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Love-at-Arms by Raphael Sabatini

Part 2 out of 5

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that his Highness should be obeyed.

Thereafter Gian Maria made shift to depart. He took his leave of
Guidobaldo, promising to return within a few days for the nuptials, and
leaving an impression upon the mind of his host that his interview with
Valentina had been very different from the actual.

It was from Valentina herself that Guidobaldo was to learn, after Gian
Maria's departure, the true nature of that interview, and what had passed
between his niece and his guest. She sought him out in his closet,
whither he had repaired, driven thither by the demon of gout that already
inhabited his body, and was wont to urge him at times to isolate himself
from his court. She found him reclining upon a couch, seeking
distraction in a volume of the prose works of Piccinino. He was a
handsome man, of excellent shape, scarce thirty years of age. His face
was pale, and there were dark circles round his eyes, and lines of pain
about his strong mouth.

He sat up at her advent, and setting his book upon the table beside him,
he listened to her angry complaints.

At first, the courtly Montefeltro inclined to anger upon learning of the
roughness with which Gian Maria had borne himself. But presently he

"When all is said, I see in this no great cause for indignation," he
assured her. "I acknowledge that it may lack the formality that should
attend the addresses of a man in the Duke's position to a lady in yours.
But since he is to wed you, and that soon, why be angered at that he
seeks to pay his court like any other man?"

"I have talked in vain, then," she answered petulantly, "and I am
misunderstood. I do not intend to wed this ducal clod you have chosen to
be my husband."

Guidobaldo stared at her with brows raised, and wonder in his fine eyes.
Then he shrugged his shoulders a trifle wearily. This handsome and well-
beloved Guidobaldo was very much a prince, so schooled to princely ways
as to sometimes forget that he was a man.

"We forgive much to the impetuousness of youth," said he, very coldly.
"But there are bounds to the endurance of every one of us. As your uncle
and your prince, I claim a double duty from you, and you owe a double
allegiance to my wishes. By my twofold authority I have commanded you to
wed with Gian Maria."

The princess in her was all forgotten, and it was just the woman who
answered him, in a voice of protest:

"But, Highness, I do not love him."

A shade of impatience crossed his lofty face.

"I do not remember," he made answer wearily, "that I loved your aunt.
Yet we were wed, and through habit came to love each other and to be
happy together."

"I can understand that Monna Elizabetta should have come to love you,"
she returned. "You are not as Gian Maria. You were not fat and ugly,
stupid and cruel, as is he."

It was an appeal that might have won its way to a man's heart through the
ever-ready channel of his vanity. But it did not so with Guidobaldo. He
only shook his head.

"The matter is not one that I will argue. It were unworthy in us both.
Princes, my child, are not as ordinary folk."

"In what are they different?" she flashed back at him. "Do they not
hunger and thirst as ordinary folk? Are they not subject to the same
ills; do they not experience the same joys? Are they not born, and do
they not die, just as ordinary folk? In what, then, lies this difference
that forbids them to mate as ordinary folk?"

Guidobaldo tossed his arms to Heaven, his eyes full of a consternation
that clearly defied utterance. The violence of his gesture drew a gasp
of pain from him. At last, when he had mastered it:

"They are different," said he, "in that their lives are not their own to
dispose of as they will. They belong to the State which they were born
to govern, and in nothing else does this become of so much importance as
in their mating. It behoves them to contract such alliances as shall
redound to the advantage of their people." A toss of her auburn head was
Valentina's interpolation, but her uncle continued relentlessly in his
cold, formal tones--such tones as those in which he might have addressed
an assembly of his captains:

"In the present instance we are threatened--Babbiano and Urbino--by a
common foe. And whilst divided, neither of us could withstand him,
united, we shall combine to his overthrow. Therefore does this alliance
become necessary--imperative."

I do not apprehend the necessity," she answered, in a voice that breathed
defiance. "If such an alliance as you speak of is desirable, why may it
not be made a purely political one--such a one, for instance, as now
binds Perugia and Camerino to you? What need to bring me into question?"

"A little knowledge of history would afford you an answer. Such
political alliances are daily made, and daily broken when more profit
offers in another quarter. But cemented by marriage, the tie, whilst
continuing political, becomes also one of blood. In the case of Urbino
and Babbiano it enters also into consideration that I have no son. It
might well be, Valentina," he pursued, with a calculating coldness that
revolted her, "that a son of yours would yet more strongly link the two
duchies. In time both might become united under him into one great power
that might vie successfully with any in Italy. Now leave me, child. As
you see, I am suffering, and when it is thus with me, and this evil
tyrant has me in its clutches, I prefer to be alone."

There was a pause, and whilst his eyes were upon hers, hers were upon the
ground in avoidance of his glance. A frown marred her white brow, her
lips were set and her hands clenched. Pity for his physical ills fought
a while with pity for her own mental torment. At last she threw back her
beautiful head, and the manner of that action was instinct with

"It grieves me to harass your Highness in such a season," she assured
him, "but I must beg your indulgence. These things may be as you say.
Your plans may be the noblest that were ever conceived, since to their
consummation would be entailed the sacrifice of your own flesh and blood
--in the person of your niece. But I will have no part in them. It may
be that I lack a like nobility of soul; it may be that I am all unworthy
of the high station to which I was born, through no fault of my own. And
so, my lord," she ended, her voice, her face, her gesture, all imparting
an irrevocable finality to her words, "I will not wed this Duke of
Babbiano--no, not to cement alliances with a hundred duchies."

"Valentina!" he exclaimed, roused out of his wonted calm. "Do you forget
that you are my niece?"

"Since you appear to have forgotten it."

"These woman's whims----" he began, when she interrupted him.

"Perhaps they will serve to remind you that I am a woman, and perhaps if
you remember that, you may consider how very natural it is that, being a
woman, I should refuse to wed for--for political ends."

"To your chamber," he commanded, now thoroughly aroused. "And on your
knees beg Heaven's grace to help you to see your duty, since no words of
mine prevail."

"Oh, that the Duchess were returned from Mantua," she sighed. "The good
Monna Elizabetta might melt you to some pity."

"Monna Elizabetta is too dutiful herself to do aught but urge you to
dutifulness. There, child," he added, in a more wheedling tone, "set
aside this disobedient mood, which is unlike you and becomes you ill.
You shall be wed with a splendour and magnificence that will set every
princess in Italy green with envy. Your dowry is set at fifty thousand
ducats, and Giuliano della Rovere shall pronounce the benediction.
Already I have sent orders to Ferrara, to the incomparable Anichino, for
the majestate girdle; I will send to Venice for gold leaf and----"

"But do you not heed me that I will not wed?" she broke in with
passionate calm, her face white, her bosom heaving.

He rose, leaning heavily upon a gold-headed cane, and looked at her a
moment without speaking, his brows contracted. Then:

"Your betrothal to Gian Maria is proclaimed," he announced in a voice
cold with finality. "I have passed my word to the Duke, and your
marriage shall take place so soon as he returns. Now go. Such scenes as
these are wearisome to a sick man, and they are undignified."

"But, your Highness," she began, an imploring note now taking the place
that lately had been held by defiance.

"Go!" he blazed, stamping his foot, and then to save his dignity--for he
feared that she might still remain--he himself turned on his heel and
passed from the apartment.

Left to herself, she stood there a moment, allowed a sigh to escape her,
and brushed an angry tear from her brown eyes. Then, with a sudden
movement that seemed to imply suppression of her mood, she walked to the
door by which she entered, and left the chamber.

She went down the long gallery, whose walls glowed with the new frescoes
from the wonder-working brush of Andrea Mantegna; she crossed her ante-
chamber and gained the very room where some hours ago she had received
the insult of Gian Maria's odious advances. She passed through the now
empty room, and stepped out on to the terrace that overlooked the
paradise-like gardens of the Palace.

Close by the fountain stood a white marble seat, over which, earlier that
day, one of her women had thrown a cloak of crimson velvet. There she
now sat herself to think out the monstrous situation that beset her. The
air was warm and balmy and heavy with the scent of flowers from the
garden below. The splashing of the fountain seemed to soothe her, and
for a little while her eyes were upon that gleaming water, which rose
high in a crystal column, then broke and fell, a shower of glittering
jewels, into the broad marble basin. Then, her eyes growing tired, they
strayed to the marble balustrade, where a peacock strode with overweening
dignity; they passed on to the gardens below, gay with early blossoms, in
their stately frames of tall, boxwood hedges, and flanked by myrtles and
tall cypresses standing gaunt and black against the deep saffron of the
vesper sky.

Saving the splashing of the fountain, and the occasional harsh scream of
the peacock, all was at peace, as if by contrast with the tumult that
raged in Valentina's soul. Then another sound broke the stillness--a
soft step, crunching the gravel of the walk. She turned, and behind her
stood the magnificent Gonzaga, a smile that at once reflected pleasure
and surprise upon his handsome face.

"Alone, Madonna?" he said, in accents of mild wonder, his fingers softly
stirring the strings of the lute he carried, and without which he seldom
appeared about the Court.

"As you see," she answered, and her tone was the tone of one whose
thoughts are taken up with other things.

Her glance moved away from him again, and in a moment it seemed as if she
had forgotten his presence, so absorbed grew the expression of her face.

But Gonzaga was not easily discouraged. Patience was the one virtue that
Valentina more than any woman--and there had been many in his young life
--had inculcated into a soul that in the main was anything but virtuous.
He came a step nearer, and leant lightly against the edge of her seat,
his shapely legs crossed, his graceful body inclining ever so slightly
towards her.

"You are pensive, Madonna," he murmured, in his rich, caressing voice.

"Why then," she reproved him, but in a mild tone, "do you intrude upon my

"Because they seem sad thoughts, Madonna." he answered, glibly, "and I
were a poor friend did I not seek to rouse you out of them."

"You are that, Gonzaga?" she questioned, without looking at him. "You
are my friend?"

He seemed to quiver and then draw himself upright, whilst across his face
there swept a shade of something that may have been good or bad or partly
both. Then he leant down until his head came very near her own.

"Your friend?" quoth he. "Ah, more than your friend. Count me your very
slave, Madonna."

She looked at him now, and in his countenance she saw a reflection of the
ardour that had spoken in his voice. In his eyes there was a glance of
burning intensity. She drew away from him, and at first he accounted
himself repulsed, but pointing to the space she had left:

"Sit here beside me, Gonzaga," she said quietly, and he, scarce crediting
his own good fortune that so much favour should be showered upon him,
obeyed her in a half-timid fashion that was at odd variance with his late
bold words.

