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Love-at-Arms by Raphael Sabatini

Part 5 out of 5

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A week passed peacefully at Roccaleone; so peacefully that it was
difficult to conceive that out there in the plain sat Gian Maria with his
five-score men besieging them.

This inaction fretted the Count of Aquila, as did the lack of news from
Fanfulla; and he wondered vaguely what might be taking place at Babbiano
that Gian Maria should be content to sit idly before them, as though he
had months at his disposal in which to starve them into yielding. The
mystery would have been dispelled had he known that he had Gonzaga to
thank for this singular patience of Gian Maria's. For the courtier had
found occasion to send another letter-carrying shaft into the Duke's
camp, informing him of how and why the last plot had failed, and urging
Gian Maria to wait and trust in him to devise a better scheme for
delivering the castle into his power. He had promised boldly and
confidently enough, and Gian Maria--facts showed--had trusted to that
promise of his, and awaited its fulfilment. But tax his mind though he
did incessantly, no inspiration came to him, no scheme suggested itself
by which he might accomplish his treacherous purpose.

He employed the time cunningly to win back Valentina's favour and
confidence. On the morning after his stormy interview with Guidobaldo's
niece, he had confessed himself to Fra Domenico, and approached the
Sacrament. Every morning thereafter he appeared at Mass, and by the
piety and fervour of his devotions became an example to all the others.
Now this was not lost on Valentina, who was convent-bred, and in a
measure devout. She read in this singular alteration of his ways the
undoubtable indication of an altered character. That he had approached
the Sacrament on the morning after his wild words to her, she took to
mean that he repented him the viciousness of the animosity he had
entertained that he continued so extremely devout thereafter she
construed into meaning that his repentance was sincere and persistent.

And so she came to ask herself whether, indeed, he had not been as much
sinned against as sinning, and she ended by assuring herself that in a
measure the fault was hers. Seeing him so penitent, and concluding from
it that he was not likely to transgress again, she readmitted him to her
favour, and, little by little, the old friendly state was re-established
and was the sounder, perhaps, by virtue of her confidence that after what
had passed he would not again misunderstand her.

He did not, nor did he again allow his optimism and ever-ready vanity to
cozen him with false hopes. He read her with exact precision, and whilst
the reading but served to embitter him the more and render him more
steadfast in his vengeful purpose, it, nevertheless, made him smile the
more sweetly and fawn the more obsequiously.

And not content with this, he did not limit his sycophancy to Valentina,
but sought also by a smiling persistence to ingratiate himself with
Francesco. No voice in Roccaleone--not even that of the bully Ercole--
was raised more often or more enthusiastically to praise and glorify
their Provost. Valentina, observing this, and accepting it as another
sign of his contrition for the past and purpose of amendment for the
future, grew yet more cordial towards him. He was not lacking in
astuteness, this pretty Ser Romeo, nor in knowledge of a woman's heart,
and the apprehension of the fact that there is no flattery she prefers to
that which has for object the man she loves.

Thus did Gonzaga conquer the confidence and esteem of all during that
peaceful week. He seemed a changed man, and all save Peppe saw in this
change a matter for increased trust and friendship towards him. But the
astute fool looked on and pondered. Such transformations as these were
not effected in a night. He was no believer in any human chrysalis that
shall make of the grub of yesterday the butterfly of to-day. And so, in
this fawning, smiling, subservient Gonzaga, he saw nothing but an object
of mistrust, a fellow to be watched with the utmost vigilance. To this
vigilance the hunchback applied himself with a zeal born of his cordial
detestation of the courtier. But Gonzaga, aware of the fool's mistrust
and watchfulness, contrived for once to elude him, and to get a letter to
Gian Maria setting forth the ingenious plan he had hatched.

The notion had come to him that Sunday at Mass. On all sanctified days
it was Monna Valentina's way to insist that the entire garrison, with the
exception of one single sentinel--and this only at Francesco's very
earnest urging--should attend the morning service. Like an inspiration
it came to him that such a half-hour as that would be a most opportune
season in which to throw open the gates of Roccaleone to the besiegers.
The following Wednesday was the feast of Corpus Christi. Then would be
his opportunity.

