Part 4 out of 5
"I know not why; but it is here. I feel it." And with his hand he
touched the region of his heart. "Say that he is no spy, and call me a
"Why, I'll do both," she laughed. Then more sternly, added: "Get you to
bed, Gonzaga. Your wits play you false. Peppino, call my ladies."
In the moment that they were left alone he stepped close up to her,
spurred to madness by the jealous pangs he had that day endured. His
face gleamed white in the candlelight, and in his eyes there was a
lurking fierceness that gave her pause.
"Have your way, Madonna," he said, in a concentrated voice; "but to-
morrow, whether we go hence, or whether we stay, he remains not with us."
She drew herself up to the full of her slender, graceful height, her eyes
on a level with Gonzaga's own.
"That," she answered, "is as shall be decreed by me or him."
He breathed sharply, and his voice hardened beyond belief in one usually
so gentle of tone and manner.
"Be warned, Madonna," he muttered, coming so close that with the
slightest swaying she must touch him, "that if this nameless sbirro shall
ever dare to stand 'twixt you and me, by God and His saints, I'll kill
him! Be warned, I say."
And the door re-opening at that moment, he fell back, bowed, and brushing
past the entering ladies, gained the threshold. Here someone tugged at
the prodigious foliated sleeves that spread beside him on the air like
the wings of a bird. He turned, and saw Peppino motioning him to lower
"A word in your ear, Magnificent. There was a man once went out for wool
that came back shorn."
Angrily cuffing the fool aside, he was gone.
Valentina sank down upon her window-seat, in a turmoil of mingled anger
and amazement that paled her cheek and set her bosom heaving. It was the
first hint of his aims respecting her that Gonzaga had ever dared let
fall, and the condition in which it left her boded ill for his ultimate
success. Her anger he could have borne, had he beheld it, for he would
have laid it to the score of the tone he had taken with her. But her
incredulity that he could indeed have dared to mean that which her senses
told her he had meant, would have shown him how hopeless was his case and
how affronted, how outraged in soul she had been left by this moment of
passionate self-revealing. He would have understood then that in her
eyes he never had been, was never like to be, aught but a servant--and
one, hereafter, that, deeming presumptuous, she would keep at greater
But he, dreaming little of this as he paced his chamber, smiled at his
thoughts, which flowed with ready optimism. He had been a fool to give
way so soon, perhaps. The season was not yet; the fruit was not ripe
enough for plucking; still, what should it signify that he had given the
tree a slight premonitory shake? A little premature, perhaps, but it
would predispose the fruit to fall. He bethought him of her never-
varying kindness to him, her fond gentleness, and he lacked the wit to
see that this was no more than the natural sweetness that flowed from her
as freely as flows the perfume from the flower--because Nature has so
fashioned it, and not because Messer Gonzaga likes the smell. Lacking
that wit, he went in blissful confidence to bed, and smiled himself
softly to his sleep.
Away in the room under the Lion's Tower, the Count of Aquila, too, paced
his chamber ere he sought his couch, and in his pacing caught sight of
something that arrested his attention, and provoked a smile. In a
corner, among his harness which Lanciotto had piled there, his shield
threw back the light, displaying the Sforza lion quartered with the
"Did my sweet Gonzaga get a glimpse of that he would have no further need
to pry into my parentage," he mused. And dragging the escutcheon from
amongst that heap of armour, he softly opened his window and flung it far
out, so that it dropped with a splash into the moat. That done, he went
to bed, and he, too, fell asleep with a smile upon his lips, and in his
mind a floating vision of Valentina. She needed a strong and ready hand
to guide her in this rebellion against the love-at-arms of Gian Maria,
and that hand he swore should be his, unless she scorned the offer of it.
And so, murmuring her name with a lingering fervour, of whose true
significance he was all-nescient, he sank to sleep, nor waked again until
a thundering at his door aroused him. And to his still dormant senses
came the voice of Lanciotto, laden with hurry and alarm.
"Awake, lord! Up, afoot! We are beset."
The Count leapt from his bed, and hastened to throw wide the door to
admit his servant, who with excited face and voice bore him the news that
Gian Maria had reached Roccaleone in the night, and was now encamped in
the plain before the castle.
He was still at his tale when a page came with the message that Monna
Valentina besought Messer Francesco's presence in the great hall. He
dressed in all haste, and then, with Lanciotto at his heels, he descended
to answer her summons. As he crossed the second courtyard he beheld
Valentina's ladies grouped upon the chapel-steps in excited discussion of
this happening with Fra Domenico, who, in full canonicals, was waiting to
say the morning's Mass. He gave them a courteous "Good morrow," and
passed on to the banqueting-hall, leaving Lanciotto without.
Here he found Valentina in conference with Fortemani. She was pacing the
great room as she talked; but, beyond that, there was no sign of
excitement in her bearing, and if any fear of the issue touched her heart
now that the moment for action was at hand, it was wondrously well-
suppressed. At sight of Francesco, a look that was partly dismay and
partly pleasure lighted her face. She greeted him with such a smile as
she would bestow in that hour upon none but a trusted friend. Then, with
a look of regret:
"I am beyond measure grieved, sir, that you should thus stand committed
to my fortunes. They will have told you that already we are besieged,
and so you will see how your fate is now bound up with ours. For I fear
me there is no road hence for you until Gian Maria raises this siege.
The choice of going or remaining is no longer mine. We must remain, and
fight this battle out."
"At least, lady," he answered readily, gaily almost, "I cannot share your
regrets for me. The act of yours may be a madness, Madonna, but it is
the bravest, sweetest madness that ever was, and I shall be proud to play
my part if you'll assign me one."
"But, sir, I have no claim upon you!"
"The claim that every beset lady has upon a true knight," he assured her.
"I could ask no better employment for these arms of mine than in your
defence against the Duke of Babbiano. I am at your service, and with a
glad heart, Monna Valentina. I have seem something of war, and you may
find me useful."
"Make him Provost of Roccaleone, Madonna," urged Fortemani, whose
gratitude to the man who had saved his life was blent with an admiring
appreciation of his powers, of which the bully had had such practical
"You hear what Ercole says?" she cried, turning to Francesco with a
sudden eagerness that showed how welcome that suggestion was.
"It were too great an honour," he answered solemnly. "Yet, if you were
to place in my hands that trust, I would defend it to my last breath."
And then, before she could answer him, Gonzaga entered by the side-door,
and frowned to see Francesco there before him. He was a trifle pale, he
carried his cloak on the right shoulder, instead of the left, and in
general his apparel was less meticulous than usual, and showed signs of
hasty donning. With a curt nod to the Count, and an utter ignoring of
Fortemani--who was scowling upon him in memory of yesterday--he bowed low
"I am distraught, Madonna----" he began, when she cut him short.
"You have little cause to be. Have things fallen out other than we
"Perhaps not. Yet I had hoped that Gian Maria would not allow his humour
to carry him so far."
"You had hoped that--after the message Messer Francesco brought us?" And
she looked him over with an eye of sudden understanding. "Yet you
expressed no such hope when you advised this flight to Roccaleone. You
were all for fighting then. A martial ardour consumed you. Whence this
change? Is it the imminence of danger that gives it a reality too grim
for your appetite?"
There was a scorn in her words that wounded him as she meant it should.
His last night's rashness had shown her the need to leave him in no false
opinion of the extent of her esteem, and, in addition, those last words
of his had shown him revealed in a new light, and she liked him the less
He inclined his head slightly, shame blazing red in his cheeks, that he
should be thus reproved before Fortemani and that upstart Francesco.
That Francesco was an upstart was no longer a matter of surmise with him.
His soul assured him of it.
"Madonna," he said, with some show of dignity, ignoring her gibes, "I
came to bear you news that a herald from Gian Maria craves a hearing.
Shall I hold parley with him for you?"
"You are too good," she answered sweetly. "I will hear the man myself."
He bowed submissively, and then his eye moved to Francesco.
"We might arrange with him for the safe-conduct of this gentleman," he
"There is no hope they would accord it," she answered easily. "Nor could
I hope so if they would, for Messer Francesco has consented to fill the
office of Provost of Roccaleone. But we are keeping the messenger
waiting. Sirs, will you attend me to the ramparts?"
They bowed, and followed her, Gonzaga coming last, his tread heavy as a
drunkard's, his face white to the lips in the bitter rage with which he
saw himself superseded, and read his answer to the hot words that last
night he had whispered in Valentina's ear.
As they crossed the courtyard Francesco discharged the first act of his
new office in ordering a half-dozen men-at-arms to fall in behind them,
to the end that they might make some show upon the wall when they came to
parley with the herald.
They found a tall man on a tall, grey horse, whose polished helm shone
like silver in the morning sun, and whose haubergeon was almost hidden
under a crimson tabard ornamented with the Sforza lion. He bowed low as
Valentina appeared, followed by her escort, foremost in which stood the
Count of Aquila, his broad castor pulled down upon his brow, so that it
left his face in shadow.
"In the name of my master, the High and Mighty Lord Gian Maria Sforza,
Duke of Babbiano, I call upon you to yield, lady, laying down your arms
and throwing open your gates."
There followed a pause, at the end of which she asked him was that the
sum of his message, or was there something that he had forgotten. The
herald, bowing gracefully upon the arched neck of his caracoling palfrey,
answered her that what he had said was all he had been bidden say.
She turned with a bewildered and rather helpless look to those behind
her. She wished that the matter might be conducted with due dignity, and
her convent rearing left her in doubt of how this might best be achieved.
She addressed herself to Francesco.
"Will you give him his answer, my Lord Provost," she said, with a smile,
and Francesco, stepping forward and leaning on a merlon of that embattled
wall, obeyed her.
"Sir Herald," he said, in a gruff voice that was unlike his own, "will
you tell me since when has the Duke of Babbiano been at war with Urbino
that he should thus beset one of its fortresses, and demand the surrender
"His Highness," replied the herald, "is acting with the full sanction of
the Duke of Urbino in sending this message to the Lady Valentina della
At that Valentina elbowed the Count aside, and forgetting her purpose of
conducting this affair with dignity, she let her woman's tongue deliver
the answer of her heart.
"This message, sir, and the presence here of your master, is but another
of the impertinences that I have suffered at his hands, and it is the
crowning one. Take you that message back to him, and tell him that when
I am instructed by what right he dares to send you upon such an errand, I
may render him an answer more germane with his challenge."
"Would you prefer, Madonna, that his Highness should come himself to
speak with you?"