He laughed lightly, perhaps to cover the embarrassment that beset him,
and dropping his jewelled cap, he flung one white-cased leg over the
other and took his lute in his lap, his fingers again wandering to the

"I have a new song, Madonna," he announced, with a gaiety that was
obviously forced. "It is in ottava rima, a faint echo of the immortal
Niccolo Correggio, composed in honour of one whose description is beyond
the flight of human song."

"Yet you sing of her?"

"It is no better than an acknowledgment of the impossibility to sing of
her. Thus----" And striking a chord or two, he began, a mezza voce:

"Quando sorriderán' in ciel
Gli occhi tuoi ai santi--"

She laid a hand upon his arm to stay him.

"Not now, Gonzaga," she begged, "I am in no humour for your song, sweet
though I doubt not that it be."

A shade of disappointment and ruffled vanity crossed his face. Women had
been wont to listen greedily to his strambotti, enthralled by the cunning
of the words and the seductive sweetness of his voice.

"Ah, never look so glum," she cried, smiling now at his crestfallen air.
"If I have not hearkened now, I will again. Forgive me, good Gonzaga,"
she begged him, with a sweetness no man could have resisted. And then a
sigh fluttered from her lips; a sound that was like a sob came after it,
and her hand closed upon his arm.

"They are breaking my heart, my friend. Oh, that you had left me at
peace in the Convent of Santa Sofia!"

He turned to her, all solicitude and gentleness, to inquire the reason of
her outburst.

"It is this odious alliance into which they seek to force me with that
man from Babbiano. I have told Guidobaldo that I will not wed this Duke.
But as profitably might I tell Fate that I will not die. The one is as
unheeding as the other."

Gonzaga sighed profoundly, in sympathy, but said nothing.

Here was a grief to which he could not minister, a grievance that he
could do nothing to remove. She turned from him with a gesture of

"You sigh," she exclaimed, "and you bewail the cruelty of the fate in
store for me. But you can do nothing for me. You are all words,
Gonzaga. You can call yourself more than my friend--my very slave. Yet,
when I need your help, what do you offer me? A sigh!"

"Madonna, you are unjust," he was quick to answer, with some heat. "I
did not dream--I did not dare to dream--that it was my help you sought.
My sympathy, I believed, was all that you invited, and so, lest I should
seem presumptuous, it was all I offered. But if my help you need; if you
seek a means to evade this alliance that you rightly describe as odious,
such help as it lies in a man's power to render shall you have from me."

He spoke almost fiercely and with a certain grim confidence, for all that
as yet no plan had formed itself in his mind.

Indeed, had a course been clear to him, there had been perhaps less
confidence in his tone, for, after all, he was not by nature a man of
action, and his character was the very reverse of valiant. Yet so
excellent an actor was he as to deceive even himself by his acting, and
in this suggestion of some vague fine deeds that he would do, he felt
himself stirred by a sudden martial ardour, and capable of all. He was
stirred, too, by the passion with which Valentina's beauty filled him--a
passion that went nearer to making a man of him than Nature had succeeded
in doing.

That now, in the hour of her need, she should turn so readily to him for
assistance, he accepted as proof that she was not deaf to the voice of
this great love he bore her, but of which he never yet had dared to show
a sign. The passing jelousy that he had entertained for that wounded
knight they had met at Acquasparta was laid to rest by her present
attitude towards him, the knight, himself forgotten.

As for Valentina, she listened to his ready speech and earnest tone with
growing wonder both at him and at herself. Her own words had been little
more than a petulant outburst. Of actually finding a way to elude her
uncle's wishes she had no thought--unless it lay in carrying out that
threat of hers to take the veil. Now, however, that Gonzaga spoke so
bravely of doing what man could do to help her to evade that marriage,
the thought of active resistance took an inviting shape.

A timid hope--a hope that was afraid of being shattered before it grew to
any strength--peeped now from the wondering eyes she turned on her

"Is there a way, Gonzaga?" she asked, after a pause.

Now during that pause his mind had been very busy. Something of a poet,
he was blessed with wits of a certain quickness, and was a man of very
ready fancy. Like an inspiration an idea had come to him; out of this
had sprung another, and yet another, until a chain of events by which the
frustration of the schemes of Babbiano and Urbino might be accomplished,
was complete.

"I think," he said slowly, his eyes upon the ground, "that I know a way."

Her glance was now eager, her lip tremulous, and her face a little pale.
She leant towards him.

"Tell me," she besought him feverishly.

He set his lute on the seat beside him, and his eyes looked round in
apprehensive survey.

"Not here," he muttered. "There are too many ears in the Palace of
Urbino. Will it please you to walk in the gardens? I will tell you

They rose together, so ready was her assent. They looked at each other
for a second. Then, side by side, they passed down the wide marble steps
that led from the terrace to the box-flanked walks of the gardens. Here,
among the lengthening shadows, they paced in silence for a while, what
time Gonzaga sought for words in which to propound his plan. At length,
grown impatient, Valentina urged him with a question.

"What I counsel, Madonna," he answered her, "is open defiance."

"Such a course I am already pursuing. But whither will it lead me?"

"I do not mean the mere defiance of words--mere protestations that you
will not wed Gian Maria. Listen, Madonna! The Castle of Roccaleone is
your property. It is perhaps the stoutest fortress in all Italy, to-day.
Lightly garrisoned and well-provisioned it might withstand a year's

She turned to him, having guessed already the proposal in his mind, and
for all that at first her eyes looked startled, yet presently they
kindled to a light of daring that augured well for a very stout
adventure. It was a wildly romantic notion, this of Gonzaga's, worthy of
a poet's perfervid brain, and yet it attracted her by its unprecedented

"Could it be done?" she wondered, her eyes sparkling at the anticipation
of such a deed.

"It could, indeed it could," he answered, with an eagerness no whit less
than her own. "Immure yourself in Roccaleone, and thence hurl defiance
at Urbino and Babbiano, refusing to surrender until they grant your
terms--that you are to marry as you list."

"And you will help me in this?" she questioned, her mind--in its
innocence--inclining more and more to the mad project.

"With all my strength and wit," he answered, readily and gallantly. "I
will so victual the place that it shall be able to stand siege for a
whole year, should the need arise, and I will find you the men to arm it
--a score will, I should think, be ample for our needs, since it is
mainly upon the natural strength of the place that we rely."

"And then," said she, "I shall need a captain."

Gonzaga made her a low bow.

"If you will honour me with the office, Madonna, I shall serve you
loyally whilst I have life."

A smile quivered for a second on her lips, but was gone ere the courtier
had straightened himself from his bow, for far was it from her wishes to
wound his spirit. But the notion of this scented fop in the role of
captain, ruling a handful of rough mercenaries, and directing the
operations for the resistance of an assiduous siege, touched her with its
ludicrous note. Yet, if she refused him this, it was more than likely he
would deem himself offended, and refuse to advance their plans. It
crossed her mind--in the full confidence of youth--that if he should fail
her when the hour of action came, she was of stout enough heart to aid
herself. And so she consented, whereat again he bowed, this time in
gratitude. And then a sudden thought occurred to her, and with it came

"But for all this, Gonzaga--for the men and the victualling--money will
be needed."

"If you will let my friendship be proven also in that----" he began.

But she interrupted him, struck suddenly with a solution to the riddle.

"No, no!" she exclaimed. His face fell a little. He had hoped to place
her in his debt in every possible way, yet here was one in which she
raised a barrier. Upon her head she wore a fret of gold, so richly laced
with pearls as to be worth a prince's ransom. This she now made haste to
unfasten with fingers that excitement set a-tremble. "There!" she cried,
holding it out to him. "Turn that to money, my friend. It should yield
you ducats enough for this enterprise."

It next occurred to her that she could not go alone into that castle with
just Gonzaga and the men he was about to enrol. His answer came with a
promptness that showed he had considered, also, that.

"By no means," he answered her. "When the time comes you must select
such of your ladies--say three or four--as appear suitable and have your
trust. You may take a priest as well, a page or two, and a few

Thus, in the gloaming, amid the shadows of that old Italian garden, was
the plot laid by which Valentina was to escape alliance with his Highness
of Babbiano. But there was more than that in it, although that was all
that Valentina saw. It was, too, a plot by which she might become the
wife of Messer Romeo Gonzaga.

He was an exiled member of that famous Mantua family, which has bred some
scoundrels and one saint. With the money which, at parting, a doting
mother had bestowed upon him, he was cutting a brave figure at the Urbino
court, where he was tolerated by virtue of his kinship with Guidobaldo's
Duchess, Monna Elizabetta. But his means were running low, and it
behoved him to turn his attention to such quarters as might yield him
profit. Being poor-spirited, and--since his tastes had not inclined that
way--untrained in arms, it would have been futile for him to have sought
the career common to adventurers of his age. Yet an adventurer at heart
he was, and since the fields of Mars were little suited to his nature, he
had long pondered upon the possibilities afforded him by the lists of
Cupid. Guidobaldo--purely out of consideration for Monna Elizabetta--had
shown him a high degree of favour, and upon this he had been vain enough
to found great hopes--for Guidobaldo had two nieces. High had these
hopes run when he was chosen to escort the lovely Valentina della Rovere
from the Convent of Santa Sofia to her uncle's court. But of late they
had withered, since he had learnt what were her uncle's plans for this
lady's future. And now, by her own action, and by the plot into which
she had entered with him, they rose once more.

To thwart Guidobaldo might prove a dangerous thing, and his life might
pay the forfeit if his schemes miscarried--clement and merciful though
Guidobaldo was. But if they succeeded, and if by love or by force he
could bring Valentina to wed him, he was tolerably confident that
Guidobaldo, seeing matters had gone too far--since Gian Maria would
certainly refuse to wed Gonzaga's widow--would let them be. To this end
no plan could be more propitious than that into which he had lured her.
Guidobaldo might besiege them in Roccaleone and might eventually reduce
them by force of arms--a circumstance, however, which, despite his words,
he deemed extremely remote. But if only he could wed Valentina before
they capitulated, he thought that he would have little cause to fear any
consequences of Guidobaldo's wrath. After all, in so far as birth and
family were concerned, Romeo Gonzaga was nowise the inferior of his
Highness of Urbino. Guidobaldo had yet another niece, and he might
cement with her the desired alliance with Babbiano.

Alone in the gardens of the Palace, Gonzaga paced after night had fallen,
and with his eyes to the stars that began to fleck the violet sky, he
smiled a smile of cunning gratification. He bethought him how well
advised had been his suggestion that they should take a priest to
Roccaleone. Unless his prophetic sense led him deeply into error, they
would find work for that priest before the castle was surrendered.