Kneeling there, with head bent in ecstatic devotion, he matured his
treacherous plan. The single sentry he could suborn, or else--if bribery
failed--poniard. He realised that single-handed he might not lower the
cumbrous drawbridge, nor would it be wise, even if possible, for the
noise of it might give the alarm. But there was the postern. Gian Maria
must construct him a light, portable bridge, and have it in readiness to
span the moat and silently pour his soldiers into the castle through that
little gate.

And so, the plot matured and every detail clear, he got him to his
chamber and penned the letter that was to rejoice the heart of Gian
Maria. He chose a favourable moment to despatch it, as he had despatched
the former ones, tied about the quarrel of an arbalest, and he saw Gian
Maria's signal--for which the letter had provided--that the plan would be
adopted. Humming a gay measure, jubilant at the prospect of seeing
himself so amply avenged, Gonzaga passed down and out into the castle
gardens to join the ladies in their merry-making over a game of hoodman

Now, however much the Duke of Babbiano may have congratulated himself
upon the ally he possessed in Gonzaga, and the cunning scheme the latter
had devised for placing him in possession of Roccaleone, there came news
to him on the morrow that caused him to rejoice a hundredfold more
fervently. His subjects of Babbiano were in a condition approaching open
rebellion, resulting from the disquieting rumours that Caesar Borgia was
arming at Rome for a decent upon the Duchy, and the continued absence of
Gian Maria in such a season, upon a wooing that they deemed ill-timed. A
strong party had been formed, and the leaders had nailed upon the Palace
gates a proclamation that, unless Gian Maria returned within three days
to organise the defence of Babbiano, they would depose him and repair to
Aquila to invite his cousin, Francesco del Falco--whose patriotism and
military skill were known to all--to assume the crown of Babbiano and
protect them.

At the news, and upon reading the proclamation, which Alvari had brought
with him, Gian Maria flew into one of those fits of rage that made his
name a byword in Babbiano. Presently, however, he cooled. There was
Gonzaga yonder, who had promised to admit him to Roccaleone on Wednesday.
That left him time to first possess himself of his reluctant bride, and
then ride hard to Babbiano, to arrive there before the expiry of the
three days' grace his subjects gave him.

He conferred with Guidobaldo, and urged that a priest should be in
waiting to wed them so soon as he should have brought her out of the
fortress. Upon that detail they were within an ace of quarrelling.
Guidobaldo would not at first agree to such hasty nuptials; they were
unfitting the dignity and the station of his niece, and if Gian Maria
would wed her he must come to Urbino and let the ceremony be performed by
a cardinal. Well was it then for Gian Maria that he mastered his wonted
hastiness and curbed the hot, defiant retort that rose to his lips. Had
he done so, an enduring rupture between them would probably have ensued;
for Guidobaldo was not one to permit himself to be hectored, and, after
all, he amply realised that Gian Maria had more need of him than he of
Gian Maria. And this in that moment the Duke of Babbiano realised too,
and realising it he set himself to plead where otherwise he might have
demanded, to beg as a favour that which otherwise he might have commanded
with a threat. And so he won Guidobaldo--although reluctant--to his
wishes in the matter, and in his good-nature the Duke of Urbino consented
to pocket the dignity that prompted him to see the ceremony performed
with princely pomp.

This being settled, Gian Maria blessed Gonzaga who rendered it all
possible, and came most opportunely to his aid where without him he
should have been forced to resort to cannon and bloodshed.

With Gonzaga the only shadow of doubt that remained to mar the perfect
certainty of his success lay in his appreciation of Francesco's daring
character and resourceful mind, and now as if the gods were eager to
favour him to the very last degree--a strange weapon to combat this was
unexpectedly thrust into his hand.

It happened that Alvari was not the only messenger who travelled that day
to Roccaleone. There followed him by some hours, the Count of Aquila's
servant, Zaccaria, who rode hard and reached the approaches of the castle
by sunset. His destination being the fortress itself, he was forced to
wait in the woods until night had fallen, and even then his mission was
fraught with peril.

It befell that somewhere near the second hour of night, the moon being
overcast at the time--for there were threats of a storm in the sky--the
sentinel on the eastern wall heard a sound of splashing in the moat
below, accompanied by the stertorous breathing of a swimmer whose mouth
is not well above water. He challenged the sound, but receiving no reply
he turned to go and give the alarm, and ran into the arms of Gonzaga, who
had come up to take the air.

"Illustrious," he exclaimed, "there is someone swimming the moat."

"Eh?" cried Gonzaga, a hundred suspicions of Gian Maria running through
his mind. "Treachery?"