"There is nothing I should prefer less. Already has necessity compelled
me to have more to say to Gian Maria than I could have wished." And with
a proud gesture she signified that the audience was at an end, and turned
to quit the wall.
She had a brief conference with Francesco, during which he consulted her
as to certain measures of defence to be taken, and made suggestions, to
all of which she agreed, her hopes rising fast to see that here, at
least, she had a man with knowledge of the work to which he had set his
hand. It lightened her heart and gave her a glad confidence to look on
that straight, martial figure, the hand so familiarly resting on the hilt
of the sword that seemed a part of him, and the eyes so calm; whilst when
he spoke of perils, they seemed to dwindle 'neath the disdain of them so
manifest in his tone.
With Fortemani at his heels he went about the execution of the measures
he had suggested, the bully following him now with the faithful wonder of
a dog for its master, realising that here, indeed, was a soldier of
fortune by comparison with whom the likes of himself were no better than
camp-followers. Confidence, too, did Ercole gather from that magnetism
of Francesco's unfaltering confidence; for he seemed to treat the matter
as a great jest, a comedy played for the Duke of Babbiano and at that
same Duke's expense. And just as Francesco's brisk tone breathed
confidence into Fortemani and Valentina, so, too, did it breathe it into
Fortemani's wretched followers. They grew zestful in the reflection of
his zest, and out of admiration for him they came to admire the business
on which they were engaged, and, finally, to take a pride in the part he
assigned to each of them. Within an hour there was such diligent bustle
in Roccaleone, such an air of grim gaiety and high spirits, that
Valentina, observing it, wondered what manner of magician was this she
had raised to the command of her fortress, who in so little time could
work so marvellous a change in the demeanour of her garrison.
Once only did Francesco's light-heartedness fail him, and this was when,
upon visiting the armoury, he found but one single cask of gunpowder
stored there. He turned to Fortemani to inquire where Gonzaga had
bestowed it, and Fortemani being as ignorant as himself upon the subject
he went forthwith in quest of Gonzaga. After ransacking the castle for
him, he found him pacing the vine-alley in the garden in animated
conversation with Valentina. At his approach the courtier's manner grew
more subdued, and his brows sullen.
"Messer Gonzaga," Francesco hailed him. The courtier, surprised, looked
up. "Where have you hidden your store of powder?"
"Powder?" faltered Gonzaga, chilled by a sudden apprehension. "Is there
none in the armoury?"
"Yes--one small cask, enough to load a cannon once or twice, leaving us
nothing for our hand-guns. Is that your store?"
"If that is all there is in the armoury, that is all we have."
Franceseo stood speechless, staring at him, a dull flush creeping into
his cheeks. In that moment of wrath he forgot their positions, and gave
never a thought to the smarting that must be with Gonzaga at the loss of
rank he had suffered since Valentina had appointed a provost.
"And are these your methods of fortifying Roccaleone?" he asked, in a
voice that cut like a knife. "You have laid in good store of wine, a
flock of sheep, and endless delicacies, sir," he jeered. "Did you expect
to pelt the enemy with these, or did you reckon upon no enemy at all?"
Now this question touched so closely upon the truth, that it fired in
Gonzaga's bosom an anger that for the moment made a man of him. It was
the last breath that blew into a blaze the smouldering wrath he carried
in his soul.
His retort came fierce and hot. It was as unmeasured and contemptuous as
Francesco's erst recriminations, and it terminated in a challenge to the
Count to meet him on horse or foot, with sword or lance, and that as soon
as might be.
But Valentina intervened, and rebuked them both. Yet to Francesco her
rebuke was courteous, and ended in a prayer that he should do the best
with such resources as Roccaleone offered; to Gonzaga it was contemptuous
in the last degree, for Francesco's question--which Gonzaga had left
unanswered--coming at a moment when she was full of suspicions of
Gonzaga, and the ends he had sought to serve in advising her upon a
course which he had since shown himself so utterly unfitted to guide, had
opened wide her eyes. She remembered how strangely moved he had been
upon learning yesterday that Gian Maria was marching upon Roccaleone, and
how ardently he had advised flight from the fortress--he that had so
bravely talked of holding it against the Duke.
They were still wrangling there in a most unseemly fashion when a
trumpet-blast reached them from beyond the walls.
"The herald again," she cried. "Come, Messer Francesco, let us hear what
fresh message he brings."
She led Francesco away, leaving Gonzaga in the shadow of the vines,
reduced well-nigh to tears in the extremity of his mortification.
The herald was returned with the announcement that Valentina's answer
left Gian Maria no alternative but to await the arrival of Duke
Guidobaldo, who was then marching to join him. The Duke of Urbino's
presence would be, he thought, ample justification in her eyes for the
challenge Gian Maria had sent, and which he would send again when her
uncle arrived to confirm it.
Thereafter, the remainder of the day was passed in peace at Roccaleone,
if we except the very hell of unrest that surged in the heart of Romeo
Gonzaga. He sat disregarded at supper that evening, save by Valentina's
ladies and the fool, who occasionally rallied him upon his glumness.
Valentina herself turned her whole attention to the Count, and whilst
Gonzaga--Gonzaga, the poet of burning fancy, the gay songster, the
acknowledged wit, the mirror of courtliness--was silent and tongue-tied,
this ruffling, upstart swashbuckler entertained them with a sprightliness
that won him every heart--always excepting that of Romeo Gonzaga.
Francesco made light of the siege in a manner that enlivened every soul
present with relief. He grew merry at the expense of Gian Maria, and
made it very plain that he could have found naught more captivating to
his warlike fancy than this business upon which an accident had embarked
him. He was as full of confidence for the issue as he was full of eager
anticipation of the fray itself.
Is it wonderful that--never having known any but artificial men; men of
court and ante-chamber; men of dainty ways and mincing, affected tricks
of speech; in short, such men as circumstance ordains shall surround the
great--Monna Valentina's eyes should open very wide, the better to behold
this new pattern of a man, who, whilst clearly a gentleman of high
degree, carried with him an air of the camp rather than the camerion, was
imbued by a spirit of chivalry and adventure, and ignored with a certain
lofty dignity, as if beneath his observance, the poses that she was wont
to see characterising the demeanour of the gentlemen of his Highness, her
He was young, moreover, yet no longer callow; comely, yet with a strong
male comeliness; he had a pleasantly modulated voice, yet one that they
had heard swell into a compelling note of command; he had the most
joyous, careless laugh in all the world--such a laugh as endears a man to
all that hear it--and he indulged it without stint.
Gonzaga sat glum and moody, his heart bursting with the resentment of the
mean and the incompetent for the man of brilliant parts. But the morrow
was to bring him worse.
The Duke of Urbino arrived next morning, and rode up to the moat in
person, attended only by a trumpeter, who, for the third time, wound a
note of challenge to the fortress.
As on the previous day, Valentina answered the summons, attended by
Francesco, Fortemani and Gonzaga--the latter uninvited yet not denied,
and following sullenly in her train, in a last, despairing attempt to
assert himself one of her captains.
Francesco had put on his harness, and came arrayed from head to foot in
resplendent steel, to do worthy honour to the occasion. A bunch of
plumes nodded in his helm, and for all that his beaver was open, yet the
shadows of the head-piece afforded at the distance sufficient concealment
to his features.
The sight of her uncle left Valentina unmoved. Well-beloved though he
was of his people, between himself and his niece he had made no effort
ever to establish relations of affection. Less than ever did he now seek
to prevail by the voice of kinship. He came in the panoply of war, as a
prince to a rebel subject, and in precisely such a tone did he greet her.
"Monna Valentina," he said--seeming entirely to overlook the circumstance
that she was his kinswoman--"deeply though this rebellion grieves me, you
are not to think that your sex shall gain you any privileges or any
clemency. We will treat you precisely as we would any other rebel
subject who acted as you have done."
"Highness," she replied, "I solicit no privilege beyond that to which my
sex gives me the absolute right, and which has no concern with war and
arms. I allude to the privilege of disposing of myself, my hand and
heart, as it shall please me. Until you come to recognise that I am a
woman endowed with a woman's nature, and until, having realised it, you
are prepared to submit to it, and pass me your princely word to urge the
Duke of Babbiano's suit no further with me, here will I stay in spite of
you, your men-at-arms, and your paltry ally, Gian Maria, who imagines
that love may be made successfully in armour, and that a way to a woman's
heart is to be opened with cannon-shot."
"I think we shall bring you to a more subjective and dutiful frame of
mind, Madonna," was the grim answer.
"Dutiful to whom?"
"To the State, a princess of which you have had the honour to be born."
"And what of my duty to myself, to my heart, and to my womanhood? Is no
account to be taken of that?"
"These are matters, Madonna, that are not to be discussed in shouts from
the walls of a castle--nor, indeed, do I wish to discuss them anywhere.
I am here to summon you to surrender. If you resist us, you do so at
"Then at my peril I will resist you--gladly. I defy you. Do your worst
against me, disgrace your manhood and the very name of chivalry by
whatsoever violence may occur to you, yet I promise you that Valentina
della Rovere never shall become the wife of his Highness of Babbiano."
"You refuse to open your gates?" he returned, in a voice that shook with
"Utterly and finally."
"And you think to persist in this?"
"As long as I have life."
The Prince laughed sardonically.
"I wash my hands of the affair and of its consequences," he answered
grimly. "I leave it in the care of your future husband, Gian Maria
Sforza, and if, in his very natural eagerness for the nuptials, he uses
your castle roughly, the blame of it must rest with you. But what he
does, he does with my full sanction, and I have come hither to advise you
of it since you appeared in doubt. I beg that you will remain there for
a few moments, to hear what his Highness himself may have to say. I
trust his eloquence may prove more persuasive."
He saluted ceremoniously, and, wheeling his horse about, he rode away.
Valentina would have withdrawn, but Francesco urged her to remain, and
await the Duke of Babbiano's coming. And so they paced the battlements,
Valentina in earnest talk with Francesco, Gonzaga following in moody
silence with Fortemani, and devouring them with his eyes.
From their eminence they surveyed the bustling camp in the plain, where
tents, green, brown, and white, were being hastily erected by half-
stripped soldiers. The little army altogether, may have numbered a
hundred men, which, in his vainglory, Gian Maria accounted all that would
be needed to reduce Roccaleone. But the most formidable portion of his
forces rolled into the field even as they watched. It was heralded by a
hoarse groaning of the wheels of bullock-carts to the number of ten, on
each of which was borne a cannon. Other carts followed with ammunition
and victuals for the men encamped.