And so it befell that whilst by Guidobaldo's orders the preparations for
Valentina's nuptials went forward with feverish haste--whilst painters,
carvers, and artificers in gold and silver applied themselves to their
hurried tasks; whilst messengers raced to Venice for gold leaf and
ultramarine for the wedding-chests whilst the nuptial bed was being
brought from Rome and the chariot from Ferrara; whilst costly stuffs were
being collected, and the wedding-garments fashioned--the magnificent
Romeo Gonzaga was, on his side, as diligently contriving to render vain
all that toil of preparation.

On the evening of the third day of his conspiring he sat in the room
allotted to him in the Palace of Urbino, and matured his plans. And so
well pleased was he with his self-communion that, as he sat at his
window, there was a contented smile upon his lips.

He allowed his glance to stray adown the slopes of that arid waste of
rocks, to the River Metauro, winding its way to the sea, through fertile
plains, and gleaming here silver and yonder gold in the evening light.
Not quite so complacently would he have smiled had he deemed the
enterprise upon which he was engaging to be of that warlike character
which he had represented to Valentina. He did not want for cunning, nor
for judgment of the working of human minds, and he very reasonably opined
that once the Lady Valentina immured herself in Roccaleone and sent word
to her uncle that she would not wed Gian Maria, nor return to the Court
of Urbino until he passed her his ducal word that she should hear no more
of the union, the Duke would be the first to capitulate.

He contended that this might not happen at once--nor did he wish it to;
messages would pass, and Guidobaldo would seek by cajolery to win back
his niece. This she would resist, and, in the end her uncle would see
the impassable nature of the situation, and agree to her terms that it
might be ended. That it should come to arms, and that Guidobaldo should
move to besiege Roccaleone, he did not for a moment believe--for what
manner of ridicule would he not draw upon himself from the neighbouring
States? At the worst, even if a siege there was, it would never be
carried out with the rigour of ordinary warfare; there would be no
assaults, no bombarding; it would be a simple investment, with the object
of intercepting resources, so as to starve the garrison into submission--
for they would never dream of such victualling as Gonzaga was preparing.

Thus communed Gonzaga with himself, and the smile enlivening the corners
of his weak mouth grew more thoughtful. He dreamed great dreams that
evening; he had wondrous visions of a future princely power that should
come to be his own by virtue of this alliance that he was so skilfully
encompassing--a fool in a fool's paradise, with his folly for only

But for all that, his dreams were wondrous sweet to indulge and his
visions truly alluring to contemplate. There were plans to be formed and
means to be devised for the flight to Roccaleone. There were
calculations to be made; the estimating of victuals, arms, and men; and
once these calculations were complete, there were all these things to be
obtained. The victuals he had already provided for, whilst of arms he
had no need to think; Roccaleone should be well stocked with them. But
the finding of the men gave him some concern. He had decided to enrol a
score, which was surely the smallest number with which he could make a
fair show of being martially in earnest. But even though the number was
modest, where was he to find twenty fellows who reeked so little of their
lives as to embark upon such an enterprise--even if lured by generous
pay--and thereby incur the ducal displeasure of Guidobaido?

He dressed himself with sober rigour for once in his foppish life, and
descended, after night had fallen, to a tavern in a poor street behind
the Duomo, hoping that there, among the dregs of wine, he might find what
he required.

By great good fortune he chanced upon an old freebooting captain, who
once had been a meaner sort of condottiero, but who was sorely reduced by
bad fortune and bad wine.

The tavern was a dingy, cut-throat place, which the delicate Gonzaga had
not entered without a tremor, invoking the saints' protection, and
crossing himself ere he set foot across the threshold. Some pieces of
goat were being cooked on the embers, in a great fireplace at the end of
the room farthest from the door. Before this, Ser Luciano--the taverner
--squatted on his heels and fanned so diligently that a cloud of ashes
rose ceiling high and spread itself, together with the noisome smoke,
throughout the squalid chamber. A brass lamp swung from the ceiling, and
shone freely through that smoke, as shines the moon through an evening
mist. So foully stank the place that at first Gonzaga was moved to get
him thence. Only the reflection that nowhere in Urbino was he as likely
as here to find the thing he sought, impelled him to stifle his natural
squeamishness and remain. He slipped upon some grease, and barely saved
himself from measuring his length upon that filthy floor, a matter which
provoked a malicious guffaw from a tattered giant who watched with
interest his mincing advent.

Perspiring, and with nerves unstrung, the courtier picked his way to a
table by the wall, and seated himself upon the coarse deal bench before
it, praying that he might be left its sole occupant.

On the opposite wall hung a blackened crucifix and a small holy-water
stoup that had been dry for a generation, and was now a receptacle for
dust and a withered sprig of rosemary. Immediately beneath this--in the
company of a couple of tatterdemalions worthy of him--sat the giant who
had mocked his escape from falling, and as Gonzaga took his seat he heard
the fellow's voice, guttural, bottle-thickened and contentious.

"And this wine, Luciano? Sangue della Madonna! Will you bring it before
dropping dead, pig?"

Gonzaga shuddered and would have crossed himself again for protection
against what seemed a very devil incarnate, but that the ruffian's blood-
shot eye was set upon him in a stony stare.

"I come, cavaliere, I come," cried the timid host, leaping to his feet,
and leaving the goat to burn while he ministered to the giant's
unquenchable thirst.

The title caused Gonzaga to start, and he bent his eyes again on the
man's face. He found it villainous of expression, inflamed and blotched;
the hair hung matted about a bullet head, and the eyes glared fiercely
from either side of a pendulous nose. Of the knightly rank by which the
taverner addressed him the fellow bore no outward signs. Arms he
carried, it is true; a sword and dagger at his belt, whilst beside him on
the table stood a rusty steel-cap. But these warlike tools served only
to give him the appearance of a roving masnadiero or a cut-throat for
hire. Presently abandoning the comtemplation of Gonzaga he turned to his
companions, and across to the listener floated a coarse and boasting tale
of a plunderous warfare in Sicily ten years agone. Gonzaga became
excited. It seemed indeed as if this were man who might be useful to
him. He made pretence to sip the wine Luciano had brought him, and
listened avidly to that swashbuckling story, from which it appeared that
this knave had once been better circumstanced and something of a leader.
Intently he listened, and wondered whether such men as he boasted he had
led in that campaign were still to be found and could be brought

At the end of perhaps a half-hour the two companions of that thirsty
giant rose and took their leave of him. They cast a passing glance upon
Gonzaga, and were gone.

A little while he hesitated. The ruffian seemed to have lapsed into a
reverie, or else he slept with open eyes. Calling up his courage the
gallant rose at last and moved across the room. All unversed in tavern
ways was the magnificent Gonzaga, and he who at court, in ballroom or in
antechamber, was a very mirror of all the graces of a courtier, felt
awkward here and ill at ease.

At length, summoning his wits to his aid:

"Good sir," said he, with some timidity, "will you do me the honour to
share a flagon with me?

The ruffian's eye, which but a moment back had looked vacuous and
melancholy, now quickened until it seemed ablaze. He raised his
bloodshot orbs and boldly encountered Gonzaga's uneasy glance. His lips
fell apart with an anticipatory smack, his back stiffened, and his head
was raised until his chin took on so haughty a tilt that Gonzaga feared
his proffered hospitality was on the point of suffering a scornful

"Will I share a flagon?" gasped the fellow, as, being the sinner that he
was and knew himself to be, he might have gasped: "Will I go to Heaven?"
"Will I--will I----?" He paused, and pursed his lips. His eyebrows were
puckered and his expression grew mighty cunning as again he took stock of
this pretty fellow who offered flagons of wine to down-at-heel
adventurers like himself. He had all but asked what was to be required
of him in exchange for this, when suddenly he bethought him--with the
knavish philosophy adversity had taught him--that were he told for what
it was intended that the wine should bribe him, and did the business suit
him not, he should, in the confession of it, lose the wine; whilst did he
but hold his peace until he had drunk, it would be his thereafter to
please himself about the business when it came to be proposed.

He composed his rugged features into the rude semblance of a smile.

"Sweet young sir," he murmured, "sweet, gentle and most illustrious lord,
I would share a hogshead with such a nobleman as you."

"I am to take it that you will drink?" quoth Gonzaga, who had scarce
known what to make of the man's last words.

"Body of Bacchus! Yes. I'll drink with you gentile signorino, until
your purse be empty or the world run dry." And he leered a mixture of
mockery and satisfaction.

Gonzaga, still half uncertain of his ground, called the taverner and bade
him bring a flagon of his best. While Luciano was about the fetching of
the wine, constraint sat upon that oddly discordant pair.

"It is a chill night," commented Gonzaga presently, seating himself
opposite his swashbuckler.

"Young sir, your wits have lost their edge. The night is warm.

"I said," spluttered Gonzaga, who was unused to contradiction from his
inferiors, and wished now to assert himself, "that the night is chill."

"You lied, then," returned the other, with a fresh leer, "for, as I
answered you, the night is warm. Piaghe di Cristo! I am an ill man to
contradict, my pretty gallant, and if I say the night is warm, warm it
shall be though there be snow on Mount Vesuvius."

The courtier turned pink at that, and but for the arrival of the taverner
with the wine, it is possible he might have done an unconscionable
rashness. At sight of the red liquor the fury died out of the ruffler's

"A long life, a long thirst, a long purse, and a short memory!" was his
toast, into whose cryptic meaning Gonzaga made no attempt to pry. As the
fellow set down his cup, and with his sleeve removed the moisture from
his unshorn mouth, "May I not learn," he inquired, "whose hospitality I
have the honour of enjoying?"

"Heard you ever of Romeo Gonzaga?"

"Of Gonzaga, yes; though of Romeo Gonzaga never. Are you he?"

Gonzaga bowed his head.

"A noble family yours," returned the swashbuckler, in a tone that implied
his own to be as good. "Let me name myself to you. I am Ercole
Fortemani," he said, with the proud air of one who announced himself an

"A formidable name," said Gonzaga, in accents of surprise, "and it bears
a noble sound."

The great fellow turned on him in a sudden anger.

"Why that astonishment?" he blazed. "I tell you my name is both noble
and formidable, and you shall find me as formidable as I am noble.
Diavolo! Seems it incredible?"

"Said I so?" protested Gonzaga.

"You had been dead by now if you had, Messer Gonzaga. But you thought
so, and I may take leave to show you how bold a man it needs to think so
without suffering."

Ruffled as a turkey-cock, wounded in his pride and in his vanity, Ercole
hastened to enlighten Gonzaga on his personality.

