wrath, he knew not whether
he loved her more than he feared her, yet the desire to possess her and
to tame her was strong within him.

"Am I a baggage of your camps," she questioned furiously, "to be so
handled by you? Do you forget that I am the niece of Guidobaldo, a lady
of the house of Rovere, and that from my cradle I have known naught but
the respect of all men, be they born never so high? That to such by my
birth I have the right? Must I tell you in plain words, sir, that though
born to a throne, your manners are those of a groom? And must I tell
you, ere you will realise it, that no man to whom with my own lips I have
not given the right, shall set hands upon me as you have done?"

Her eyes flashed, her voice rose, and higher raged the storm; and Gian
Maria was so tossed and shattered by it that he could but humbly sue for

"What shall it signify that I am a Duke," he pleaded timidly, "since I am
become a lover? What is a Duke then? He is but a man, and as the
meanest of his subjects his love must take expression. For what does
love know of rank?"

She was moving towards the window again, and for all that he dared not a
second time arrest her by force, he sought by words to do so.

"Madonna," he exclaimed, "I implore you to hear me. In another hour I
shall be in the saddle, on my way to Babbiano."

"That, sir," she answered him, "is the best news I have heard since your
coming." And without waiting for his reply, she stepped through the open
window on to the terrace.

For a second he hesitated, a sense of angry humiliation oppressing his
wits. Then he started to follow her; but as he reached the window the
little crook-backed figure of Ser Peppe stood suddenly before him with a
tinkle of bells, and a mocking grin illumining his face.

"Out of the way, fool," growled the angry Duke. But the odd figure in
its motley of red and black continued where it stood.

"If it is Madonna Valentina you seek," said he, "behold her yonder."

And Gian Maria, following the indication of Peppe's lean finger, saw that
she had rejoined her ladies and that thus his opportunity of speaking
with her was at an end. He turned his shoulder upon the jester, and
moved ponderously towards the door by which he had originally entered the
room. It had been well for Ser Peppe had he let him go. But the fool,
who loved his mistress dearly, and had many of the instincts of the
faithful dog, loving where she loved and hating where she hated, could
not repress the desire to send a gibe after the retreating figure, and
inflict another wound in that much wounded spirit.

"You find it a hard road to Madonna's heart, Magnificent," he called
after him. "Where your wisdom is blind be aided by the keen eyes of

The Duke stood still. A man more dignified would have left that
treacherous tongue unheeded. But Dignity and Gian Maria were strangers.
He turned, and eyed the figure that now followed him into the room.

"You have knowledge to sell," he guessed contemptuously.

"Knowledge I have--a vast store--but none for sale, Lord Duke. Such as
imports you I will bestow if you ask me, for no more than the joy of
beholding you smile."

"Say on," the Duke bade him, without relaxing the grimness that tightened
his flabby face.

Peppe bowed.

"It were an easy thing, most High and Mighty, to win the love of Madonna
if----" He paused dramatically.

"Yes, yes. E dunque! If----?"

"If you had the noble countenance, the splendid height, the shapely
limbs, the courtly speech and princely manner of one I wot of."

"Are you deriding me?" the Duke questioned, unbelieving.

"Ah, no, Highness! I do but tell you how it were possible that my lady
might come to love you. Had you those glorious attributes of him I speak
of, and of whom she dreams, it might be easy. But since God fashioned
you such as you are--gross of countenance, fat and stunted of shape,
boorish of----"

With a roar the infuriated Duke was upon him. But the fool, as nimble of
legs as he was of tongue, eluded the vicious grasp of those fat hands,
and leaping through the window, ran to the shelter of his mistress's



Well indeed had it been for Ser Peppe had he restrained his malicious
mood and curbed the mocking speech that had been as vinegar to Gian
Maria's wounds. For when Gian Maria was sore he was wont to be
vindictive, and on the present occasion he was something even more.

There abode with him the memory of the fool's words, and the suggestion
that in the heart of Valentina was framed the image of some other man.
Now, loving her, in his own coarse way, and as he understood love, the
rejected Duke waxed furiously jealous of this other at whose existence
Peppe had hinted. This unknown stood in his path to Valentina, and to
clear that path it suggested itself to Gian Maria that the simplest
method was to remove the obstacle. But first he must discover it, and to
this he thought, with a grim smile, the fool might--willy-nilly--help

He returned to his own apartments, and whilst the preparations for his
departure were toward, he bade Alvaro summon Martin Armstadt--the captain
of his guard. To the latter his orders were short and secret.

"Take four men," he bade him, "and remain in Urbino after I am gone.
Discover the haunts of Peppe the fool. Seize him, and bring him after
me. See that you do it diligently, and let no suspicion of your task

The bravo--he was little better, for all that he commanded the guards of
the Duke of Babbiano--bowed, and answered in his foreign, guttural voice

Book of the day: Love-at-Arms by Raphael Sabatini - Full Text Free Book (Part 1/5)