They looked on with interest at the busy scene that was toward, and as
they watched they saw Guidobaldo ride into the heart of the camp, and
dismount. Then from out of a tent more roomy and imposing than the rest
advanced the short, stout figure of Gian Maria, not to be recognised at
that distance save by the keen eyes of Francesco that were familiar with
A groom held a horse for him and assisted him to mount, and then,
attended by the same trumpeter that had escorted Guidobaldo, he rode
forward towards the castle. At the edge of the moat he halted, and at
sight of Valentina and her company, he doffed his feathered hat, and
bowed his straw-coloured head.
"Monna Valentina," he called, and when she stepped forth in answer, he
raised his little, cruel eyes in a malicious glance and showed the round
moon of his white face to be whiter even, than its wont--a pallor
atrabilious and almost green.
"I am grieved that his Highness, your uncle, should not have prevailed
with you. Where he has failed, I may have little hope of succeeding--by
the persuasion of words. Yet I would beg you to allow me to have speech
of your captain, whoever he may be."
"My captains are here in attendance," she answered tranquilly.
"So! You have a plurality of them; to command--how many men?"
"Enough," roared Francesco, interposing, his voice sounding hollow from
his helmet, "to blow you and your woman besieging scullions to
The Duke stirred on his horse, and peered up at the speaker. But there
was too little of his face visible for recognition, whilst his voice was
altered and his figure dissembled in its steel casing.
"Who are you, rogue?" he asked.
"Rogue in your teeth, be you twenty times a Duke," returned the other, at
which Valentina laughed outright.
Never from the day when he had uttered his first wail had his Highness of
Babbiano heard words of such import from the lips of living man. A
purple flush mottled his cheeks at the indignity of it.
"Attend to me, knave!" he bellowed. "Whatever betide the rest of this
misguided garrison when ultimately it falls into my hands, for you I can
promise a rope and a cross-beam."
"Bah!" sneered the knight. "First catch your bird. Be none so sure that
Roccaleone ever will fall into your hands. While I live you do not enter
here, and my life, Highness, is for me a precious thing, which I'll not
part with lightly."
Valentina's eyes were mirthless now as she turned them upon that
gleaming, martial figure standing so proudly at her side, and seeming so
well-attuned to the proud defiance he hurled at the princely bully below.
"Hush, sir!" she murmured. "Do not anger him further."
"Aye," groaned Gonzaga, "in God's name say no more, or you'll undo us
"Madonna," said the Duke, without further heeding Francesco, "I give you
twenty-four hours in which to resolve upon your action. Yonder you see
them bringing the cannon into camp. When you wake to-morrow you shall
find those guns trained upon your walls. Meanwhile, enough said. May I
speak a word with Messer Gonzaga ere I depart."
"So that you depart, you may say a word to whom you will," she answered
contemptuously. And, turning aside, she motioned Gonzaga to the crenel
"I'll swear that mincing jester is trembling already with the fear of
what is to come," bawled the Duke, "and perhaps fear will show him the
way to reason. "Messer Gonzaga!" he called, raising his voice. "As I
believe the men of Roccaleone are in your service, I call upon you to bid
them throw down that drawbridge, and in the name of Guidobaldo as well as
my own, I promise them free pardon and no hurt--saving only that rascal
at your side. But if your knaves resist me, I promise you that when I
shall have dashed Roccaleone stone from stone, not a man of you all will
Shaking like an aspen Gonzaga stood there, his voice palsied and making
no reply, whereupon Francesco leant forward again.
"We have heard your terms," he answered, "and we are not like to heed
them. Waste not the day in vain threats."
"Sir, my terms were not for you. I know you not; I addressed you not,
nor will I suffer myself to be addressed by you."
"Linger there another moment," answered the vibrating voice of the
knight, "and you will find yourself addressed with a volley of arquebuse-
shot. Olá, there!" he commanded, turning and addressing an imaginary
body of men on the lower ramparts of the garden, to his left.
"Arquebusiers to the postern! Blow your matches! Make ready! Now, my
Lord Duke, will you draw off, or must we blow you off?"
The Duke's reply took the form of a bunch of blasphemous threats of how
he would serve his interlocutor when he came to set hands on him.
"Present arms!" roared the knight to his imaginary arquebusiers,
whereupon, without another word, the Duke turned his horse and rode off
in disgraceful haste, his trumpeter following hot upon his heels, pursued
by a derisive burst of laughter from Francesco.
"Sir," gulped Gonzaga, as they were descending from the battlements, "you
will end by having us all hanged. Was that a way to address a prince?"
Valentina frowned that he should dare rebuke her knight. But Francesco
"By St. Paul! How would you have had me address him?" he inquired.
"Would you have had me use cajolery with him--the lout? Would you have
had me plead mercy from him, and beg him, in honeyed words, to be patient
with a wilful lady? Let be, Messer Gonzaga, we shall weather it yet,
never doubt it."
"Messer Gonzaga's courage seems of a quality that wanes as the need for
it increases," said Valentina.
"You are confounding courage, Madonna, with foolhardy recklessness," the
courtier returned. "You may learn it to your undoing."
That Gonzaga was not the only one entertaining this opinion they were
soon to learn, for, as they reached the courtyard a burly, black-browed
ruffian, Cappoccio by name, thrust himself in their path.
"A word with you, Messer Gonzaga, and you, Ser Ercole." His attitude was
full of truculent insolence, and all paused, Francesco and Valentina
turning from him to the two men whom he addressed, and waiting to hear
what he might have to say to them. "When I accepted service under you, I
was given to understand that I was entering a business that should entail
little risk to my skin. I was told that probably there would be no
fighting, and that if there were, it would be no more than a brush with
the Duke's men. So, too, did you assure my comrades."
"Did you indeed?" quoth Valentina, intervening, and addressing herself to
Fortemani, to whom Cappoccio's words had been directed.
"I did, Madonna," answered Ercole. "But I had Messer Gonzaga's word for
"Did you," she continued, turning to Gonzaga, "permit their engagement on
"On some such understanding, yes, Madonna," he was forced to confess.
She looked at him a moment in amazement. Then:
"Msser Gonzaga," she said at length, "I think that I begin to know you."
But Cappoccio, who was nowise interested in the extent of Valentina's
knowledge of the man, broke in impetuously:
"Now we have heard what has passed between this new Provost here and his
Highness of Babbiano. We have heard the terms that were offered, and his
rejection of them, and I am come to tell you, Ser Ercole, and you, Messer
Gonzaga, that I for one will not remain here to be hanged when Roccaleone
shall fall into the hands of Gian Maria. And there are others of my
comrades who are of the same mind."
Valentina looked at the rugged, determined features of the man, and fear
for the first time stole into her heart and was reflected on her
countenance. She was half-turning to Gonzaga, to vent upon him some of
the bitterness of her humour--for him she accounted to blame--when once
again Francesco came to the rescue.
"Now, shame on you, Cappoccio, for a paltry hind! Are these words for
the ears of a besieged and sorely harassed lady, craven?"
"I am no craven," the man answered hoarsely, his face flushing under the
whip of Francesco's scorn. "Out in the open I will take my chances, and
fight in any cause that pays me. But this is not my trade--this waiting
for the death of a trapped rat."
Francesco met his eyes steadily for a moment, then glanced at the other
men, to the number of a half-score or so--all, in fact, whom the duties
he had apportioned them did not hold elsewhere. They hung in the rear of
Cappoccio, all ears for what was being said, and their countenances
plainly showing how their feelings were in sympathy with their spokesman.
"And you a soldier, Cappoccio?" sneered Francesco. "Shall I tell you in
what Fortemani was wrong when he enlisted you? He was wrong in not
hiring you for scullion duty in the castle kitchen."
"Bah! Do you raise your voice to me? Do you think I am of your kind,
animal, to be affrighted by sounds--however hideous?"
"I am not affrighted by sounds."
"Are you not? Why, then, all this ado about a bunch of empty threats
cast at us by the Duke of Babbiano? If you were indeed the soldier you
would have us think you, would you come here and say, 'I will not die
this way, or that'? Confess yourself a boaster when you tell us that you
are ready to die in the open."
"Nay! That am I not."
"Then, if you are ready to die out there, why not in here? Shall it
signify aught to him that dies where he gets his dying done? But
reassure yourself, you woman," he added, with a laugh, and in a voice
loud enough to be heard by the others, "you are not going to die--neither
here, nor there."
"When Roccaleone capitulates----"
"It will not capitulate," thundered Francesco.
"Well, then--when it is taken."
"Nor will it be taken," the Provost insisted, with an assurance that
carried conviction. "If Gian Maria had time unlimited at his command, he
might starve us into submission. But he has not. An enemy is menacing
his own frontiers, and in a few days--a week, at most--he will be forced
to get him hence to defend his crown."
"The greater reason for him to use stern measures and bombard us as he
threatens," answered Cappoccio shrewdly but rather in the tone of a man
who expects to have his argument disproved. And Francesco, if he could
not disprove it, could at least contradict it.
"Believe it not," he cried, with a scornful laugh. "I tell you that Gian
Maria will never dare so much. And if he did, are these walls that will
crumble at a few cannon-shots? Assault he might attempt; but I need not
tell a soldier that twenty men who are stout and resolute, as I will
believe you are for all your craven words, could hold so strong a place
as this against the assault of twenty times the men the Duke has with
him. And for the rest, if you think I tell you more than I believe
myself, I ask you to remember how I am included in Gian Maria's threat.
I am but a soldier like you, and such risks as are yours are mine as
well. Do you see any sign of faltering in me, any sign of doubting the
issue, or any fear of a rope that shall touch me no more than it shall
touch you? There, Cappoccio! A less merciful provost would have hanged
you for your words--for they reek of sedition. Yet I have stood and
argued with you, because I cannot spare a brave man such as you will
prove yourself. Let us hear no more of your doubtings. They are
unworthy. Be brave and resolute, and you shall find yourself well
rewarded when the baffled Duke shall be forced to raise this siege."
He turned without waiting for the reply of Cappoccio--who stood
crestfallen, his cheeks reddened by shame of his threat to get him hence
--and conducted Valentina calmly across the yard and up the steps of the
It was his way never to show a doubt that his orders would be obeyed, yet
on this occasion scarce had the door of the hall closed after them when
he turned sharply to the following Ercole.
"Get you an arquebuse," he said quickly, "and take my man Lanciotto, with
you. Should those dogs still prove mutinous, fire into any that attempt
the gates--fire to kill--and send me word. But above all, Ercole, do not
let them see you or suspect your presence; that were to undermine such
effect as my words may have produced."