"Learn, sir," he announced, "that I am Captain Ercole Fortemani. I held
that rank in the army of the Pope. I have served the Pisans and the
noble Baglioni of Perugia with honour and distinction. I have commanded
a hundred lances of Gianinoni's famous free-company. I have fought with
the French against the Spaniards, and with the Spaniards against the
French, and I have served the Borgia, who is plotting against both. I
have trailed a pike in the emperor's following, and I have held the rank
of captain, too, in the army of the King of Naples. Now, young sir, you
have learned something of me, and if my name is not written in letters of
fire from one end of Italy to the other, it is--Body of God!--because the
hands that hired me to the work garnered the glory of my deeds."

"A noble record," said Gonzaga, who had credulously absorbed that
catalogue of lies, "a very noble record."

"Not so," the other contradicted, for the lust of contradiction that was
a part of him. "A great record, if you will, to commend me to hireling
service. But you may not call the service of a hireling noble."

"It is a matter we will not quarrel over," said Gonzaga soothingly. The
man's ferocity was terrific.

"Who says that we shall not?" he demanded. "Who will baulk me if I have
a mind to quarrel over it? Answer me!" and he half rose from his seat,
moved by the anger into which he was lashing himself. "But patience!" he
broke off, subsiding on a sudden. "I take it, it was not out of regard
for my fine eyes, nor drawn by the elegance of my apparel"--and he raised
a corner of his tattered cloak--" nor yet because you wish to throw a
main with me, that you have sought my acquaintance, and called for this
wine. You require service of me?"

"You have guessed it."

"A prodigious discernment, by the Host!" He seemed to incline rather
tediously to irony. Then his face grew stern, and he lowered his voice
until it was no more than a growling whisper. "Heed me, Messer Gonzaga.
If the service you require be the slitting of a gullet or some kindred
foul business, which my seeming neediness leads you to suppose me ripe
for, let me counsel you, as you value your own skin, to leave the service
unmentioned, and get you gone."

In hasty, frantic, fearful protest were Gonzaga's hands outspread.

"Sir, sir--I--I could not have thought it of you," he spluttered, with
warmth, much of which was genuine, for it rejoiced him to see some
scruples still shining in the foul heap of this man's rascally existence.
A knave whose knavery knew no limits would hardly have suited his ends.
"I do need a service, but it is no dark-corner work. It is a
considerable enterprise, and one in which, I think, you should prove the
very man I need."

"Let me know more," quoth Ercole grandiloquently.

"I need first your word that should the undertaking prove unsuited to
you, or beyond you, you will respect the matter, and keep it secret."

"Body of Satan! No corpse was ever half so dumb as I shall be."

"Excellent! Can you find me a score of stout fellows to form a bodyguard
and a garrison, who, in return for good quarters--perchance for some
weeks--and payment at four times the ordinary mercenaries' rate, will be
willing to take some risk, and chance even a brush with the Duke's

Ercole blew out his mottled cheeks until Gonzaga feared that he would
burst them.

"It's outlawry!" he roared, when he had found his voice. "Outlawry, or
I'm a fool."

"Why, yes," confessed Gonzaga. "It is outlaw matter of a kind. But the
risk is slender."

"Can you tell me no more?"

"I dare not."

Ercole emptied his wine-cup at a draught and splashed the dregs on to the
floor. Then, setting down the empty vessel, he sat steeped in thought
awhile. Growing impatient:

"Well," cried Gonzaga at last, "can you help me? Can you find the men?"

"If you were to tell me more of the nature of this service you require, I
might find a hundred with ease."

"As I have said--I need but a score."

Ercole looked mighty grave, and thoughtfully rubbed his long nose.

"It might be done," said he, after a pause. "But we shall have to look
for desperate knaves; men who are already under a ban, and to whom it
will matter little to have another item added to their indebtedness to
the law should they fall into its talons. How soon shall you require
this forlorn company?"

"By to-morrow night."

"I wonder----" mused Ercole. He was counting on his fingers, and
appeared to have lapsed into mental calculations. "I could get half-a-
score or a dozen within a couple of hours. But a score----" Again he
paused, and again he fell to thinking. At last, more briskly: "Let us
hear what pay you offer me, to thrust myself thus blindfolded into this
business of yours as leader of the company you require?" he asked

Gonzaga's face fell at that. Then he suddenly stiffened, and put on an
expression of haughtiness.

"It is my intent to lead this company myself," he loftily informed the

"Body of God!" gasped Ercole, upon whose mind intruded a grotesque
picture of such a company as he would assemble, being led by this mincing
carpet-knight. Then recollecting himself: "If that be so," said he, "you
had best, yourself, enrol it. Felicissima notte!" And he waved him a
farewell across the table.

Here was a poser for Gonzaga. How was he to go about such a business as
that? It was beyond his powers. Thus much he protested frankly.

"Now attend to me, young sir," was the other's answer. "The matter
stands thus: If I can repair to certain friends of mine with the
information that an affair is afoot, the particulars of which I may not
give them, but in which I am to lead them myself, sharing such risk as
there may be, I do not doubt but that by this time to-morrow I can have a
score of them enrolled--such is their confidence in Ercole Fortemani.
But if I take them to enter a service unknown, under a leader equally
unknown, the forming of such a company would be a mighty tedious matter."

This was an argument to the force of which Gonzaga could not remain
insensible. After a moment's consideration, he offered Ercole fifty gold
florins in earnest of good faith and the promise of pay, thereafter, at
the rate of twenty gold florins a month for as long as he should need his
services and Ercole, who in all his free-lancing days had never earned
the tenth of such a sum, was ready to fall upon this most noble
gentleman's neck, and weep for very joy and brotherly affection.

The matter being settled, Gonzaga produced a heavy bag which gave forth a
jangle mighty pleasant to the ears of Fortemani, and let it drop with a
chink upon the table.

"There are a hundred florins for the equipment of this company. I do not
wish to have a regiment of out-at-elbow tatterdemalions at my heels."
And his eye swept in an uncomplimentary manner over Ercole's apparel.
"See that you dress them fittingly."

"It shall be done, Magnificent," answered Ercole, with a show of such
respect as he had not hitherto manifested. "And arms?"

"Give them pikes and arquebuses, if you will; but nothing more. The
place we are bound for is well stocked with armour--but even that may not
be required."

"May not be required?" echoed the more and more astonished swashbuckler.
Were they to be paid on so lordly a scale, clothed and fed, to induce
them upon a business that might carry no fighting with it? Surely he had
never sold himself into a more likely or promising service, and that
night he dreamt in his sleep that he was become a gentleman's steward,
and that at his heels marched an endless company of lacqueys in
flamboyant liveries. On the morrow he awoke to the persuasion that at
last, of a truth, was his fortune made, and that hereafter there would be
no more pike­trailing for his war-worn old arms.

Conscientiously he set about enrolling the company, for, in his way, this
Ercole Fortemani was a conscientious man--boisterous and unruly if you
will; a rogue, in his way, with scant respect for property; not above
cogging dice or even filching a purse upon occasion when hard driven by
necessity--for all that he was gently born and had held honourable
employment; a drunkard by long habit, and a swaggering brawler upon the
merest provocation. But for all that, riotous and dishonest though he
might be in the general commerce of life, yet to the hand that hired him
he strove--not always successfully, perhaps, but, at least, always
earnestly--to be loyal.



Whilst the bustle of preparation went on briskly in Urbino, Gian Maria,
on his side, was rapidly disposing of affairs in Babbiano, that he might
return to the nuptials for which he was impatient. But he had chanced
upon a deeper tangle than he had reckoned with, and more to do than he
had looked for.

On the day of his departure from Urbino, he had ridden as far as Cagli,
and halted at the house of the noble Messer Valdicampo. This had been
placed at his disposal, and there he proposed to lie the night. They had
supped--the Duke, de' Alvari, Gismondo Santi, Messér Valdicampo, his wife
and two daughters, and a couple of friends, potential citizens of Cagli,
whom he had invited, that they might witness the honour that was being
done his house. It waxed late, and the torpor that ensues upon the
generous gratification of appetite was settling upon the company when
Armstadt--Gian Maria's Swiss captain--entered and approached his master
with the air of a man who is the bearer of news. He halted a pace or two
from the Duke's high-backed chair, and stood eyeing Gian Maria in stupid

"Well, fool?" growled the Duke, turning his head.

The Swiss approached another step. "They have brought him, Highness," he
said in a confidential whisper.

"Am I a wizard that I must read your thoughts?" hectored Gian Maria.
"Who has brought whom?"

Armstadt eyed the company in hesitation. Then, stepping close to the
Duke, he murmured in his ear:

"The men I left behind have brought the fool--Ser Peppe."

A sudden brightening of the eye showed that Gian Maria understood.
Without apology to the board, he turned and whispered back to his captain
to have the fellow taken to his chamber, there to await him. "Let a
couple of your knaves be in attendance, and do you come too, Martino."

Martin bowed, and withdrew, whereupon Gian Maria found grace to crave his
host's pardon, with the explanation that the man had brought him news he
had been expecting. Valdicampo, who for the honour of having a Duke
sleep beneath his roof would have stomached improprieties far more
flagrant, belittled the matter and dismissed it. And presently Gian
Maria rose with the announcement that he had far to journey on the
morrow, and so, with his host's good leave, would be abed.

Valdicampo, himself, then played the part of chamberlain, and taking up
one of the large candle branches, he lighted the Duke to his apartments.
He would have carried his good offices, and his candles, as far as Gian
Maria's very bed-chamber, but that in the ante-room his Highness, as
politely as might be, bade him set down the lights and leave him.

The Duke remained standing for a moment, deliberating whether to afford
knowledge to Alvari and Santi--who had followed him and stood awaiting
his commands--of what he was about to do. In the end he decided that he
would act alone and upon his sole discretion. So he dismissed them.

When they had gone and he was quite alone, he clapped his hands together,
and in answer to that summons the door of his bedroom opened, revealing
Martin Armstadt on the threshold.

"He is there?" inquired the Duke.

"Awaiting your Highness," answered the Swiss, and he held the door for
Gian Maria to enter.

The bedchamber apportioned the Duke in the Palazzo Valdicampo was a noble
and lofty room, in the midst of which loomed the great carved bed of
honour, with its upright pillars and funereal canopy.

On the overmantel stood two five-armed sconces with lighted tapers. Yet
Gian Maria did not seem to deem that there was light enough for such
purpose as he entertained, for he bade Martin fetch him the candelabra
that had been left behind. Then he turned his attention to the group
standing by the window, where the light from the overmantel fell full
upon it.

This consisted of three men, two being mercenaries of Armstadt's guard,
in corselet and morion, and the third, who stood captive between, the
unfortunate Ser Peppe. The fool's face was paler than its wont, whilst
the usual roguery had passed from his eyes and his mouth, fear having
taken possession of its room. He met the Duke's cruel glance with one of
alarm and piteous entreaty.