"It is what I thought."

Gonzaga took the man by the sleeve of his doublet, and drew him back to
the parapet. They peered over, and from out of the blackness they were
hailed by a faint "Olá!"

"Who goes there?" demanded Romeo.

"A friend," came the answer softly. "A messenger from Babbiano with
letters for the Lord Count of Aquila. Throw me a rope, friends, before I
drown in this trough."

"You rave, fool!" answered him Gonzaga. "We have no counts at

"Surely, sir sentinel," replied the voice, "my master, Messer Francesco
del Falco, is here. Throw me a rope, I say."

"Messer Fran----" began Gonzaga. Then he made a noise like a man
choking. It was as if a sudden light of revelation had flooded his
brain. "Get a rope," he harshly bade the sentry. "In the armoury yard.
Despatch, fool!" he added sharply, now fearing interruption.

In a moment the man was back, and the rope was lowered to the visitor
below. A few seconds later Zaccaria stood on the ramparts of Roccaleone,
the water dripping from his sodden garments, and gathering in a pool
about his feet.

"This way," said Gonzaga, leading the man towards the armoury tower,
where a lanthorn was burning. By the light of it he surveyed the
newcomer, and bade the sentry close the door and remain within call,

Zaccaria looked startled at the order. This was scarcely the reception
he had expected after so imperilling his life to reach the castle with
his letter.

"Where is my lord?" he inquired, through teeth that chattered from the
cold of his immersion, wondering vaguely who this very magnificent
gentleman might be.

"Is Messer Francesco del Falco your lord?" asked Romeo.

"He is, sir. I have had the honour to serve him these ten years. I
bring him letters from Messer Fanfulla degli Arcipreti. They are very
urgent. Will you lead me to him?"

"You are very wet," murmured Gonzaga solicitously. "You will take your
death from cold, and the death of a man so brave as to have found a way
through Gian Maria's lines were truly deplorable." He stepped to the
door. "Olá!" he called to the sentry. "Take this brave fellow up there
and find him a change of raiment." He pointed to the upper chamber of
the tower, where, indeed, such things were stored.

"But my letters, sir!" cried Zaccaria impatiently. "They are very
urgent, and hours have I wasted already in waiting for the night."

"Surely you can wait until you have changed your garments? Your life, I
take it, is of more account than the loss of a few moments."

"But my orders from Messer degli Arcipreti were that I must not lose an

"Oh, si, si!" cried Gonzaga, with a show of good-tempered impatience.
"Give me the letters, then, and I will take them to the Count while you
are stripping those wet clothes."

Zaccaria eyed him a moment in doubt. But he looked so harmless in his
finery, and the expression of his comely face was so winning and honest,
that the man's hesitancy faded as soon as it sprang up. Removing his
cap, he drew from within the crown the letter, which he had placed there
to keep dry. This package he now handed to Gonzaga, who, with a final
word of instruction to the sentry touching the finding of raiment for the
messenger, stepped out to go his errand. But outside the door he paused,
and called the sentry to him again.

"Here is a ducat for you," he whispered. "Do my bidding and you shall
have more. Detain him in the tower till I return, and on no account let
him be seen or heard by anyone."

"Yes, Excellency," the man replied. "But what if the captain comes and
finds me absent from my post?"

"I will provide for that. I will tell Messer Fortemani that I have
employed you on a special matter, and ask him to replace you. You are
dispensed sentry duty for to-night."

The man bowed, and quietly withdrew to attend to his prisoner, for in
that light he now regarded Zaccaria.

Gonzaga sought Fortemani in the guard-room below, and did as he had
promised the sentry.

"But," snapped Ercole, reddening, "by whose authority have you done this?
By what right do you send sentinels on missions of your own? Christo
Santo! Is the castle to be invaded while you send my watchmen to fetch
your comfit­box or a book of verses?"

"You will remember----" began Romeo, with an air of overwhelming dignity.

"Devil take you and him that sent you!" broke in the bully. "The Messer
Provost shall hear of this."

"On no account," cried Gonzaga, now passing from anger to alarm, and
snatching the skirts of Fortemani's cloak as the captain was in the act
of going out to execute his threat. "Ser Ercole be reasonable, I beg of
you. Are we to alarm the castle and disturb Monna Valentina over a
trumpery affair such as this? Man, they will laugh at you."