From out of a woefully pale face Valentina raised her brown eyes to his,
in a look that was as a stab to the observing Gonzaga.
"I needed a man here," she said, "and I think that Heaven it must have
been that sent you to my aid. But do you think," she asked, and with her
eyes she closely scanned his face for any sign of doubt, "that they are
"I am assured of it, Madonna. Come, there are signs of tears in your
eyes, and--by my soul!--there is naught to weep at."
"I am but a woman, after all," she smiled up at him, "and so, subject to
a woman's weakness. It seemed as if the end were indeed come just now.
It had come, but for you. If they should mutiny----"
"They shall not, while I am here," he answered, with a cheering
confidence. And she, full of faith in this true knight of hers, went to
seek her ladies, and to soothe in her turn any alarm to which they might
have fallen a prey.
Francesco went to disarm, and Gonzaga to take the air upon the ramparts,
his heart a very bag of gall. His hatred for the interloper was as
nothing now to his rage against Valentina, a rage that had its birth in a
wondering uncomprehension of how she should prefer that coarse,
swashbuckling bully to himself, the peerless Gonzaga. And as he walked
there, under the noontide sky, the memory of Francesco's assurance that
the men would not mutiny returned to him, and he caught himself most
ardently desiring that they might, if only to bear it home to Valentina
how misplaced was her trust, how foolish her belief in that loud boaster.
He thought next--and with increasing bitterness--of his own brave
schemes, of his love for Valentina, and of how assured he had been that
his affections were returned, before this ruffler came amongst them. He
laughed in bitter scorn as the thought returned to her preferring
Francesco to himself. Well, it might be so now--now that the times were
warlike, and this Francesco was such a man as shone at his best in them.
But what manner of companion would this sbirro make in times of peace?
Had he the wit, the grace, the beauty even that was Gonzaga's?
Circumstance, it seemed to him, was here to blame, and he roundly cursed
that same Circumstance. In other surroundings, he was assured that
she would not have cast an eye upon Francesco whilst he, himself, was by;
and if he recalled their first meeting at Acquasparta, it was again to
curse Circumstance for having placed the knight in such case as to appeal
to the tenderness that is a part of woman's nature.
He reflected--assured that he was right--that if Francesco had not come
to Roccaleone, he might by now have been wed to Valentina; and once wed,
he could throw down the bridge and march out of Roccaleone, assured that
Gian Maria would not care to espouse his widow, and no less assured that
Guidobaldo--who was at heart a kind and clement prince--would be content
to let be what was accomplished, since there would be naught gained
beyond his niece's widowhood in hanging Gonzaga. It was the specious
argument that had lured him upon this rash enterprise, the hopes that he
was confident would have fructified but for the interloping of Francesco.
He stood looking down at the tented plain, with black rage and black
despair blotting the beauty from the sunlight of that May morning, and
then it came to him that since there was naught to be hoped from his old
plans, might it not be wise to turn his attention to new ones that would,
at least, save him from hanging? For he was assured that whatever might
betide the others, his own fate was sealed, whether Roccaleone fell or
not. It would be remembered against him that the affair was of his
instigating, and from neither Gian Maria nor Guidobaldo might he look for
And now the thought of extricating himself from his desperate peril
turned him cold by its suddenness. He stood very still a moment; then
looked about him as though he feared that some watching spy might read on
him the ugly intention that of a sudden had leapt to life in his heart.
Swiftly it spread, and took more definite shape, the reflection of it
showing now upon his smooth, handsome face, and disfiguring it beyond
belief. He drew away from the wall, and took a turn or two upon the
ramparts, one hand behind him, the other raised to support his drooping
chin. Thus he brooded for a little while. Then, with another of his
furtive glances, he turned to the north-western tower, and entered the
armoury. There he rummaged until he had found the pen, ink and paper
that he sought, and with the door wide open--the better that he might
hear the sound of approaching steps--he set himself feverishly to write.
It was soon done, and he stood up, waving the sheet to dry the ink. Then
he looked it over again, and this is what he had written:
"I have it in my power to stir the garrison to mutiny and to throw open
the gates of Roccaleone. Thus shall the castle fall immediately into
your hands, and you shall have a proof of how little I am in sympathy
with this rebellion of Monna Valentina's. What terms do you offer me if
I accomplish this? Answer me now, and by the same means as I am
employing, but dispatch not your answer if I show myself upon the
He folded the paper, and on the back he wrote the superscription--"To the
High and Mighty Duke of Babbiano." Then opening a large chest that stood
against the wall, he rummaged a moment, and at last withdrew an arbalest
quarrel. About the body of this he tied his note. Next, from the wall
he took down a cross-bow, and from a corner a moulinet for winding it.
With his foot in the stirrup he made the cord taut and set the shaft in
And now he closed the door, and, going to the window, which was little
more than an arrow-slit, he shouldered his arbalest. He took careful aim
in the direction of the ducal tent, and loosed the quarrel. He watched
its light, and it almost thrilled him with pride in his archery to see it
strike the tent at which he had aimed, and set the canvas shuddering.
In a moment there was a commotion. Men ran to the spot, others emerged
from the tent, and amongst the latter Gonzaga recognised the figures of
Gian Maria and Guidobaldo.
The bolt was delivered to the Duke of Babbiano, who, with an upward
glance at the ramparts, vanished into the tent once more.
Gonzaga moved from his eerie, and set wide the door of the tower, so that
his eyes could range the whole of the sun-bathed ramparts. Returning to
his window, he waited impatiently for the answer. Nor was his impatience
to endure long. At the end of some ten minutes Gian Maria reappeared,
and, summoning an archer to his side, he delivered him something and made
a motion of his hand towards Roccaleone. Gonzaga moved to the door, and
stood listening breathlessly. At the least sign of an approach, he would
have shown himself, and thus, by the provision made in his letter have
cautioned the archer against shooting his bolt. But all was quiet, and
so Gonzaga remained where he was until something flashed like a bird
across his vision, struck sharply against the posterior wall, and fell
with a tinkle on the broad stones of the rampart. A moment later the
answer from Gian Maria was in his hands.
He swiftly unwound it from the shaft that had brought it, and dropped the
bolt into a corner. Then unfolding the letter, he read it, leaning
against one of the merlons of the wall.
"If you can devise a means to deliver Roccaleone at once into my hands
you shall earn my gratitude, full pardon for your share in Monna
Valentina's rebellion, and the sum of a thousand gold florins.
As he read, a light of joy leapt to his eyes. Gian Maria's terms were
very generous. He would accept them, and Valentina should realise when
too late upon what manner of broken reed she leaned in relying upon
Messer Francesco. Would he save her now, as he so loudly boasted? Would
there indeed be no mutiny, as he so confidently prophesied? Gonzaga
chuckled evilly to himself. She should learn her lesson, and when she
was Gian Maria's wife, she might perhaps repent her of her treatment of
He laughed softly to himself. Then suddenly he turned cold, and he felt
his skin roughening. A stealthy step sounded behind him.
He crumpled the Duke's letter in his hand, and in the alarm of the
moment, he dropped it over the wall. Seeking vainly to compose the
features that a chilling fear had now disturbed, he turned to see who
Behind him stood Peppe, his solemn eyes bent with uncanny intentness upon
"You were seeking me?" quoth Romeo, and the quaver in his voice sorted
ill with his arrogance.
The fool made him a grotesque bow.
"Monna Valentina desires that you attend her in the garden, Illustrious."
PLOT AND COUNTERPLOT
Peppe's quick eyes had seen Gonzaga crumple and drop the paper, no less
than he had observed the courtier's startled face, and his suspicions had
been aroused. He was by nature prying, and experience had taught him
that the things men seek to conceal are usually the very things it
imports most to have knowledge of. So when Gonzaga had gone, in
obedience to Valentina's summons, the jester peered carefully over the
At first he saw nothing, and he was concluding with disappointment that
the thing Gonzaga had cast from him was lost in the torrential waters of
the moat. But presently, lodged on a jutting stone, above the foaming
stream into which it would seem that a miracle had prevented it from
falling, he espied a ball of crumpled paper. He observed with
satisfaction that it lay some ten feet immediately below the postern-gate
by the drawbridge.
Secretly, for it was not Peppy's way to take men into his confidence
where it might be avoided, he got himself a coil of rope. Having
descended and quietly opened the postern, he made one end fast and
lowered the other to the water with extreme care, lest he should
dislodge, and so lose, that paper.
Assuring himself again that he was unobserved, he went down, hand over
hand, like a monkey, his feet against the rough-hewn granite of the wall.
Then, with a little swinging of the rope, he brought himself nearer that
crumpled ball, his legs now dangling in the angry water, and by a mighty
stretch that all but precipitated him into the torrent, he seized the
paper and transferred it to his teeth. Then hand over hand again, and
with a frantic haste, for he feared observation not only from the castle
sentries but also from the watchers in the besieger's camp, he climbed
back to the postern, exulting in that he had gone unobserved, and
contemptuous for the vigilance of those that should have observed him.
Softly he closed the wicket, locked it and shot home the bolts at top and
base, and went to replace the key on its nail in the guard-room, which he
found untenanted. Next, with that mysterious letter in his hand, he
scampered off across the courtyard and through the porch leading to the
domestic quarters, nor paused until he had gained the kitchen, where Fra
Domenico was roasting the quarter of a lamb that he had that morning
butchered. For now that the siege was established, there was no more
fish from the brook, nor hares and ortolans from the country-side.
The friar cursed the fool roundly, as was his wont upon every occasion,
for he was none so holy that he disdained the milder forms of objurgatory
oaths. But Peppe for once had no vicious answer ready, a matter that led
the Dominican to ask him was he ill.
Never heeding him, the fool unfolded and smoothed the crumpled paper in a
corner by the fire. He read it and whistled, then stuffed it into the
bosom of his absurd tunic.
"What ails you?" quoth the friar. "What have you there?"
"A recipe for a dish of friar's brains. A most rare delicacy, and
rendered costly by virtue of the scarcity of the ingredients." And with
that answer Peppe was gone, leaving the monk with an ugly look in his
eyes, and an unuttered imprecation on his tongue.
Straight to the Count of Aquila went the fool with his letter. Francesco
read it, and questioned him closely as to what he knew of the manner in
which it had come into Gonzaga's possession. For the rest, those lines,
far from causing him the uneasiness Peppe expected, seemed a source of
satisfaction and assurance to him.
"He offers a thousand gold florins," he muttered, "in addition to
Gonzaga's liberty and advancement. Why, then, I have said no more than
was true when I assured the men that Gian Maria was but idly threatening
us with bombardment. Keep this matter secret, Peppe."