Having assured himself that Peppe had no weapons, and that his arms were
pinioned behind him, Gian Maria bade the two guards withdraw, but hold
themselves in readiness in the ante-chamber with Armstadt. Then he
turned to Peppe with a scowl on his low brow.

"You are not so merry as you were this morning, fool," he scoffed.

Peppino squirmed a little, but his nature, schooled by the long habit of
jest, prompted a bold whimsicality in his reply.

"The circumstances are scarcely as propitious--to me. Your Highness,
though, seems in excellent good­humour."

Gian Maria looked at him angrily a moment. He was a slow-witted man, and
he could devise no ready answer, no such cutting gibe as it would have
pleasured him to administer. He walked leisurely to the fire-place, and
leant his elbow on the overmantel.

"Your humour led you into saying some things for which I should be
merciful if I had you whipped."

"And, by the same reasoning, charitable if you had me hanged," returned
the fool dryly, a pale smile on his lips.

"Ah! You acknowledge it?" cried Gian Maria, never seeing the irony
intended. "But I am a very clement prince, fool."

"Proverbially clement," the jester protested, but he did not succeed this
time in excluding the sarcasm from his voice.

Gian Maria shot him a furious glance.

"Are you mocking me, animal? Keep your venomous tongue in bounds, or
I'll have you deprived of it."

Peppe's face turned grey at the threat, as well it might--for what should
such a one as he do in the world without a tongue?

Seeing him dumb and stricken, the Duke continued:

"Now, for all that you deserve a hanging for your insolence, I am willing
that you should come by no hurt so that you answer truthfully such
questions as I have for you."

Peppino's grotesque figure was doubled in a bow.

"I await your questions, glorious lord," he answered.

"You spoke----" the Duke hesitated a moment, writhing inwardly at the
memory of the exact words in which the fool had spoken. "You spoke this
morning of one whom the Lady Valentina had met."

The fear seemed to increase on the jester's face. "Yes," he answered, in
a choking voice.

"Where did she meet this knight you spoke of, and in such wondrous words
of praise described to me?"

"In the woods at Acquasparta, where the river Metauro is no better than a
brook. Some two leagues this side of Sant' Angelo."

"Sant' Angelo!" echoed Gian Maria, starting at the very mention of the
place where the late conspiracy against him had been hatched. "And when
was this?"

"On the Wednesday before Easter, as Monna Valentina was journeying from
Santa Sofia to Urbino."

No word spake the Duke in answer. He stood still, his head bowed, and
his thoughts running again on that conspiracy. The mountain fight in
which Masuccio had been killed had taken place on the Tuesday night, and
the conviction--scant though the evidence might be--grew upon him that
this man was one of the conspirators who had escaped.

"How came your lady to speak with this man--was he known to her?" he
inquired at last.

"No, Highness; but he was wounded, and so aroused her compassion. She
sought to minister to his hurt."

"Wounded?" cried Gian Maria, in a shout. "Now, by God, it is as I
suspected. I'll swear he got that wound the night before at Sant'
Angelo. What was his name, fool? Tell me that, and you shall go free."

For just a second the hunchback seemed to hesitate. He stood in awesome
fear of Gian Maria, of whose cruelties some ghastly tales were told. But
in greater fear he stood of the eternal damnation he might earn did he
break the oath he had plighted not to divulge that knight's identity.

"Alas!" he sighed, "I would it might be mine to earn my freedom at so
light a price; yet it is one that ignorance will not let me pay. I do
not know his name."

The Duke looked at him searchingly and suspiciously.

Dull though he was by nature, eagerness seemed now to have set a cunning
edge upon his wits, and suspicion had led him to observe the fool's
momentary hesitation.

"Of what appearance was he? Describe him to me. How was he dressed?
What was the manner of his face?"

"Again, Lord Duke, I cannot answer you. I had but the most fleeting
glimpse of him."

The Duke's sallow countenance grew very evil-looking, and an ugly smile
twisted his lip and laid bare his strong white teeth.

"So fleeting that no memory of him is left you?" quoth he.

"Precisely, Highness."

"You lie, you filth," Gian Maria thundered in a towering rage. "It was
but this morning that you said his height was splendid, his countenance
noble, his manner princely, his speech courtly, and--I know not what
besides. Yet now you tell me--you tell me--that your glimpse of him was
so fleeting that you cannot describe him. You know his name, rogue, and
I will have it from you, or else----"

"Indeed, indeed, most noble lord, be not incensed----" the fool began, in
fearful protestation. But the Duke interrupted him.

"Incensed?" he echoed, his eyes dilating in a sort of horror at the
notion. "Do you dare impute to me the mortal sin of choler? I am not
incensed; there is no anger in me." He crossed himself, as if to
exorcise the evil mood if it indeed existed, and devotedly bowing his
head and folding his hands--"Libera me a malo, Domine!" he murmured
audibly. Then, with a greater fierceness than before--"Now," he
demanded, "will you tell me his name?"

"I would I could," the terrified hunchback began. But at that the Duke
turned from him with a shrug of angry impatience, and clapping his hands

"Olá! Martino!" he called. Instantly the door opened, and the Swiss
appeared. "Bring in your men and your rope."

The captain turned on his heel, and simultaneously the fool cast himself
at Gian Maria's feet.

"Mercy, your Highness!" he wailed. "Do not have me hanged. I am----"

"We are not going to hang you," the Duke broke in coldly. "Dead you
would indeed be dumb, and avail us nothing. We want you alive, Messer
Peppino--alive and talkative; we find you very reserved for a fool. But
we hope to make you speak."

On his knees, Peppe raised his wild eyes to Heaven.

"Mother of the Afflicted," he prayed, at which the Duke broke into a
contemptuous laugh.

"What has the Heavenly Mother to do with such filth as you? Make your
appeals to me. I am the more immediate arbiter of your fate. Tell me
the name of that man you met in the woods, and all may yet be well with

Peppino knelt in silence, a cold sweat gathering on his pale brow, and a
horrid fear tightening at his heart and throat.

And yet greater than this horror they were preparing for him was the
horror of losing his immortal soul by a breach of the solemn oath he had
sworn. Gian Maria turned from him, at last, to his bravi, who now
entered silently and with the air of men who knew the work expected of
them. Martino mounted the bed, and swung for an instant from the
framework of the canopy.

"It will hold, Highness," he announced.

Gian Maria bade him, since that was so, remove the velvet hangings,
whilst he despatched one of the men to see that the ante-chamber door was
closed, so that no cry should penetrate to the apartments of the
Valdicampo household.

In a few seconds all was ready, and Peppino was rudely lifted from his
knees and from the prayers he had been pattering to the Virgin to lend
him strength in this hour of need.

"For the last time, sir fool," quoth the Duke, "will you tell us his

"Highness, I cannot," answered Peppe, for all that terror was freezing
his very blood.

A light of satisfaction gleamed now in Gian Maria's eyes.

"So you know it!" he exclaimed. "You no longer protest your ignorance,
but only that you cannot tell me. Up with him, Martino."

In a last pitiable struggle against the inevitable, the fool broke from
his guards, and flung himself towards the door. One of the burly Swiss
caught him by the neck in a grip that made him cry out with pain. Gian
Maria eyed him with a sinister smile, and Martin proceeded to fasten one
end of the rope to his pinioned wrists. Then they led him, shivering to
the great bed. The other end of the cord was passed over one of the
bared arms of the canopy-frame. This end was grasped by the two men-at-
arms. Martin stood beside the prisoner. The Duke flung himself into a
great carved chair, an air of relish now investing his round, pale face.

"You know what is about to befall you," he said, in tones of chilling
indifference. "Will you speak before we begin?"

"My lord," said the fool, in a voice that terror was throttling, "you are
a good Christian, a loyal son of Mother Church, and a believer in the
eternal fires of hell?"

A frown settled on Gian Maria's brow. Was the fool about to intimidate
him with talk of supernatural vengeance?

"Thus," Peppe continued, "you will perhaps be merciful when I confess my
position. I made most solemn oath to the man I met at Acquasparta on
that luckless day, that I would never reveal his identity. What am I to
do? If I keep my oath, you will torture me to death perhaps. If I break
it, I shall be damned eternally. Have mercy, noble lord, since now you
know how I am placed."

The smile broadened on Gian Maria's face, and the cruelty of his mouth
and eyes seemed intensified by it. The fool had told him that which he
would have given much to learn. He had told him that this man whose name
he sought, had so feared that his presence that day at Acquasparta should
become known, that he had bound the fool by oath not to divulge the
secret of it. Of what he had before suspected he was now assured. The
man in question was one of the conspirators; probably the very chief of
them. Nothing short of the fool's death under torture would now restrain
him from learning the name of that unknown who had done him the double
injury of conspiring against him, and--if the fool were to be believed--
of capturing the heart of Valentina.

"For the damnation of your soul I shall not be called to answer," he said
at last. "Care enough have I to save my own--for temptations are many
and this poor flesh is weak. But it is this man's name I need, and--by
the five wounds of Lucia of Viterbo!--I will have it. Will you speak?"

Something like a sob shook the poor fool's deformed frame. But that was
all. With bowed head he preserved a stubborn silence. The Duke made a
sign to the men, and instantly the two of them threw their weight upon
the rope, hoisting Peppe by his wrists until he was at the height of the
canopy itself. That done, they paused, and turned their eyes upon the
Duke for further orders. Again Gian Maria called upon the fool to answer
his questions; but Peppe, a writhing, misshapen mass from which two
wriggling legs depended, maintained a stubborn silence.

"Let him go," snarled Gian Maria, out of patience. The men released the
rope, and allowed some three feet of it to run through their hands. Then
they grasped it again, so that Peppe's sudden fall was as suddenly
arrested by a jerk that almost wrenched his arms from their sockets. A
shriek broke from him at that exquisite torture, and he was dragged once
more to the full height of the canopy.

"Will you speak now?" asked Gian Maria coldly, amusedly almost. But
still the fool was silent, his nether lip caught so tightly in his teeth
that the blood trickled from it adown his chin. Again the Duke gave the
signal, and again they let him go. This time they allowed him a longer
drop, so that the wrench with which they arrested it was more severe than
had been the first.

Peppe felt his bones starting from their joints, and it was as if a
burning iron were searing him at shoulder, elbow and wrist.

"Merciful God!" he screamed. "Oh, have pity, noble lord."

But the noble lord had him hoisted anew to the canopy. Writhing there in
the extremity of his anguish, the poor hunchback poured forth from
frothing lips a stream of curses and imprecations, invoking Heaven and
hell to strike his tormentors dead.