"Eh?" There was nothing Ercole relished less than to be laughed at. He
pondered a moment, and it occurred to him that perhaps he was making much
of nothing. Then:

"You, Aventano," he called, "take your partisan, and patrol the eastern
rampart. There, Messer Gonzaga, I have obeyed your wishes; but Messer
Francesco shall hear of it when he comes his rounds."

Gonzaga left him. Francesco would not make his rounds for another hour,
and by then it would not matter what Fortemani told him. In one way or
another he would be able to account for his action.

He crossed the courtyard, and mounted the steps leading to his own
chamber. Once there, he closed and barred the door. He kindled a light,
and flinging the letter on the table, he sat and contemplated its
exterior and the great red seal that gleamed in the yellow light of his

So! This knight-errant, this man whom he had accounted a low-born hind,
was none other than the famous Count of Aquila, the well-beloved of the
people of Babbiano, the beau-ideal of all military folk from Sicily to
the Alps. And he had never suspected it! Dull-witted did he now account
himself. Enough descriptions had he heard of that famous condottiero,
that mirror of Italian chivalry. He might have known that there did not
live two men of such commanding ways as he had seen instanced at
Roccaleone. What was his object there? Was it love of Valentina, or was
it----? He paused, as in his mind he made a swift review of the politics
of Babbiano. A sudden possibility occurred to him that made his eyes
sparkle and his hands tremble with eagerness. Was this but a political
scheme to undermine his cousin's throne, to which Gonzaga had heard it
rumoured that Francesco del Falco was an aspirant? If it were so, what a
vengeance would be his to unmask him! How it must humble Valentina! The
letter lay before him. Within it the true facts would be disclosed.
What did his friend Fanfulla write him?

He took the letter up and made a close inspection of the seal. Then
softly, quietly, slowly he drew his dagger. If his suspicions were
unfounded, his dagger heated in the taper should afford him the means to
conceal the fact that he had tampered with that missive. He slipped his
blade under the seal, and worked it cautiously until it came up and set
the letter open. He unfolded it, and as he read his eyes dilated. He
seemed to crouch on his chair, and the hand that held the paper shook.
He drew the candle nearer, and shading his eyes he read it again, word
for word:

"MY DEAR LORD COUNT,--I have delayed writing until the time when the
signs I observed should have become more definite, as they have now done,
so that I may delay no longer. This, then, goes by the hand of Zaccaria,
to tell you that to-day has word been sent Gian Maria giving him three
days in which to return to Babbiano, or to abandon all hope of his crown,
of which the people will send the offer then to you at Aquila, where you
are believed to be. So now, my dear lord, you have the tyrant at your
mercy, tossed between Scylla and Charybdis. Yours it is to resolve how
you will act; but I rejoice in being the one to send you word that your
presence at Roccaleone and your stubborn defence of the fortress has not
been vain, and that presently you are to reap the well-earned reward of
it. The people have been stirred to this extreme action by the confusion
prevailing here.

"News has reached us that Caesar Borgia is arming, at Rome, a condotta to
invade Babbiano, and the people are exasperated at Gian Maria's continued
absence in such a season. They are short-sighted in this, for they
overlook the results that must attend the alliance with Urbino. May God
protect and prosper your Excellency, whose most devoted servant is



"Francesco," said Valentina, and the name came from her lips as if it
were an endearment, "why that frowning, care­worn look?"

They were in the dining-room alone, where the others had left them, and
they were still seated at the table at which they had supped. Francesco
raised his dark, thoughtful eyes, and as they lighted now on Valentina
the thoughtfulness that was in them gave place to tenderness.

"I am fretted by this lack of news," he acknowledged. "I would I knew
what is being done in Babbiano. I had thought that ere now Caesar Borgia
had stirred Gian Maria's subjects into some manner of action. I would I

She rose, and coming close to him, she stood with one hand resting upon
his shoulder, her eyes smiling down upon his upturned face.

"And shall such a trifle fret you--you who professed a week ago that you
would this siege might last for ever?"

"Account me not fickle, anima mia," he answered her, and he kissed the
ivory fingers that rested on his shoulder. "For that was before the
world changed for me at the magic of your bidding. And so," he repeated,
"I would I knew what is toward at Babbiano!"

"But why sigh over a wish so idle?" she exclaimed. "By what means can
news reach you here of the happenings of the world without?"