"But you will watch Messer Gonzaga?" quoth the fool.
"Watch him? Why, where is the need? You do not imagine him so vile that
this offer could tempt him?"
Peppe looked up, his great, whimsical face screwed into an expression of
"You do not think, lord, that he invited it?"
"Now, shame on you for that thought. Messer Gonzaga may be an idle lute-
thrummer, a poor-spirited coward; but a traitor----! And to betray Monna
Valentina! No, no."
But the fool was far from reassured. He had had the longer acquaintance
of Messer Gonzaga, and his shrewd eyes had long since taken the man's
exact measure. Let Francesco scorn the notion of betrayal at Romeo's
hands; Peppe would dog him like a shadow. This he did for the remainder
of that day, clinging to Gonzaga as if he loved him dearly, and furtively
observing the man's demeanour. Yet he saw nothing to confirm his
suspicions beyond a certain preoccupied moodiness on the courtier's part.
That night, as they supped, Gonzaga pleaded toothache, and with
Valentina's leave he quitted the table at the very outset of the meal.
Peppe rose to follow him, but as he reached the door, his natural enemy,
the friar--ever anxious to thwart him where he could--caught him by the
nape of the neck, and flung him unceremoniously back into the room.
"Have you a toothache too, good-for-naught?" quoth the frate. "Stay you
here and help me to wait upon the company."
"Let me go, good Fra Domenico," the fool whispered, in a voice so earnest
that the monk left his way clear. But Valentina's voice now bade him
stay with them, and so his opportunity was lost.
He moved about the room a very dispirited, moody fool with no quip for
anyone, for his thoughts were all on Gonzaga and the treason that he was
sure he was hatching. Yet faithful to Francesco, who sat all
unconcerned, and not wishing to alarm Valentina, he choked back the
warning that rose to his lips, seeking to convince himself that his fears
sprang perhaps from an excess of suspicion. Had he known how well-
founded indeed they were he might have practised less self-restraint.
For whilst he moved sullenly about the room, assisting Fra Domenico with
the dishes and platters, Gonzaga paced the ramparts beside Cappoccio, who
was on sentry duty on the north wall.
His business called for no great diplomacy, nor did Gonzaga employ much.
He bluntly told Cappoccio that he and his comrades had allowed Messer
Francesco's glib tongue to befool them that morning, and that the
assurances Francesco had given them were not worthy of an intelligent
"I tell you, Cappoccio," he ended, "that to remain here and protract this
hopeless resistance will cost you your life at the unsavoury hands of the
hangman. You see I am frank with you."
Now for all that what Gonzaga told him might sort excellently well with
the ideas he had himself entertained, Cappoccio was of a suspicious
nature, and his suspicions whispered to him now that Gonzaga was actuated
by some purpose he could not gauge.
He stood still, and leaning with both hands upon his partisan, he sought
to make out the courtier's features in the dim light of the rising moon.
"Do you mean," he asked, and in his voice sounded the surprise with which
Gonzaga's odd speech had filled him, "that we are foolish to have
listened to Messer Francesco, and that we should be better advised to
march out of Roccaleone?"
"Yes; that is what I mean."
"But why," he insisted, his surprise increasing, "do you urge such a
course upon us?"
"Because, Cappoccio," was the plausible reply, "like yourselves, I was
lured into this business by insidious misrepresentations. The assurances
that I gave Fortemani, and with which he enrolled you into his service,
were those that had been given to me. I did not bargain with such a
death as awaits us here, and I frankly tell you that I have no stomach
"I begin to understand," murmured Cappoccio, sagely wagging his head, and
there was a shrewd insolence in his tone and manner. "When we leave
Roccaleone you come with us?"
"But why do you not say these things to Fortemani?" questioned Cappoccio,
"Fortemani!" echoed Gonzaga. "By the Host, no! The man is bewitched by
that plausible rogue, Francesco. Far from resenting the fellow's
treatment of him, he follows and obeys his every word, like the mean-
spirited dog that he is."
Again Cappoccio sought to scrutinise Gonzaga's face. But the light was
"Are you dealing with me fairly?" he asked. "Or does some deeper purpose
lie under your wish that we should rebel against the lady?"
"My friend," answered Gonzaga, "do you but wait until Gian Maria's herald
comes for his answer in the morning. Then you will learn again the terms
on which your lives are offered you. Do nothing until then. But when
you hear yourselves threatened with the rope and the wheel, bethink you
of what course you will be best advised in pursuing. You ask me what
purpose inspires me. I have already told you--for I am as open as the
daylight with you--that I am inspired by the purpose of saving my own
neck. Is not that purpose enough?"
A laugh of such understanding as would have set a better man on fire with
indignation was the answer he received.
"Why, yes, it is more than enough. To-morrow, then, my comrades and I
march out of Roccaleone. Count upon that."
"But do not accept my word. Wait until the herald comes again. Do
nothing until you have heard the terms he brings."
"Why, no, assuredly not."
"And do not let it transpire among your fellows that it is I who have
"Why no. I'll keep your secret," laughed the bravo offensively,
shouldering his partisan and resuming his sentinel's pacing.
Gonzaga sought his bed. A fierce joy consumed him at having so
consummately planned Valentina's ruin, yet he did not wish to face her
again that night.
But when on the morrow the herald wound his horn again beneath the castle
walls, Gonzaga was prominent in the little group that attended Monna
Valentina. The Count of Aquila was superintending the work to which he
had set a half-score of men. With a great show, and as much noise as
possible--by which Francesco intended that the herald should be
impressed--they were rolling forward four small culverins and some three
cannons of larger calibre, and planting them so that they made a menacing
show in the crenels of the parapet.
Whilst watching and directing the men, he kept his ears open for the
message, and he heard the herald again recite the terms on which the
garrison might surrender, and again the threat to hang every man from the
castle-walls if they compelled him to reduce them by force of arms. He
brought his message to an end by announcing that in his extreme clemency
Gian Maria accorded them another half-hour's grace in which to resolve
themselves upon their course. Should the end of that time still find
them obstinate, the bombardment would commence. Such was the message
that in another of his arrow-borne letters Gonzaga had suggested Gian
Maria should send.
It was Francesco who stepped forward to reply. He had been stooping over
one of the guns, as if to assure himself of the accuracy of its aim, and
as he rose he pronounced himself satisfied in a voice loud enough for the
herald's hearing. Then he advanced to Valentina's side, and whilst he
stood there delivering his answer he never noticed the silent departure
of the men from the wall.
"You will tell his Highness of Babbiano," he replied, "that he reminds us
of the boy in the fable who cried 'Wolf!' too often. Tell him, sir, that
his threats leave this garrison as unmoved as do his promises. If so be
that he intends in truth to bombard us, let him begin forthwith. We are
ready for him, as you perceive. Maybe he did not suppose us equipped
with cannon; but there they stand. Those guns are trained upon his camp,
and the first shot he fires upon us shall be a signal for such a reply as
he little dreams of. Tell him, too, that we expect no quarter, and will
yield none. We are unwilling for bloodshed, but if he drives us to it
and executes his purpose of employing cannon, then the consequences be
upon his own head. Bear him that answer, and tell him to send you no
more with empty threats."
The herald bowed upon the withers of his horse. The arrogance, the cold
imperiousness of the message struck him dumb with amazement. Amazement
was his, too, that Roccaleone should be armed with cannon, as with his
own eyes he saw. That those guns were empty he could not guess, nor
could Gian Maria when he heard a message that filled him with rage, and
would have filled him with dismay, but that he counted upon the mutiny
which Gonzaga had pledged himself to stir up.
As the herald was riding away a gruff laugh broke from Fortemani, who
stood behind the Count.
Valentina turned to Francesco with eyes that beamed admiration and a
"Oh, what had I done without you, Messer Francesco?" she cried, for
surely the twentieth time since his coming. "I tremble to think how
things had gone without your wit and valour to assist me." She never
noticed the malicious smile that trembled on Gonzaga's pretty face.
"Where did you find the powder?" she asked innocently, for her mind had
not yet caught that humour of the situation that had drawn a laugh from
"I found none," answered Francesco, smiling from the shadow of his helm.
"My threats"--and he waved his hand in the direction of that formidable
array of guns--"are as empty as Gian Maria's. Yet I think they will
impress him more than his do us. I will answer for it, Madonna, that
they deter him from bombarding us--if so be that he ever intended to. So
let us go and break our fast with a glad courage."
"Those guns are empty?" she gasped. "And you could talk so boldly and
threaten so defiantly!"
Mirth crept now into her face, and thrust back the alarm, a little of
which had peeped from her eyes even as she was extolling Francesco.
"There!" he cried joyously. "You are smiling now, Madonna. Nor have you
cause for aught else. Shall we descend? This early morning work has
given me the hunger of a wolf."
She turned to go with him, and in that moment, Peppe, his owlish face
spread over with alarm, dashed up the steps from the courtyard.
"Madonna!" he gasped, breathless. "Messer Francesco! The men--
Cappoccio---- He is haranguing them. He--is inciting them to
So, in gasps, he got out his tale, which swept the mirth again from
Valentina's eyes, and painted very white her cheek. Strong and brave
though she was, she felt her senses swimming at that sudden revulsion
from confidence to fear. Was all indeed ended at the very moment when
hope had reached its high meridian?
"You are faint, Madonna; lean on me."
It was Gonzaga who spoke. But beyond the fact that the words had been
uttered, she realised nothing. She saw an arm advanced, and she took it.
Then she dragged Gonzaga with her to the side overlooking the courtyard,
that with her own eyes she might have evidence of what was toward.
She heard an oath--a vigorous, wicked oath--from Francesco, followed by a
command, sharp and rasping.
"To the armoury yonder, Peppe! Fetch me a two-handed sword--the stoutest
you can find. Ercole, come with me. Gonzaga---- Nay, you had best stay
here. See to Monna Valentina."
He stepped to her side now, and rapidly surveyed the surging scene below,
where Cappoccio was still addressing the men. At sight of Francesco,
they raised a fierce yell, as might a pack of dogs that have sighted
"To the gates!" was the shout. "Down the drawbridge! We accept the
terms of Gian Maria. We will not die like rats."
"By God, but you shall, if I so will it!" snarled Francesco through his
set teeth. Then turning his head in a fever of impatience "Peppe," he
shouted, "will you never bring that sword?"
The fool came up at that moment, staggering under the weight of a great,
double-edged two-hander, equipped with lugs, and measuring a good six
feet from point to pummel. Francesco caught it from him, and bending, he
muttered a swift order in Peppino's ear.