But the Duke, from whose demeanour it might be inferred that he was
inured to the effect produced by this form of torture, looked on with a
cruel smile, as of one who watches the progress of events towards the end
that he desires and has planned. He was less patient, and his signal
came more quickly now. For a third time the fool was dropped, and drawn
up, now, a short three feet from the ground.

This time he did not so much as scream. He hung there, dangling at the
rope's end, his mouth all bloody, his face ghastly in its glistening
pallor, and of his eyes naught showing save the whites. He hung there,
and moaned piteously and incessantly. Martin glanced questioningly at
Gian Maria, and his eyes very plainly inquired whether they had not
better cease. But Gian Maria paid no heed to him.

"Will that suffice you?" he asked the fool. "Will you speak now?"

But the fool's only answer was a moan, whereupon again, at the Duke's
relentless signal, he was swung aloft. But at the terror of a fourth
drop, more fearful than any of its three predecessors, he awoke very
suddenly to the impossible horror of his position. That this agony would
endure until he died or fainted, he was assured. And since he seemed
incapable of either fainting or dying, suffer more he could not. What
was heaven or hell to him then that the thought of either could efface
the horror of this torture and strengthen him to continue to endure the
agony of it? He could endure no more--no, not to save a dozen souls if
he had had them:

"I'll speak," he screamed. "Let me down, and you shall have his name,
Lord Duke."

"Pronounce it first, or the manner of your descent shall be as the

Peppe passed his tongue over his bleeding lips, hung still and spoke.

"It was your cousin," he panted, " Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila."

The Duke stared at him a moment, with startled countenance and mouth

"You are telling me the truth, animal?" he demanded, in a quivering
voice. "It was the Count of Aquila who was wounded and whom Monna
Valentina tended?"

"I swear it," answered the fool. "Now, in the name of God and His
blessed saints, let me down."

For a moment yet he was held there, awaiting Gian Maria's signal. The
Duke continued to eye him with that same astonished look, what time he
turned over in his mind the news he had gathered. Then conviction of the
truth sank into his mind. It was the Lord of Aquila who was the idol of
the Babbianians. What, then, more natural than that the conspirators
should have sought to place him on the throne they proposed to wrest from
Gian Maria? He dubbed himself a fool that he had not guessed so much

"Let him down," he curtly bade his men. "Then take him hence, and let
him go with God. He has served his purpose."

Gently they lowered him, but when his feet touched the ground he was
unable to stand. His legs doubled under him, and he lay--a little crook-
backed heap--upon the rushes of the floor. His senses had deserted him.

At a sign from Armstadt the two men picked him up and carried him out
between them.

Gian Maria moved across the room to a tapestried prie­dieu, and knelt
down before an ivory crucifix to render thanks to God for the signal
light of grace, by which He had vouchsafed to show the Duke his enemy.

Thereafter, drawing from the breast of his doublet a chaplet of gold and
amber beads, he piously discharged his nightly devotions.



When on the morrow, towards the twenty-second hour, the High and Mighty
Gian Maria Sforza rode into his capital at Babbiano, he found the city in
violent turmoil, occasioned, as he rightly guessed, by the ominous
presence of Caesar Borgia's envoy.

A dense and sullen crowd met him at the Porta Romana, and preserved a
profound silence as he rode into the city, accompanied by Alvari and
Santi, and surrounded by his escort of twenty spears in full armour.
There was a threat in that silence more ominous than any vociferations,
and very white was the Duke's face as he darted scowls of impotent anger
this way and that. But there was worse to come. As they rode up the
Borgo dell' Annunziata the crowd thickened, and the silence was now
replaced by a storm of hooting and angry cries. The people became
menacing, and by Armstadt's orders--the Duke was by now too paralysed
with fear to issue any--the men-at-arms lowered their pikes in order to
open a way, whilst one or two of the populace, who were thrust too near
the cavalcade by the surging human tide, went down and were trampled
under foot.

Satirical voices asked the Duke derisively was he wed, and where might be
his uncle-in-law's spears that were to protect them against the Borgia.
Some demanded to know whither the last outrageous levy of taxes was gone,
and where was the army it should have served to raise. To this, others
replied for the Duke, suggesting a score of vile uses to which the money
had been put.

Then, of a sudden, a cry of "Murderer!" arose, followed by angry demands
that he should restore life to the valiant Ferrabraccio, to Amerini, the
people's friend, and to those others whom he had lately butchered, or
else follow them in death. Lastly the name of the Count of Aquila rang
wildly in his ears, provoking a storm of "Evviva! Live Francesco del
Falco!" and one persistent voice, sounding loudly above the others,
styled him already "il Duca Francesco." At that the blood mounted to
Gian Maria's brain, and a wave of anger beat back the fear from his
heart. He rose in his stirrups, his eyes ablaze with the jealous wrath
that possessed him.

"Ser Martino!" he roared hoarsely to his captain. "Couch lances and go
through them at the gallop!"

The burly Swiss hesitated, brave man though he was. Alvaro de' Alvari
and Gismondo Santi looked at each other in alarm, and the intrepid old
statesman, in whose heart no pang of fear had been awakened by the
rabble's threatening bay, changed colour as he heard that order given.

"Highness," he implored the Duke, "You cannot mean this."

"Not mean it?" flashed back Gian Maria, his eye travelling from Santi to
the hesitating captain. "Fool!" he blazed at the latter. "Brute beast,
for what do you wait? Did you not hear me?"

Without a second's delay the captain now raised his sword, and his deep,
guttural voice barked an order to his men which brought their lances
below the horizontal. The mob, too, had heard that fierce command, and
awakening to their peril, those nearest the cavalcade would have fallen
back but that the others, pressing tightly from behind, held them in the
death-tide that now swept by with clattering arms and hoarse cries.

Shrieks filled the air where lately threats had been loudly tossed. But
some there were in that crowd that would be no passive witnesses of this
butchery. Half the stones of the borgo went after that cavalcade, and
fell in a persistent shower upon them, rattling like giant hail upon
their armour, dinting many a steel-cap to its wearer's sore discomfort.
The Duke himself was struck twice, and on Santi's unprotected scalp an
ugly wound was opened from which the blood flowed in profusion to dye his
snowy locks.

In this undignified manner they reached, at last, the Palazzo Ducale,
leaving a trail of dead and maimed to mark the way by which they had

In a white heat of passion Gian Maria sought his apartments, and came not
forth again until, some two hours later, the presence was announced him
of the emissary from Caesar Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, who sought an

Still beside himself, and boiling with wrath at the indignities he had
received, Gian Maria--in no mood for an interview that would have
demanded coolness and presence of mind from a keener brain than his--
received the envoy, a gloomy, priestly-faced Spaniard, in the throne-room
of the Palace. The Duke was attended by Alvari, Santi, and Fabrizio da
Lodi, whilst his mother, Caterina Colonna, occupied a chair of crimson
velvet on which the Sforza lion was wrought in gold.

The interview was brief, and marked by a rudeness at its close that
contrasted sharply with the ceremoniousness of its inception. It soon
became clear that the ambassador's true mission was to pick a quarrel
with Babbiano on his master's behalf, to the end that the Borgia might be
afforded a sound pretext for invading the Duchy. He demanded, at first
politely and calmly, and later--when denied--with arrogant insistance,
that Gian Maria should provide the Duke of Valentinois with a hundred
lances--equivalent to five hundred men--as some contribution on his part
towards the stand which Caesar Borgia meant to make against the impending
French invasion.

Gian Maria never heeded the restraining words which Lodi whispered in his
ear, urging him to temporise, and to put off this messenger until the
alliance with the house of Urbino should be complete and their position
strengthened sufficiently to permit them to brave the anger of Caesar
Borgia. But neither this nor the wrathful, meaning glances which his
cunning mother bent upon him served to curb him. He obeyed only the
voice of his headstrong mood, never dreaming of the consequences with
which he might be visited.

"You will bear to the Duca Valentino this message from me," he said, in
conclusion. "You will tell him that what lances I have in Babbiano I
intend to keep, that with them I may defend my own frontiers against his
briganding advances. Messer da Lodi," he added, turning to Fabrizio and
without so much as waiting to see if the envoy had anything further to
say, "let this gentleman be reconducted to his quarters, and see that he
has safe conduct hence until he is out of our Duchy."

When the envoy, crimson of face and threatening of eye, had withdrawn
under Lodi's escort, Monna Caterina rose, the very incarnation of
outraged patience, and poured her bitter invective upon her rash son's

"Fool!" she stormed at him. "There goes your Duchy--in the hollow of
that man's hand." Then she laughed in bitterness. "After all, in
casting it from you, perhaps you have chosen the wiser course, for, as
truly as there is a God in Heaven, you are utterly unfitted to retain

"My lady mother," he answered her, with such dignity as he could muster
from the wretched heap in which his wits now seemed to lie, "you will be
well advised to devote yourself to your woman's tasks, and not to
interfere in a man's work."

"Man's work!" she sneered. "And you perform it like a petulant boy or a
peevish woman."

"I perform it, Madonna, as best seems to me, for it happens that I am
Duke of Babbiano," he answered sullenly. "I do not fear any Pope's son
that ever stepped. The alliance with Urbino is all but completed. Let
that be established, and if Valentino shows his teeth--by God we'll show

"Aye, but with this difference, that his are a wolf's teeth, and yours a
lamb's. Besides, this alliance with Urbino is all incomplete as yet.
You had been better advised to have sent away the envoy with some
indefinite promise that would have afforded you respite enough in which
to seal matters with the house of Montefeltro. As it is, your days are
numbered. Upon that message you have sent him Caesar will act at once.
For my own part, I have no mind to fall a prey to the invader, and I
shall leave Babbiano, and seek refuge in Naples. And if a last word of
advice I may offer you, it is that you do the same."

Gian Maria rose and came down from the dais, eyeing her in a sort of dull
amazement. Then he looked, as if for help, to Alvari, to Santi, and
lastly to Lodi, who had returned while Caterina was speaking. But no
word said any of them, and grave were the eyes of all.

"Poor-spirited are you all!" he sneered. Then his face grew dark and his
tone concentrated. "Not so am I," he assured them, "if in the past I may
have seemed it sometimes. I am aroused at length, sirs. I heard a voice
in the streets of Babbiano to-day, and I saw a sight that has put a fire
into my veins. This good-tempered, soft, indulgent Duke you knew is
gone. The lion is awake at last, and you shall see such things as you
had not dreamt of."

They regarded him now with eyes in which the gravity was increased by a
light of fearsome wonder and inquiry. Was his mind giving way under the
prodigious strain that had been set upon it that day? If not madness,
what else did that wild boasting argue?