He pondered a moment, seeking words in which to answer her. A score of
times during that week had he been on the point of disclosing himself, of
telling her who and what he was. Yet ever had he hesitated, putting off
that disclosure until the season should appear more fitting. This he now
considered the present. She trusted him, and there was no reason to
remain silent longer. Perhaps already he had delayed too long, and so he
was about to speak when she started from his side, and crossed hastily to
the window, alarmed by the sound of approaching steps. A second later
the door opened, and Gonzaga appeared.

A moment he hesitated in the doorway, looking from one to the other, and
Francesco, lazily regarding him in his turn, noted that his cheeks were
pale and that his eyes glittered like those of a man with the fever.
Then he stepped forward, and, leaving the door open behind him, he
advanced into the room.

"Monna Valentina, I have something to communicate to you." His voice
shook slightly. "Messer--Francesco, will you give us leave?" And his
feverish eyes moved to the open door with an eloquence that asked no

Francesco rose slowly, endeavouring to repress his surprise and glanced
across at Valentina, as if awaiting her confirmation or refusal of this
request that he should leave them.

"A communication for me?" she marvelled, a slight frown drawing her brows
together. "Of what nature, sir?"

"Of a nature as important as it is private."

She raised her chin, and with a patient smile she seemed to beg of
Francesco that he would suffer her to humour this mood of Gonzaga's. In
quick obedience Francesco inclined his head.

"I shall be in my chamber until the hour of my rounds, Madonna," he
announced, and with that took his departure.

Gonzaga attended him to the door, which he closed after him, and
composing his features to an expression of sorrowing indignation, he came
back and stood facing Valentina across the table.

"Madonna," he said, "I would to Heaven this communication I have to make
to you came from other lips. In the light of what has passed--here at
Roccaleone--through my folly--you--you may think my mission charged with

Perplexity stared at him from her eyes.

"You fill me with alarm, my good Gonzaga," she answered him, though

"Alas it has fallen to my unfortunate lot to do more than that. I have
made the discovery of as foul a piece of treachery here in your fortress
as ever traitor hatched."

She looked at him more seriously now. The vehemence of his tone, and the
suggestion of sorrow that ran through it and gave it so frank an accent,
commanded her attention.

"Treachery!" she echoed, in a low voice, her eyes dilating. "And from

He hesitated a moment, then waving his hand:

"Will you not sit, Madonna?" he suggested nervously.

Mechanically she seated herself at the table, her eyes ever on his face,
alarm spreading in her heart, born of suspense.

"Be seated too," she bade him, "and tell me."

He drew up a chair, sat down opposite to her, and taking a deep breath:
"Heard you ever of the Count of Aquila?" he inquired.

"It were odd if I had not. The most valiant knight in Italy, fame dubs

His eyes were intently on her face, and what he saw there satisfied him.

"You know how he stands with the people of Babbiano?"

"I know that he is beloved of them."

"And do you know that he is a pretender to the throne of Babbiano? You
will remember that he is cousin to Gian Maria?"

"His relationship to Gian Maria I know. That he pretends to the throne
of Babbiano I was not aware. But whither are we straying?"

"We are not straying, Madonna," answered Gonzaga, "we are making a
straight line for the very heart and soul of this treachery I spoke of.
Would you believe me if I told you that here, in Roccaleone, we have an
agent of the Count of Aquila one who in the Count's interest is
protracting this siege with the pretended aim of driving Gian Maria off."

"Gonzaga----" she began, more than half guessing the drift of his
explanation. But he interrupted her with unusual brusqueness.

"Wait, Madonna," he cried, his eyes upon her face, his hand imperiously
raised. "Hear me out in patience. I am not talking idly. Of what I
tell you I am armed with proof and witness. Such an agent of--of the
Count's interests we have among us, and his true object in protracting
this siege, and encouraging and aiding you in your resistance, is to
outwear the patience of the people of Babbiano with Gian Maria, and drive
them in the hour of their approaching peril from Caesar Borgia's armies
to bestow the throne on Aquila."

"Where learnt you this foul lie?" she asked him, her cheeks crimson, her
eyes on fire.

"Madonna," he said, in a patient voice, "this that you call a lie is
already an accomplished fact. I am not laying before you the fruits of
idle speculation. I have upon me the most positive proof that such a
result as was hoped for has already been reached. Gian Maria has
received from his subjects a notification that unless he is in his
capital within three days from this, they will invest the Lord of Aquila
with the ducal crown."