"...In the box that stands upon the table in my chamber," Gonzaga
overheard him say. "Now go, and bring it to me in the yard. Speed you,
A look of understanding flashed up from the hunchback's eyes, and as he
departed at a run Francesco hoisted the mighty sword to his shoulder as
though its weight were that of a feather. In that instant Valentina's
white hand was laid upon the brassart that steeled his fore-arm.
"What will you do?" she questioned, in a whisper, her eyes dilating with
"Stem the treachery of that rabble," he answered shortly. "Stay you
here, Madonna. Fortemani and I will pacify them--or make an end of
them." And so grimly did he say it that Gonzaga believed it to lie
within his power.
"But you are mad!" she cried, and the fear in her eyes increased. "What
can you do against twenty?"
"What God pleases," he answered, and for a second put the ferocity from
his heart that he might smile reassurance.
"But you will be killed," she cried. " Oh! don't go, don't go! Let them
have their way, Messer Francesco. Let Gian Maria invest the castle. I
care not, so that you do not go."
Her voice, and the tale it told of sweet anxiety for his fate overruling
everything else in that moment--even her horror of Gian Maria--quickened
his blood to the pace of ecstasy. He was taken by a wild longing to
catch her in his arms--this lady hitherto so brave and daunted now by the
fear of his peril only. Every fibre of his being urged him to gather her
to his breast, whilst he poured courage and comfort into her ear. He
fainted almost with desire to kiss those tender eyes, upturned to his in
her piteous pleading that he should not endanger his own life. But
suppressing all, he only smiled, though very tenderly.
"Be brave, Madonna, and trust in me a little. Have I failed you yet?
Need you then fear that I shall fail you now?"
At that she seemed to gather courage. The words reawakened her
confidence in his splendid strength.
"We shall laugh over this when we break our fast," he cried. "Come,
Ercole!" And without waiting for more, he leapt down the steps with an
agility surprising in one so heavily armed as he.
They were no more than in time. As they gained the courtyard the men
came sweeping along towards the gates, their voices raucous and
threatening. They were full of assurance. All hell they thought could
not have hindered them, and yet at sight of that tall figure, bright as
an angel, in his panoply of glittering steel, with that great sword
poised on his left shoulder, some of the impetuousness seemed to fall
Still they advanced, Cappoccio's voice shouting encouragement. Almost
were they within range of that lengthy sword, when of a sudden it flashed
from his shoulder, and swept a half-circle of dazzling light before their
eyes. Round his head it went, and back again before them, handled as
though it had been a whip, and bringing them, silent, to a standstill.
He bore it back to his shoulder, and alert for the first movement, his
blood on fire, and ready to slay a man or two should the example become
necessary, he addressed them.
"You see what awaits you if you persist in this," he said, in a
dangerously quiet voice. "Have you no shame, you herd of cowardly
animals! You are loud-voiced enough where treason to the hand that pays
you is in question; but there, it seems, your valour ends."
He spoke to them now in burning words. He recapitulated the arguments
which yesterday he had made use of to quell the mutinous spirit of
Cappoccio. He assured them that Gian Maria threatened more than he could
accomplish; and so, perhaps, more than he would fulfil if they were so
foolish as to place themselves in his power. Their safety, he pointed
out to them, lay here, behind these walls. The siege could not long
endure. They had a stout ally in Caesar Borgia, and he was marching upon
Babbiano by then, so that Gian Maria must get him home perforce ere long.
Their pay was good, he reminded them, and if the siege were soon raised
they should be well rewarded.
"Gian Maria threatens to hang you when he captures Roccaleone. But even
should he capture it, do you think he would be allowed to carry out so
inhuman a threat? You are mercenaries, after all, in the pay of Monna
Valentina, on whom and her captains the blame must fall. This is Urbino,
not Babbiano, and Gian Maria is not master here. Do you think the noble
and magnanimous Guidobaldo would let you hang? Have you so poor an
opinion of your Duke? Fools! You are as safe from violence as are those
ladies in the gallery up there. For Guidobaldo would no more think of
harming you than of permitting harm to come to them. If any hanging
there is it will be for me, and perhaps for Messer Gonzaga who hired you.
Yet, do I talk of throwing down my arms? What think you holds me here?
Interest--just as interest holds you--and if I think the risk worth
taking, why should not you? Are you so tame and so poor-spirited that a
threat is to vanquish you? Will you become a byword in Italy, and when
men speak of cowardice, will you have them say: 'Craven as Monna
In this strain he talked to them, now smiting hard with his scorn, now
cajoling them with his assurances, and breeding confidence anew in their
shaken spirits. It was a thing that went afterwards to the making of an
epic that was sung from Calabria to Piedmont, how this brave knight, by
his words, by the power of his will and the might of his presence, curbed
and subdued that turbulent score of rebellious hinds.
And from the wall above Valentina watched him, her eyes sparkling with
tears that had not their source in sorrow nor yet in fear, for she knew
that he must prevail. How could it be else with one so dauntless?
Thus thought she now. But in the moment of his going, fear had chilled
her to the heart, and when she first saw him take his stand before them,
she had turned half-distraught, and begged Gonzaga not to linger at her
side, but to go lend what aid he could to that brave knight who stood so
sorely in need of it. And Gonzaga had smiled a smile as pale as January
sunshine, and his soft blue eyes had hardened in their glance. Not
weakness now was it that held him there, well out of the dangerous
turmoil. For he felt that had he possessed the strength of Hercules, and
the courage of Achilles, he would not in that instant have moved a step
to Francesco's aid. And as much he told her.
"Why should I, Madonna?" he had returned coldly. "Why should I raise a
hand to help the man whom you prefer to me? Why should I draw sword in
the cause of this fortress?"
She looked at him with troubled eyes. "What are you saying, my good
"Aye--your good Gonzaga!" he mocked her bitterly. "Your lap-dog, your
lute-thrummer; but not man enough to be your captain; not man enough to
earn a thought that is kinder than any earned by Peppe or your hounds. I
may endanger my neck to serve you, to bring you hither to a place of
safety from Gian Maria's persecution, and be cast aside for one who, it
happens, has a little more knowledge of this coarse trade of arms. Cast
me aside if you will," he pursued, with increasing bitterness, "but
having done so, do not ask me to serve you again. Let Messer Francesco
fight it out----"
"Hush, Gonzaga!" she interrupted. "Let me hear what he is saying."
And her tone told the courtier that his words had been lost upon the
morning air. Engrossed in the scene below she had not so much as
listened to his bitter tirade. For now Francesco was behaving oddly.
The fool was returned from the errand on which he had been despatched,
and Francesco called him to his side. Lowering his sword he received a
paper from Peppe's hand.
Burning with indignation at having gone unheeded, Gonzaga stood gnawing
his lip, whilst Valentina craned forward to catch Francesco's words.
"I have here a proof," he cried, "of what I tell you; proof of how little
Gian Maria is prepared to carry out his threats of cannon. It is that
fellow Cappoccio has seduced you with his talk. And you, like the sheep
you are, let yourselves be driven by his foul tongue. Now listen to the
bribe that Gian Maria offers to one within these walls if he can contrive
a means to deliver Roccaleone into his hands." And to Gonzaga's
paralysing consternation, he heard Francesco read the letter with which
Gian Maria had answered his proposed betrayal of the fortress. He went
white with fear and he leant against the low wall to steady the tell-tale
trembling that had seized him. Then Francesco's voice, scornful and
confident, floated up to his ears. "I ask you, my friends, would his
Highness of Babbiano be disposed to the payment of a thousand gold
florins if by bombardment he thought to break a way into Roccaleone?
This letter was written yesterday. Since then we have made a brave
display of cannon ourselves; and if yesterday he dared not fire, think
you he will to-day? But here, assure yourselves, if there is one amongst
you that can read."
He held out the letter to them. Cappoccio took it, and calling one
Aventano, he held it out in his turn. This Aventano, a youth who had
been partly educated for the Church, but had fallen from that lofty
purpose, now stood forward and took the letter. He scrutinised it, read
it aloud, and pronounced it genuine.
"Whom is it addressed to?" demanded Cappoccio.
"Nay, nay!" cried Francesco. "What need for that?"
"Let be," Cappoccio answered, almost fiercely. "If you would have us
remain in Roccaleone, let be. Aventano, tell me."
"To Messer Romeo Gonzaga," answered the youth, in a voice of wonder.
So evil a light leapt to Cappoccio's eye that Francesco carried his free
hand to the sword which he had lowered. But Cappoccio only looked up at
Gonzaga, and grinned malevolently. It had penetrated his dull wits that
he had been the tool of a judas, who sought to sell the castle for a
thousand florins. Further than that Cappoccio did not see; nor was he
very resentful, and his grin was rather of mockery than of anger. He was
troubled by no lofty notions of honour that should cause him to see in
this deed of Gonzaga's anything more than such a trickster's act as it is
always agreeable to foil. And then, to the others, who knew naught of
what was passing in Cappoccio's mind, he did a mighty strange thing.
From being the one to instigate them to treachery and mutiny, he was the
one now to raise his voice in a stout argument of loyalty. He agreed
with all that Messer Francesco had said, and he, for one, ranged himself
on Messer Francesco's side to defend the gates from any traitors who
sought to open them to Gian Maria Sforza.
His defection from the cause of mutiny was the signal for the utter
abandoning of that cause itself, and another stout ally came opportunely
to weigh in Francesco's favour was the fact that the half-hour of grace
was now elapsed, and Gian Maria's guns continued silent. He drew their
attention to the fact with a laugh, and bade them go in peace, adding the
fresh assurance that those guns would not speak that day, nor the next,
nor indeed ever.
Utterly conquered by Francesco and--perhaps even more--by his unexpected
ally, Cappoccio, they slunk shamefacedly away to the food and drink that
he bade them seek at Fra Domenico's hands.
How came that letter to your hands?" Valentina asked Gonzaga, when
presently they stood together in the courtyard, whither the courtier had
followed her when she descended.
"Wrapped round an arbalest-bolt that fell on the ramparts yesterday
whilst I was walking there alone," returned Gonzaga coolly.
He had by now regained his composure. He saw that stood in deadly peril,
and the very fear that possessed him seemed, by an odd paradox, to lend
him the strength to play his part.
Valentina eyed him with a something of mistrust in her glance. But on
Francesco's clear countenance no shadow of suspicion showed. His eyes
almost smiled as he asked Gonzaga:
"Why did you not bear it to Monna Valentina?"