"Are you all dumb?" he asked them, his eyes feverish. "Or do you deem
that I promise more than is mine to fulfil. You shall judge, and soon.
To-morrow, my lady mother, whilst you journey south, as you have told us,
I go north again, hack to Urbino. Not a day will I now waste. Within
the week, sirs, by God's grace, I shall be wed. That will give us Urbino
for a buckler, and with Urbino comes Perugia and Camerino. But more than
that. There is a princely dowry comes to us with the Lady Valentina.
How think you will I spend it? To the last florin it shall go to the
arming of men. I will hire me every free condotta in Italy. I will
raise me such an army as has never before been seen at any one time, and
with this I shall seek out the Duca Valentino. I'll not sit here at home
awaiting the pleasure of his coming, but I'll out to meet him, and with
that army I shall descend upon him as a thunderbolt out of Heaven. Aye,
my lady mother," he laughed in his madness, "the lamb shall hunt the
wolf, and rend it so that it shall never stand again to prey on other
lambs. This will I do, my friends, and there shall be such fighting as
has not been seen since the long-dead days of Castracani."

They stared at him, scarce believing now that he was sane, and marvelling
deeply whence had sprung this sudden martial fervour in one whose nature
was more indolent than active, more timid than warlike. And yet the
reason was not far to seek, had they but cared to follow the line of
thought to which he, himself, had given them the clue when he referred to
the voice he had heard, and the sights he had seen in the streets of
Babbiano. The voice was the voice that had acclaimed his cousin
Francesco Duke. That it was through that a fierce jealousy had fired
him. This man had robbed him at once of the love of his people and of
Valentina, and thereby had set in his heart the burning desire to outdo
him and to prove wrong in their preference both his people and Valentina.
He was like a gamer who risks all on a single throw, and his stake was to
be the dowry of his bride, the game a tilt with the forces of the Borgia.
If he won he came out covered with glory, and not only the saviour of his
people and the champion of their liberty, but a glorious figure that all
Italy--or, at least, that part of it that had known the iron heel of
Valentino--should revere. Thus would he set himself right, and thus
crush from their minds the memory of his rebellious cousin with whom he
was about to deal.

His mother turned to him now, and her words were words of caution,
prayers that he should adventure on naught so vast and appalling to her
woman's mind, without due thought and argument in council. A servant
entered at that moment, and approached the Duke.

"Madonna," Gian Maria announced, breaking in upon her earnest words, "I
am fully resolved upon my course. If you will but delay a moment and
resume your seat, you shall witness the first scene of this great drama
that I am preparing." Then turning to the waiting servant: "Your
message?" he demanded.

"Captain Armstadt has returned, Highness, and has brought his

"Fetch lights and then admit them," he commanded briefly. "To your
places, sirs, and you, my mother. I am about to sit in judgment."

Amazed and uncomprehending, they obeyed his wild gestures, and resumed
their places by the throne even as he walked back to the dais and sat
himself upon the ducal chair. Servants entered, bearing great candelabra
of beaten gold which they set on table and overmantel. They withdrew,
and when the doors opened again, a clank of mail, reaching them from
without, increased the astonishment of the company.

This rose yet higher, and left them cold and speechless, when into the
chamber stepped the Count of Aquila with a man-at-arms on either side of
him, marking him a prisoner. With a swift, comprehensive glance that
took in the entire group about the throne--and without manifesting the
slightest surprise at Lodi's presence--Francesco stood still and awaited
his cousin's words.

He was elegantly dressed, but without lavishness, and if he had the air
of a great lord, it was rather derived from the distinction of his face
and carriage. He was without arms, and bareheaded save for the gold coif
he always wore, which seemed to accentuate the lustrous blackness of his
hair. His face was impassive, and the glance as that of a man rather
weary of the entertainment provided him.

There was an oppressive silence of some moments, during which his cousin
regarded him with an eye that glittered oddly. At last Gian Maria broke
into speech, his voice shrill with excitement.

"Know you of any reason," he demanded, "why your head should not be
flaunted on a spear among those others on the Gate of San Bacolo?"

Francesco's eyebrows shot up in justifiable astonishment.

"I know of many," he answered, with a smile, an answer which by its
simplicity seemed to nonplus the Duke.

"Let us hear some of them," he challenged presently.

"Nay, let us hear, rather, some reason why my poor head should be so
harshly dealt with. When a man is rudely taken, as I have been, it is a
custom, which perhaps your Highness will follow, to afford him some
reason for the outrage."

"You smooth-tongued traitor," quoth the Duke, with infinite malice, made
angrier by his cousin's dignity. "You choicely-spoken villain! You
would learn why you have been taken? Tell me, sir, what did you at
Acquasparta on the morning of the Wednesday before Easter?"

The Count's impassive face remained inscrutable, a mask of patient
wonder. By the sudden clenching of his hands alone did he betray how
that thrust had smitten him, and his hands none there remarked. Fabrizio
da Lodi, standing behind the Duke, went pale to the lips.

"I do not recall that I did anything there of much account," he answered.
"I breathed the good spring air in the woods."

"And nothing else?" sneered Gian Maria.

"I can bethink me of little else that signifies. I met a lady there with
whom I had some talk, a friar, a fool, a popinjay, and some soldiers.
But,"--he shifted abruptly, his tone growing haughty--"whatever I did, I
did as best seemed to me, and I have yet to learn that the Count of
Aquila must give account of what he does and where he does it. You have
not told me yet, sir, by what right, or fancied right, you hold me

"Have I not, indeed? See you no link between your offence and your
presence near Sant' Angelo on that day?"

"If I am to apprehend that you have had me brought here with this
indignity to set me riddles for your amusement, I am enlightened and yet
amazed. I am no court buffoon."

"Words, words," snapped the Duke. "Do not think to beguile me with
them." With a short laugh he turned from Francesco to those upon the
dais. "You will be marvelling, sirs, and you, my lady mother, upon what
grounds I have had this traitor seized. You shall learn. On the night
of the Tuesday before Easter seven traitors met at Sant' Angelo to plot
my overthrow. Of those, the heads of four may be seen on the walls of
Babbiano now; the other three made off, but there stands one of them--the
one that was to have occupied this throne after they had unseated me."

The eyes of all were now upon the young Count, whilst his own glance
strayed to the face of Lodi, on which there was written a consternation
so great that it must have betrayed him had the Duke but chanced to look
his way. A pause ensued which none present dared to break. Gian Maria
seemed to await an answer from Francesco; but Francesco stood impassively
regarding him, and made no sign that he would speak. At length, unable
longer to endure the silence:

"E dunque?" cried the Duke. "Have you no answer?"

"I would submit," returned Francesco, "that I have heard no question. I
heard a wild statement, extravagant and mad, the accusation of one
demented, a charge of which no proofs can be forthcoming, else I take it
you had not withheld them. I ask you, sirs, and you, Madonna," he
continued, turning to the others, "has his Highness said anything to
which an answer can by any means be necessary?"

"Is it proofs you lack?" cried Gian Maria, but less confidently than
hitherto, and, so, less fiercely. A doubt had arisen in his mind born of
this strange calm on the part of Francesco--a calm that to Gian Maria's
perceptions seemed hardly the garb of guilt, but belonged rather to one
who is assured that no peril threatens him. "Is it proofs you lack?"
quoth the Duke again, and then with the air of a man launching an
unanswerable question: "How came you by the wound you had that day in the

A smile quivered on Francesco's face, and was gone.

"I asked for proofs, not questions," he protested wearily. "What shall
it prove if I had a hundred wounds?"

"Prove?" echoed the Duke, less and less confident of his ground, fearing
already that he had perhaps gone too fast and too far upon the road of
his suspicions. "It proves to me, when coupled with your presence there,
that you were in the fight the night before."

Francesco stirred at that. He sighed and smiled at once. Then assuming
a tone of brisk command:

"Bid these men begone," he said, pointing to his guards. "Then hear me
scatter your foul suspicions as the hurricane scatters the leaves in

Gian Maria stared at him in stupefaction. That overwhelming assurance,
that lofty, dignified bearing which made such a noble contrast with his
own coarse hectoring, were gradually undermining more and more his
confidence. With a wave of his hand he motioned the soldiers to
withdraw, obeying almost unconsciously the master-mind of his cousin by
which he was as unconsciously being swayed.

"Now, Highness," said Francesco, as soon as the men were gone, "before I
refute the charge you make, let me clearly understand it. From the
expressions you have used I gather it to be this: A conspiracy was laid a
little time ago at Sant' Angelo which had for object to supplant you on
the throne of Babbiano and set me in your place. You charge me with
having had in that conspiracy a part--the part assigned to me. It is so,
is it not?"

Gian Maria nodded.

"You have put it very clearly," he sneered. "If you can make out your
innocence as clearly, I shall be satisfied that I have wronged you."

"That this conspiracy took place we will accept as proven, although to
the people of Babbiano the proof may have seemed scant. A man, since
dead, had told your Highness that such a plot was being hatched. Hardly,
perhaps, in itself, evidence enough to warrant setting the heads of four
very valiant gentlemen on spears, but no doubt your Highness had other
proofs to which the rest of us had no access."

Gian Maria shivered at the words. He recalled what Francesco had said on
the occasion of their last talk upon this very subject; he remembered the
manner of his own reception that day in Babbiano.

"We must be content that it is so," calmly pursued Francesco. "Indeed,
your Highness's action in the matter leaves no doubt. We will accept,
then, that such a plot was laid, but that I had a part in it, that I was
the man chosen to take your place--need I prove the idleness of such a

"You need, in truth. By God! you need, if you would save your head."

The Count stood in an easy posture, his hands clasped behind his back,
and smiled up at his cousin's pale face and scowling brow.

"How mysterious are the ways of your justice, Cousin," he murmured, with
infinite relish; "what a wondrous equity invests your methods! You have
me dragged here by force, and sitting there, you say to me: 'Prove that
you have not conspired against me, or the headsman shall have you!' By
my faith! Soloman was a foolish prattler when compared with you."

Gian Maria smote the gilded arm of his chair a blow for which he was to
find his hand blackened on the morrow.

"Prove it!" he screamed, like a child in a pet. "Prove it, prove it,
prove it!"

"And have my words not already proven it?" quoth the Count, in a voice of
such mild wonder and gentle protest that it left Gian Maria gasping.

Then the Duke made a hasty gesture of impatience.

"Messer Alvari," he said, in a voice of concentrated rage, "I think you
had best recall the guard."