She rose, her anger well controlled, her voice calm.

"Where is this proof? No, no; I don't need to see it. Whatever it is,
what shall it prove to me? That your words, in so far as the politics of
Babbiano are concerned, may be true; our resistance of Gian Maria may
indeed be losing him his throne and doing good service to the cause of
the Count of Aquila; but how shall all this prove that lie of yours, that
Messer Francesco--for it is clearly of him you speak--that Messer
Francesco should be this agent of the Count's? It is a lie, Gonzaga, for
which you shall be punished as you deserve."

She ceased, and stood awaiting his reply, and as she watched him his calm
demeanour struck a chill into her heart. He was so confident, so full of
assurance; and that, in Gonzaga, she had learnt to know meant a strong
bulwark 'twixt himself and danger. He sighed profoundly.

"Madonna, these cruel words of yours do not wound me, since they are no
more than I expected. But it will wound me--and sorely--if when you
shall have learnt the rest you do not humbly acknowledge how you have
wronged me, how grossly you have misjudged me. You think I come to you
with evil in my heart, urged by a spirit of vindictiveness against Messer
Francesco. Instead, I come to you with nothing but a profound sorrow
that mine must be the voice to disillusion you, and a deep indignation
against him that has so foully used you to his own ends. Wait, Madonna!
In a measure you are right. It was not strictly true to say that this
Messer Francesco is the agent of the Count of Aquila."

"Ah! You are recanting already?"

"Only a little--an insignificant little. He is no agent because----" He
hesitated, and glanced swiftly up. Then he sighed, lowered his voice,
and with consummately simulated sorrow, he concluded "Because he is,
himself, Francesco del Falco. Count of Aquila."

She swayed a moment, and the colour died from her cheeks, leaving them
ivory pale. She leaned heavily against the table, and turned over in her
mind what she had heard. And then, as suddenly as it had gone, the blood
rushed back into her face, mounting to her very temples.

"It's a lie!" she blazed at him; "a lie for which you shall be whipped."

He shrugged his shoulders, and cast Francesco's letter on to the table.

"There, Madonna, is something that will prove all that I have said."

She eyed the paper coldly. Her first impulse was to call Fortemani and
carry out her threat of having Gonzaga whipped, refusing so much as to
see this thing that he so confidently termed a proof; but it may be that
his confidence wrought upon her, touching a chord of feminine curiosity.
That he was wrong she never doubted; but that he believed himself right
she was also assured, and she wondered what this thing might be that had
so convinced him. Still she did not touch it, but asked in an
indifferent voice:

"What is it?"

"A letter that was brought hither to-night by a man who swam the moat,
and whom I have ordered to be detained in the armoury tower. It is from
Fanfulla degli Arcipreti to the Count of Aquila. If your memory will
bear you back to a certain day at Acquasparta, you may recall that
Fanfulla was the name of a very gallant cavalier who addressed this
Messer Francesco with marked respect."

She took that backward mental glance he bade her, and remembered. Then
she remembered, too, how that very evening Francesco had said that he was
fretting for news of Babbiano, and that when she had asked how he hoped
that news could reach him at Roccaleone, Gonzaga had entered before he
answered her. Indeed, he had seemed to hesitate upon that answer. A
sudden chill encompassed her at that reflection. Oh, it was impossible,
absurd! And yet she took the letter from the table. With knit brows she
read it, whilst Gonzaga watched her, scarce able to keep the satisfaction
from gleaming in his eyes.

She read it slowly, and as she read her face grew deathly pale. When she
had finished she stood silent for a long minute, her eyes upon the
signature and her mind harking back to what Gonzaga had said, and drawing
comparison between that and such things as had been done and uttered, and
nowhere did she find the slightest gleam of that discrepancy which so
ardently she sought.

It was as if a hand were crushing the heart in her bosom. This man whom
she had trusted, this peerless champion of her cause, to be nothing but a
self-seeker, an intriguer, who, to advance his own ends, had made a pawn
of her. She thought of how for a moment he had held her in his arms and
kissed her, and at that her whole soul revolted against the notion that
here was no more than treachery.

"It's all a plot against him!" she cried, her cheeks scarlet again.
"It's an infamous thing of your devising, Messer Gonzaga, an odious lie!"