A flush reddened the courtier's cheeks. He shrugged his shoulders
impatiently, and in a voice that choked with anger he delivered his
"To you, sir, who seem bred in camps and reared in guard-rooms, the
fulness of this insult offered me by Gian Maria may not be apparent. It
may not be yours to perceive that the very contact of that letter soiled
my hands, that it shamed me unutterably to think that that loutish Duke
should have deemed me a target for such a shaft. It were idle,
therefore, to seek to make you understand how little I could bear to
submit to the further shame of allowing another to see the affront that I
was powerless to avenge. I did, sir, with that letter the only thing
conceivable. I crumpled it in my hand and cast it from me, just as I
sought to cast its contents from my mind. But your watchful spies, Ser
Francesco, bore it to you, and if my shame has been paraded before the
eyes of that rabble soldiery, at least it has served the purpose of
saving Monna Valentina. To do that, I would, if the need arose, immolate
more than the pride that caused me to be silent on the matter of this
He spoke with such heat of sincerity that he convinced both Francesco and
Valentina, and the lady's eyes took on a softer expression as she
surveyed Gonzaga--this poor Gonzaga whom, her heart told her, she had
sorely wronged in thought. Francesco, ever generous, took his passionate
utterances in excellent part.
"Messer Gonzaga, I understand your scruples. You do me wrong to think
that I should fail in that."
He checked the suggestion he was on the point of renewing that,
nevertheless, Gonzaga would have been better advised to have laid that
letter at once before Monna Valentina. Instead, he dismissed the subject
with a laugh, and proposed that they should break their fast so soon as
he had put off his harness.
He went to do so, whilst Valentina bent her steps towards the dining-
room, attended by Gonzaga, to whom she now sought to make amends for her
suspicions by an almost excessive friendliness of bearing.
But there was one whom Gonzaga's high-sounding words in connection with
that letter had left cold. This was Peppe, that most wise of fools. He
hastened after Francesco, and while the knight was disarming he came to
voice his suspicions. But Francesco drove him out with impatience, and
Peppe went sorrowing and swearing that the wisdom of the fool was truly
better than the folly of the wise.
Throughout that day Gonzaga hardly stirred from Valentina's side. He
talked with her in the morning at great length and upon subjects poetical
or erudite, by which he meant to display his vast mental superiority over
the swashbuckling Francesco. In the evening, when the heat of the day
was spent, and whilst that same Messer Francesco was at some defensive
measures on the walls, Gonzaga played at bowls with Valentina and her
ladies--the latter having now recovered from the panic to which earlier
they had been a prey.
That morning Gonzaga had stood at bay, seeing his plans crumble. That
evening, after the day spent in Valentina's company--and she so sweet and
kind to him--he began to take heart of grace once more, and his volatile
mind whispered to his soul the hope that, after all, things might well be
as he had first intended, if he but played his cards adroitly, and did
not mar his chances by the precipitancy that had once gone near to losing
him. His purpose gathered strength from a message that came that evening
from Gian Maria, who was by then assured that Gonzaga's plan had failed.
He sent word that, being unwilling to provoke the bloodshed threatened by
the reckless madman who called himself Monna Valentina's Provost, he
would delay the bombardment, hoping that in the meantime hunger would
beget in that rebellious garrison a more submissive mood.
Francesco read the message to Madonna's soldiers, and they received it
joyously. Their confidence in him increased a hundredfold by this proof
of the accuracy of his foresight. They were a gay company at supper in
consequence, and gayest of all was Messer Gonzaga, most bravely dressed
in a purple suit of taby silk to honour so portentous an occasion.
Francesco was the first to quit the table, craving Monna Valentina's
leave to be about some duty that took him to the walls. She let him go,
and afterwards sat pensive, nor heeded now Romeo's light chatter, nor yet
the sonnet of Petrarca that presently he sang the company. Her thoughts
were all with him that had left the board. Scarcely a word had she
exchanged with Francesco since that delirious moment when they had looked
into each other's eyes upon the ramparts, and seen the secret that each
was keeping from the other. Why had he not come to her? she asked
herself. And then she bethought her of how Gonzaga had all day long been
glued to her side, and she realised, too, that it was she had shunned
Francesco's company, grown of a sudden strangely shy.
But greater than her shyness was now her desire to be near him, and to
hear his voice; to have him look again upon her as he had looked that
morning, when in terror for him she had sought to dissuade him from
opposing the craven impulse of her men-at-arms. A woman of mature age,
or one riper in experience, would have waited for him to seek her out.
But Valentina, in her sweet naturalness, thought never of subterfuge or
of dalliant wiles. She rose quietly from the table ere Gonzaga's song
was done, and as quietly she slipped from the room.
It was a fine night, the air heavy with the vernal scent of fertile
lands, and the deep cobalt of the heavens a glittering, star-flecked dome
in a lighter space of which floated the half-disk of the growing moon.
Such a moon, she bethought her, as she had looked at with thoughts of
him, the night after their brief meeting at Acquasparta. She had gained
that north rampart on which he had announced that duty took him, and
yonder she saw a man---the only tenant of the wall--leaning upon the
embattled parapet, looking down at the lights of Gian Maria's camp. He
was bareheaded, and by the gold coif that gleamed in his hair she knew
him. Softly she stole up behind him.
"Do we dream here, Messer Francesco?" she asked him, as she reached his
side, and there was laughter running through her words.
He started round at the sound of her voice, then he laughed too, softly
"It is a night for dreams, and I was dreaming indeed. But you have
"You grieve me," she rallied him. "For assuredly they were pleasant,
since, to come here and indulge them, you left--us."
"Aye--they were pleasant," he answered. "And yet, they were fraught with
a certain sadness, but idle as is the stuff of dreams. They were yours
to dispel, for they were of you."
"Of me?" she questioned, her heart-beats quickening and bringing to her
cheeks a flush that she thanked the night for concealing.
"Yes, Madonna--of you and our first meeting in the woods at Acquasparta.
Do you recall it?"
"I do, I do," she murmured fondly.
"And do you recall how I then swore myself your knight and ever your
champion? Little did we dream how the honour that I sighed for was to be
She made him no answer, her mind harking back to that first meeting on
which so often and so fondly she had pondered.
"I was thinking, too," he said presently, "of that man Gian Maria in the
plain yonder, and of this shameful siege."
"You--you have no misgivings?" she faltered, for his words had
disappointed her a little.
"For being here with me. For being implicated in what they call my
He laughed softly, his eyes upon the silver gleam of waters below.
"My misgivings are all for the time when this siege shall be ended; when
you and I shall have gone each our separate way," he answered boldly. He
turned to face her now, and his voice rang a little tense. "But for
being here to guide this fine resistance and lend you the little aid I
can---- No, no, I have no misgiving for that. It is the dearest frolic
ever my soldiering led me into. I came to Roccaleone with a message of
warning; but underneath, deep down in my heart, I bore the hope that mine
should be more than a messenger's part; that mine it might be to remain
by you and do such work as I am doing."
"Without you they would have forced me by now to surrender."
"Perhaps they would. But while I am here I do not think they will. I
burn for news of Babbiano. If I could but tell what is happening there I
might cheer you with the assurance that this siege can last but a few
days longer. Gian Maria must get him home or submit to the loss of his
throne. And if he loses that your uncle would no longer support so
strenuously his suit with you. To you, Madonna, this must be a cheering
thought. To me--alas! Why should I hope for it?"
He was looking away now into the night, but his voice quivered with the
emotion that was in him. She was silent, and emboldened perhaps by that
silence of hers, encouraged by the memory of what he had seen that
morning reflected in her eyes:
"Madonna," he cried, "I would it might be mine to cut a road for you
through that besieging camp, and bear you away to some blessed place
where there are neither courts nor princes. But since this may not be,
Madonna mia, I would that this siege might last for ever."
And then--was it the night breeze faintly stirring through his hair that
mocked him with the whisper, "So indeed would I?" He turned to her, his
hand, brown and nervous, fell upon hers, ivory-white, where it rested on
"Valentina!" he cried, his voice no louder than a whisper, his eyes
ardently seeking her averted ones. And then, as suddenly as it had leapt
up, was the fire in his glance extinguished. He withdrew his hand from
hers, he sighed, and shifted his gaze to the camp once more. "Forgive,
forget, Madonna," he murmured bitterly, "that which in my madness I have
Silent she stood for a long moment; then she edged nearer to him, and her
voice murmured back: "What if I account it no presumption?"
With a gasp he swung round to face her, and they stood very close, glance
holding glance, and hers the less timid of the two. They thus remained
for a little space. Then shaking his head and speaking with an infinite
"It were better that you did, Madonna," he made answer.
"Better? But why?"
"Because I am no duke, Madonna."
"And what of that?" she cried, to add with scorn: "Out yonder sits a
duke. Oh, sir, how shall I account presumptuous in you the very words
that I would hear? What does your rank signify to me? I know you for
the truest knight, the noblest gentleman, and the most valiant friend
that ever came to the aid of distressed maiden. Do you forget the very
principles that have led me to make this resistance? That I am a woman,
and ask of life no more than is a woman's due--and no less."
There she stopped; again the blood suffused her cheeks as she bethought
her of how fast she talked, and of how bold her words might sound. She
turned slightly from him, and leant now upon the parapet, gazing out into
the night. And as she stood thus, a very ardent voice it was that
whispered in her ear:
"Valentina, by my soul, I love you!" And there that whisper, which
filled her with an ecstasy that was almost painful in its poignancy,
ended sharply as if throttled. Again his hand sought hers, which was
yielded to him as she would have yielded her whole life at his sweet
bidding, and now his voice came less passionately.
"Why delude ourselves with cruel hopes, my Valentina?" he was saying.
"There is the future. There is the time when this siege shall be done
with, and when, Gian Maria having got him home, you will be free to
depart. Whither will you go?"
She looked at him as if she did not understand the question, and her eyes
were troubled, although in such light as there was he could scarce see
"I will go whither you bid me. Where else have I to go?" she added, with
a note of bitterness.
He started. Her answer was so far from what he had expected.
"But your uncle----?"