"Wait!" the Count compelled him, raising his hand. And now it was seen
that the easy insouciance was gone from his face: the smile had vanished,
and in its place there was a look of lofty and contemptuous wrath. "I
will repeat my words. You have dragged me here before you by force, and,
sitting there on the throne of Babbiano, you say: 'Prove that you have
not conspired against me if you would save your head.'" A second he
paused, and noted the puzzled look with which all regarded him.

"Is this a parable?" sneered the uncomprehending Duke.

"You have said it," flashed back Francesco. "A parable it is. And if
you consider it, does it not afford you proof enough?" he asked, a note
of triumph in his voice. "Do not our relative positions irrefutably show
the baselessness of this your charge? Should I stand here and you sit
there if what you allege against me were true?" He laughed almost
savagely, and his eyes flashed scornfully upon the Duke. "If more
plainly still you need it, Gian Maria, I tell you that had I plotted to
occupy your tottering throne, I should be on it now, not standing here
defending myself against a foolish charge. But can you doubt it? Did
you learn no lesson as you rode into Babbiano to-day? Did you not hear
them acclaim me and groan at you. And yet," he ended, with a lofty pity,
"you tell me that I plotted. Why, if I desired your throne, my only need
would be to unfurl my banner in the streets of your capital, and within
the hour Gian Maria would be Duke no more. Have I proved my innocence,
Highness?" he ended quietly, sadly almost. "Are you convinced how little
is my need for plots?"

But the Duke had no answer for him. Speechless, and in a sort of dazed
horror, he sat and scowled before him at his cousin's handsome face, what
time the others watched him furtively, in silence, trembling for the
young man who, here, in his grasp, had dared say such things to him.
Presently he covered his face with his hands, and sat so, as one deeply
in thought, a little while. At last he withdrew them slowly and
presented a countenance that passion and chagrin had strangely ravaged in
so little time. He turned to Santi, who stood nearest.

"The guard," he said hoarsely, with a wave of the hand, and Santi went,
none daring to utter a word. They waited thus an odd group, all very
grave save one, and he the one that had most cause for gravity. Then the
captain re-entered, followed by his two men, and Gian Maria waved a hand
towards the prisoner.

"Take him away," he muttered harshly, his face ghastly, and passion
shaking him like an aspen. "Take him away, and await my orders in the

"If it is farewell, Cousin," said Francesco, "may I hope that you will
send a priest to me? I have lived a faithful Christian."

Gian Maria returned him no answer, but his baleful eye was upon Martino.
Reading the significance of that glance, the captain touched Francesco
lightly on the arm. A moment the Count stood, looking from the Duke to
the soldiers; a second his glance rested on those assembled there; then,
with a light raising of his shoulders, he turned on his heel, and with
his head high passed out of the ducal chamber.

And silence continued after he was gone until Caterina Colonna broke it
with a laugh that grated on Gian Maria's now very tender nerves.

"You promised bravely," she mocked him, "to play the lion. But so far,
we have only heard the braying of an ass."



That taunt of his mother's stirred Gian Maria. He rose from his ducal
chair and descended from the dais on which it stood, possessed by a
tempestuous mood that would not brook him to sit still.

"The braying of an ass?" he muttered, facing Caterina. Then he laughed
unpleasantly. "The jaw-bone of an ass did sore execution on one
occasion, Madonna, and it may again. A little patience, and you shall
see." Next, and with a brisker air, he addressed the four silent
courtiers, "You heard him, sirs," he exclaimed, "How do you say that I
shall deal with such a traitor?" He waited some seconds for an answer,
and it seemed to anger him that none came. "Have you, then, no counsel
for me?" he demanded harshly.

"I had not thought," said Lodi hardily, "that this was a case in which
your Highness needed counsel. You were drawn to conclude that the Lord
of Aquila was a traitor, but from what we have all heard, your Highness
should now see that he is not."

"Should I so?" the Duke returned, standing still and fixing upon Fabrizio
an eye that was dull as a snake's. "Messer da Lodi, your loyalty is a
thing that has given signs of wavering of late. Now, if by the grace of
God and His blessed saints I have ruled as a merciful prince who errs too
much upon the side of clemency, I would enjoin you not to try that
clemency too far. I am but a man, after all."

He turned from the fearless front presented by the old statesman, to face
the troubled glances of the others.

"Your silence, sirs, tells me that in this matter your judgement runs
parallel with mine. And you are wise, for in such a case there can be
but one course. My cousin has uttered words to-day which no man has ever
said to a prince and lived. Nor shall we make exception to that rule.
My Lord of Aquila's head must pay the price of his temerity."

"My son," cried Caterina, in a voice of horror. Gian Maria faced her in
a passion, his countenance grown mottled.

"I have said it," he growled. "I will not sleep until he dies."

"Yet never may you wake again," she answered. And with that preamble she
launched upon his head the bitterest criticism he had ever heard. By
stinging epithets and contemptuous words, she sought to make him see the
folly of what he meditated. Was he indeed tired of ruling Babbiano? If
that were so, she told him, he had but to wait for Caesar Borgia's
coming. He need not precipitate matters by a deed that must lead to a
revolt, a rising of the people to avenge their idol.

"You have given me but added reasons," he answered her stoutly. "There
is no room in my Duchy for a man whose death, if it pleased me to
encompass it, would be avenged upon me by my own people."

"Then send him from your dominions," she urged. "Banish him, and all may
be well. But if you slay him, I should not count your life worth a day's

This advice was sound, and in the end they prevailed upon him to adopt
it. But it was not done save at the cost of endless prayers on the part
of those courtiers, and the persuasions of Caterina's biting scorn and
prophecies of the fate that surely awaited him did he touch the life of
one so well­beloved. At last, against his will, he sullenly consented
that the banishment of his cousin should content him. But it was with
infinite bitterness and regret that he passed his word, for his jealousy
was of a quality that nothing short of Francesco's death could have
appeased. Certain it is that nothing but the fear of the consequences,
which his mother had instilled into his heart, could have swayed him to
be satisfied that the Count of Aquila should be banished.

He sent for Martino and bade him return the Count his sword, and he
entrusted the message of exile to Fabrizio da Lodi, charging him to
apprise Francesco that he was allowed twenty-four hours' grace in which
to take himself beyond the dominions of Gian Maria Sforza.

That done--and with an exceedingly ill grace--the Duke turned on his
heel, and with a sullen brow he left the ducal chamber, and passed,
unattended, to his own apartments.

Rejoicing, Fabrizio da Lodi went his errand, which he discharged with
certain additions that might have cost him his head had knowledge of them
come to Gian Maria. In fact, he seized the opportunity to again press
upon Francesco the throne of Babbiano.

"The hour is very ripe," he urged the Count, "and the people love you as
surely prince was never loved. It is in their interests that I plead.
You are their only hope. Will you not come to them?"

If for a moment Francesco hesitated, it was rather in consideration of
the manner in which the crown was offered than in consequence of any
allurement that the offer may have had for him. Once--that night at
Sant' Angelo--he had known temptation, and for a moment had listened to
the seductions in the voice that invited him to power. But not so now.
A thought he gave to the people who had such faith in him, and showered
upon him such admiring love, and whom, as a matter of reciprocity, he
wished well, and would have served in any capacity but this. He shook
his head, and with a smile of regret declined the offer.

"Have patience, old friend," he added. "I am not of the stuff that goes
to make good princes, although you think it. It is a bondage into which
I would not sell myself. A man's life for me, Fabrizio--a free life that
is not directed by councillors and at the mercy of the rabble."

Fabrizio's face grew sad. He sighed profoundly, yet since it might not
be well for him that he should remain over-long in talk with one who, in
the Duke's eyes, was attainted with treason, he had not leisure to insist
with persuasions, which, after all, he clearly saw must in the end prove

"What was the salvation of the people of Babbiano," he murmured, "was
also your Excellency's, since did you adopt the course I urge there would
be no need to go in banishment."

"Why, this exile suits me excellently well," returned Francesco. "Idle
have I been over-long, and the wish to roam is in my veins again. I'll
see the world once more, and when I weary of my vagrancy I can withdraw
to my lands of Aquila, and in that corner of Tuscany, too mean to draw a
conqueror's eye, none will molest me, and I shall rest. Babbiano, my
friend, shall know me no more after to-night. When I am gone, and the
people realise that they may not have what they would, they may rest
content perhaps with what they may." And he waved a hand in the
direction of the doors leading to the ducal chamber. With that he took
his leave of his old friend, and, carrying in his hand the sword and
dagger which Captain Armstadt had returned to him, he repaired briskly to
the northern wing of the Palace, in which he had his lodging.

In the ante-room he dismissed those of his servants who had been taken
from the ranks of the Duke's people, and bade his own Tuscan followers,
Zaccaria and Lanciotto, see to the packing of his effects, and make all
ready to set out within the hour.

He was no coward, but he had no wish to die just yet if it might be
honourably avoided. Life had some sweets to offer Francesco del Falco,
and this spurred him to hasten, for he well knew his cousin's
unscrupulous ways. He was aware that Gian Maria had been forced by
weight of argument to let him go, and he shrewdly feared that did he
linger, his cousin might veer round again, and without pausing to seek
advice a second time, have him disposed of out of hand and reckless of

Whilst Lanciotto was left busy in the ante-room the Count passed into his
bedchamber attended by Zaccaria, to make in his raiment such changes as
were expedient. But scarce had he begun when he was interrupted by the
arrival of Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, whom Lanciotto ushered in.
Francesco's face lighted at sight of his friend, and he held out his

"What is it that has happened?" cried the young gallant, adding that
which showed his question to be unnecessary, for from Fabrizio da Lodi he
had had the whole story of what was befallen. He sat himself upon the
bed, and utterly disregarding the presence of Zaccaria--whom he knew to
be faithful--he attempted to persuade the Count where Fabrizio had
failed. But Paolo cut him short ere he had gone very far.

"Have done with that," he said, and for all that he said it with a laugh,
determination sounded sturdy in his accents. "I am a knight-errant, not
a prince, and I'll not be converted from one to the other. It were
making a helot of a free man, and you do not love me, Fanfulla, if you
drive this argument further. Do you think me sad, cast down, at the
prospect of this banishment? Why, boy, the blood runs swifter through my
veins since I heard the sentence. It frees me from Babbiano in an hour
when perhaps my duty--the reciprocation of the people's love--might
otherwise have held me here, and it gives me liberty to go forth, my good
Fanfulla, in quest of such adventure as I chose to follow." He threw out
his arms, and displayed his splendid teeth in a hearty laugh.

Fanfulla eyed him, infected by the boisterous gladness of his mood.

"Why, true indeed, my lord," he acknowledged, "you are too fine a bird to
sing in a cage. But to go knight-erranting----" He paused, and spread
his hands in protest. "There are no longer dragons holding princesses

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