"Madonna, the man that brought the letter is still detained. Confront
him with Messer Francesco; or apply the question to him, and learn his
master's true name and station. As for the rest, if that letter is
insufficient proof for you, I beg that you will look back at facts. Why
should he lie to you? and say that his name was Francesco Franceschi?
Why should he have urged you--against all reason--to remain here, when he
brought you news that Gian Maria was advancing? Surely had he but sought
to serve you he had better accomplished this by placing his own castle of
Aquila at your disposal, and leaving here an empty nest for Gian Maria,
as I urged."

She sank to a chair, a fever in her mind.

"I tell you, Madonna, there is no mistake. What I have said is true.
Another three days would he have held Gian Maria here, whilst if you gave
him that letter, it is odds he would slip away in the night of to-morrow,
that he might be in Babbiano on the third day to take the throne his
cousin treats so lightly. Sainted God!" he cried out. "I think this is
the most diabolically treacherous plot that ever mind of man conceived
and human heartlessness executed."

"But--but----" she faltered, "all this is presupposing that Messer
Francesco is indeed the Count of Aquila. May there--may it not be that
this letter was meant for some other destination?"

"Will you confront this messenger with the Count?"

"With the Count?" she inquired dully. "With Messer Francesco, you mean?"
She shuddered, and with strange inconsistence: "No," she said, in a
choking voice, her lip twisting oddly at the corner. "I do not wish to
see his face again."

A light gleamed in Gonzaga's eye, and was extinguished on the instant.

"Best make certain," he suggested, rising. "I have ordered Fortemani to
bring Lanciotto here. He will be waiting now, without. Shall I admit

She nodded without speaking, and Gonzaga opened the door, and called
Fortemani. A voice answered him from the gloom of the banqueting-hall.

"Bring Lanciotto here," he commanded.

When Francesco's servant entered, a look of surprise on his face at these
mysterious proceedings, it was Valentina who questioned him, and that in
a voice as cold as though the issue concerned her no whit.

"Tell me, sirrah," she said, "and as you value your neck, see that you
answer me truly--what is your master's name?"

Lanciotto looked from her to Gonzaga, who stood by, a cynical curl on his
sensual lips.

"Answer Monna Valentina," the courtier urged him. "State your master's
true name and station."

"But, lady," began Lanciotto, bewildered.

"Answer me!" she stormed, her small clenched hands beating the table in
harsh impatience. And Lanciotto, seeing no help for it, answered:

"Messer Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila."

Something that began in a sob and ended in a laugh burst from the lips of
Valentina. Ercole's eyes were wide at the news, and he might have gone
the length of interposing a question, when Gonzaga curtly bade him go to
the armoury tower, and bring thence the soldier and the man Gonzaga had
left in his care.

"I will leave no shadow of doubt in your mind, Madonna," he said in

They waited in silence--for Lanciotto's presence hindered conversation--
until Ercole returned accompanied by the man-at-arms and Zaccaria, who
had now changed his raiment. Before they could question the new-comer,
such questions as they might have put were answered by the greeting that
passed between him and his fellow-servant Lanciotto.

Gonzaga turned to Valentina. She sat very still, her tawny head bowed
and in her eyes a look of sore distress. And in that instant a brisk
step sounded without. The door was thrust open, and Francesco himself
stood upon the threshold, with Peppe's alarmed face showing behind him.
Gonzaga instinctively drew back a pace, and his countenance lost some of
its colour.

At sight of Francesco, Zaccaria rushed forward and bowed profoundly.

"My lord!" he greeted him.

And if one little thing had been wanting to complete the evidence against
the Count, that thing, by an odd mischance, Francesco himself seemed to
supply. The strange group in that dining-room claiming his attention,
and the portentous air that hung about those present, confirmed the
warning Peppe had brought him that something was amiss. He disregarded
utterly his servant's greeting, and with eyes of a perplexity that may
have worn the look of alarm he sought the face of Valentina.

She rose upon the instant, an angry red colouring her cheeks. His very
glance, it seemed, was become an affront unbearable after what had
passed--for the memory of his kiss bit like a poisoned fang into her
brain. An odd laugh broke from her. She made a gesture towards

"Fortemani, you will place the Count of Aquila under arrest," she
commanded, in a stern, steady voice, "and as you value your life you will
see that he does not elude you."

The great bully hesitated. His knowledge of Francesco's methods was not

"Madonna!" gasped Francesco, his bewilderment increasing.