"What duty do I owe to him? Oh, I have thought of it, and until--until
this morning, it seemed that a convent must be my ultimate refuge. I
have spent most of my young life at Santa Sofia, and the little that I
have seen of the world at my uncle's court scarce invites me to see more
of it. The Mother Abbess loved me a little. She would take me back,
She broke off and looked at him, and before that look of absolute and
sweet surrender his senses swam. That she was niece to the Duke of
Urbino he remembered no more than that he was Count of Aquila, well-born,
but of none too rich estate, and certainly no more a match for her in
Guidobaldo's eyes than if he had been the simple knight-errant that he
He moved closer to her, his hands--as if obeying a bidding greater than
his will, the bidding of that glance of hers, perhaps--took her by the
shoulders, whilst his whole soul looked at her from his eyes. Then, with
a stifled cry, he caught her to him. For a moment she lay, palpitant,
within his arms, her tall, bronze head on a level with his chin, her
heart beating against his heart. Stooping suddenly, he kissed her on the
lips. She suffered it with an unresistance that invited. But when it
was done, she gently put him from her; and he, obedient to her slightest
wish, curbed the wild ardour of his mood, and set her free.
"Anima mia!" he cried rapturously. "You are mine now, betide what may.
Not Gian Maria nor all the dukes in Christendom shall take you from me."
She set her hand upon his lips to silence him, and he kissed the palm, so
that laughing she drew back again. And now from laughter she passed to a
great solemnity, and with arm outstretched towards the ducal camp: "Win
me a way through those lines," said she, "and bear me away from Urbino--
far away where Guidobaldo's power and the vengeance of Gian Maria may not
follow us--and you shall have won me for your own. But until then, let
there be a truce to--to this, between us. Here is a man's work to be
done, and if I am weak as to-night, I may weaken you, and then we should
both be undone. It is upon your strength I count, Franceschino mio, my
He would have answered her. He had much to tell her--who and what he
was. But she pointed to the head of the steps, where a man's figure
"Yonder comes the sentinel," she said. "Leave me now, dear Francesco.
Go. It is growing late."
He bowed low before her, obedient ever, like the true knight he was, and
took his leave of her, his soul on fire.
Valentina watched his retreating figure until it had vanished round the
angle of the wall. Then with a profound sigh, that was as a prayer of
thanksgiving for this great good that had come into her life, she leaned
upon the parapet and looked out into the darkness, her cheeks flushed,
her heart still beating high. She laughed softly to herself out of the
pure happiness of her mood. The camp of Gian Maria became a subject for
her scorn. What should his might avail whilst she had such a champion to
defend her now and hereafter?
There was an irony in that siege on which her fancy fastened. By coming
thus in arms against her Gian Maria sought to win her for his wife; yet
all that he had accomplished was to place her in the arms of the one man
whom she had learnt to love by virtue of this very siege. The mellow
warmth of the night, the ambient perfume of the fields were well-sorted
to her mood, and the faint breeze that breathed caressingly upon her
cheek seemed to re-echo the melodies her heart was giving forth. In that
hour those old grey walls of Roccaleone seemed to enclose for her a very
paradise, and the snatch of an old love song stole softly from her parted
lips. But like a paradise--alas!--it had its snake that crept up unheard
behind her, and was presently hissing in her ear. And its voice was the
voice of Romeo Gonzaga.
"It comforts me, Madonna, that there is one, at least, in Roccaleone has
the heart to sing."
Startled out of her happy pensiveness by that smooth and now unutterably
sinister voice, she turned to face its owner.
She saw the white gleam of his face and something of the anger that
smouldered in his eye, and despite herself a thrill of alarm ran through
her like a shudder. She looked beyond him to a spot where lately she had
seen the sentry. There was no one there nor anywhere upon that wall.
They were alone, and Messer Gonzaga looked singularly evil.
For a moment there was a tense silence, broken only by the tumbling
waters of the torrent-moat and the hoarse challenge of a sentry's "Chi va
là?" in Gian Maria's camp. Then she turned nervously, wondering how much
he might have heard of what had passed between herself and Francesco, how
much have seen.
"And yet, Gonzaga," she answered him, "I left you singing below when I
"--To wanton it here in the moonlight with that damned swashbuckler, that
brigand, that kennel-bred beast of a sbirro!"
"Gonzaga! You would dare!"
"Dare?" he mocked her, beside himself with passion. "Is it you who speak
of daring--you, the niece of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, a lady of the
noble and illustrious house of Rovere, who cast yourself into the arms of
a low-born vassal such as that, a masnadiero, a bandit, a bravo? And can
you yet speak of daring, and take that tone with me, when shame should
strike you either dead or dumb?"
"Gonzaga," she answered him, her face as white as his own, but her voice
steady and hard with anger, "leave me now--upon the instant, or I will
have you flogged--flogged to the bone."
A moment he stared at her like a man dazed. Then he tossed his arms to
Heaven, and letting them fall heavily to his sides, he shrugged his
shoulders and laughed evilly. But of going he made no shift.
"Call your men," he answered her, in a choking voice. "Do your will on
me. Flog me to the bone or to the death--let that be the reward of all
that I have done, all that I have risked, all that I have sacrificed to
serve you. It were of a piece with your other actions."
Her eyes sought his in the gloom, her bosom heaving wildly in her
endeavours to master herself before she spoke.
"Messer Gonzaga," said she at last, "I'll not deny that you served me
faithfully in the matter of my escape from Urbino----"
"Why speak of it?" he sneered. "It was a service of which you but avail
yourself until another offered on whom you might bestow your favour and
the supreme command of your fortress. Why speak of it?"
"To show you that the service you allude to is now paid," she riposted
sternly. "By reproaching me you have taken payment, and by insulting me
you have stamped out my gratitude."
"A most convenient logic yours," he mocked. "I am cast aside like an
outworn garment, and the garment is accounted paid for because through
much hard usage it has come to look a little threadbare."
And now it entered her mind that perhaps there was some justice in what
he said. Perhaps she had used him a little hardly.
"Do you think, Gonzaga," she said, and her tone was now a shade more
gentle, "that because you have served me you may affront me, and that
knight who has served me, also, and----"
"In what can such service as his compare with mine? What has he done
that I have not done more?"
"Why, when the men rebelled here----"
"Bah! Cite me not that. Body of God! it is his trade to lead such
swine. He is one of themselves. But for the rest, what has such a man
as this to lose by his share in your rebellion, compared with such a loss
as mine must be?"
"Why, if things go ill, I take it he may lose his life," she answered, in
a low voice. "Can you lose more?"
He made a gesture of impatience.
"If things go ill--yes. It may cost him dearly. But if they go well,
and this siege is raised, he has nothing more to fear. Mine is a parlous
case. However ends this siege, for me there will be no escape from the
vengeance of Gian Maria and Guidobaldo. They know my share in it. They
know that your action was helped by me, and that without me you could
never have equipped yourself for such resistance. Whatever may betide
you and this Ser Franceseo, for me there will be no escape."
She drew a deep breath, then set him the obvious question:
"Did you not consider it--did you not weigh these chances--before you
embarked upon this business, before you, yourself, urged me to this
"Aye, did I," he answered sullenly.
"Then, why these complaints now?"
He was singularly, madly frank with her in his reply. He told her that
he had done it because he loved her, because she had given him signs that
his love was not in vain.
"I gave you signs?" she interrupted him. "Mother in Heaven! Recite
these signs that I may know them."
"Were you not ever kind to me?" he demanded. "Did you not ever manifest
a liking for my company? Were you not ever pleased that I should sing to
you the songs that in your honour I had made? Was it not to me you
turned in the hour of your need?"
"See now how poor a thing you are, Gonzaga?" she answered witheringly.
"A woman may not smile on you, may not give you a kind word, may not
suffer you to sing to her, but you must conclude she is enamoured of you.
And if I turned to you in my hour of need, as you remind me, needs that
be a sign of my infatuation? Does every cavalier so think when a
helpless woman turns to him in her distress? But even so," she
continued, "how should all that diminish the peril you now talk of? Even
were your suit with me to prosper, would that make you any the less Romeo
Gonzaga, the butt of the anger of my uncle and Gian Maria? Rather do I
think that it should make you more."
But he disillusioned her. He did not scruple, in his angry mood, to lay
before her his reasonings that as her husband he would be screened.
She laughed aloud at that.
"And so it is by such sophistries as these that your presumption came to
That stung him. Quivering with the passion that obsessed him, he stepped
close up to her.
"Tell me, Madonna--why shall we account presumption in Romeo Gonzaga a
suit that in a nameless adventurer we encourage?" he asked, his voice
thick and tremulous.
"Have a care," she bade him.
"A care of what?" he flashed back. "Answer me, Monna Valentina. Am I so
base a man that by the very thought of love for you I must presume,
whilst you can give yourself into the arms of this swashbuckling bravo,
and take his kisses? Your reasoning sorts ill with your deeds."
"Craven!" she answered him. "Dog that you are!" And before the blaze of
passion in her eyes he recoiled, his courage faltering. She cropped her
anger in mid-career, and in a dangerously calm voice she bade him see to
it that by morning he was no longer in Roccaleone. "Profit by the
night," she counselled him," and escape the vigilance of Gian Maria as
best you can. Here you shall not stay."
At that a great fear took possession of him, putting to flight the last
remnant of his anger. Nor fear alone was it, to do him full justice. It
was also the realisation that if he would take payment from her for this
treatment of him, if he would slake his vengeance, he must stay. One
plan had failed him. But his mind was fertile, and he might devise
another that might succeed and place Gian Maria in Roccaleone. Thus
should he be amply venged. She was turning away, having pronounced his
banishment, but he sprang after her, and upon his knees he now besought
her piteously to hear him yet awhile.
And she, regretting her already of her harshness, and thinking that
perhaps in his jealousy he had been scarce responsible for what he had
said, stood still to hear him.
"Not that, not that, Madonna," he wailed, his tone suggesting the
imminence of tears. "Do not send me away. If die I must, let me die
here at Roccaleone, helping the defence to my last breath. But do not
cast me out to fall into the hands of Gian Maria. He will hang me for my
share in this business. Do not requite me thus, Madonna. You owe me a
little, surely, and if I was mad when I talked to you just now, it was
love of you that drove me--love of you and suspicion of that man of whom
none of us know anything. Madonna, be pitiful a little. Suffer me to
She looked down at him, her mind swayed between pity and contempt. Then
pity won the day in the wayward but ever gentle heart of Valentina. She
bade him rise.
"And go, Gonzaga. Get you to bed, and sleep you into a saner frame of
mind. We will forget all this that you have said, so that you never
speak of it again--nor of this love you say you bear me."
The hypocrite caught the hem of her cloak, and bore it to his lips.
"May God keep your heart ever as pure and noble and forgiving," he
murmured brokenly. "I know how little I am deserving of your clemency.
But I shall repay you, Madonna," he protested--and truly meant it, though
not in the sense it seemed.