"Did you hear me, Fortemani," she demanded. "Remove him."

"My lord?" cried Lanciotto, laying hand to his sword his eyes upon his
master's, ready to draw and lay about him at a glance of bidding.

"Sh! Let be," answered Franeesco coldly. "Here, Messer Fortemani." And
he proffered his dagger, the only weapon that he carried.

Valentina, calling Gonzaga to attend her, made shift to quit the
apartment. At that Francesco seemed to awaken to his position.

"Madonna, wait," he cried, and he stepped deliberately before her. "You
must hear me. I have surrendered in earnest of my faith and confident
that once you have heard me----"

"Captain Fortemani," she cried, almost angrily, "will you restrain your
prisoner? I wish to pass."

Ercole, with visible reluctance, laid a hand on Francesco's shoulder; but
it was unnecessary. Before her words, the Count recoiled as if he had
been struck. He stood clear of her path with a gasp at once of unbelief
and angry resignation. An instant his eyes rested on Gonzaga, so
fiercely that the faint smile withered on the courtier's lips, and his
knees trembled under him as he hastened from the room in Valentina's



The rough stones of the inner courtyard shone clean and bright in the
morning sun, still wet with the heavy rains that had washed them

The fool sat on a rude stool within the porch of the long gallery, and,
moodily eyeing that glistening pavement, ruminated. He was angry, which,
saving where Fra Domenico was concerned, was a rare thing with good-
humoured Peppe. He had sought to reason with Monna Valentina touching
the imprisonment in his chamber of Messer Francesco, and she had bidden
him confine his attention to his capers with a harshness he had never
known in her before. But he had braved her commands, and astonished her
with the information that the true identity of this Messer Francesco had
been known to him since that day when they had first met him at
Acquasparta. He had meant to say more. He had meant to add the
announcement of Francesco's banishment from Babbiano and his notorious
unwillingness to mount his cousin's throne. He had meant to make her
understand that had Francesco been so minded, he had no need to stoop to
such an act as this that she imputed to him. But she had cut him short,
and with angry words and angrier threats she had driven him from her

And so she was gone to Mass, and the fool had taken shelter in the porch
of the gallery, that there he might vent some of his ill-humour--or
indeed indulge it--in pondering the obtuseness of woman and the
insidiousness of Gonzaga, to whom he never doubted that this miserable
state of things was due.

And as he sat there--a grotesque, misshapen figure in gaudy motley--an
ungovernable rage possessed him. What was to become of them now?
Without the Count of Aquila's stern support the garrison would have
forced her to capitulate a week ago. What would betide, now that the
restraint of his formidable command was withdrawn?

"She will know her folly when it's too late. It's the way of women," he
assured himself. And, loving his mistress as he did, his faithful soul
was stricken at the thought. He would wait there until she returned from
Mass, and then she should hear him--all should hear him. He would not
permit himself to be driven away again so easily. He was intently
turning over in his mind what he would say, with what startling, pregnant
sentence he would compel attention, when he was startled by the
appearance of a figure on the chapel steps. Sudden and quietly as an
apparition it came, but it bore the semblance of Romeo Gonzaga.

At sight of him, Peppe instinctively drew back into the shadows of the
porch, his eyes discerning the suspicious furtiveness of the courtier's
movements, and watching them with a grim eagerness. He saw Romeo look
carefully about him, and then descend the steps on tiptoe, evidently so
that no echo of his footfalls should reach those within the chapel.
Then, never suspecting the presence of Peppe, he sped briskly across the
yard and vanished through the archway that led to the outer court. And
the fool, assured that some knowledge of the courtier's purpose would not
be amiss, set out to follow him.

In his room under the Lion's Tower the Count of Aquila had spent a
restless night, exercised by those same fears touching the fate of the
castle that had beset the fool, but less readily attributing his
confinement to Gonzaga's scheming. Zaccaria's presence had told him that
Fanfulla must at last have written, and he could but assume that the
letter, falling into Monna Valentina's hands, should have contained
something that she construed into treason on his part.

Bitterly he reproached himself now with not having from the very outset
been frank with her touching his identity; bitterly he reproached her
with not so much as giving a hearing to the man she had professed to
love. Had she but told him upon what grounds her suspicions against him
had been founded, he was assured that he could have dispelled them at a
word, making clear their baselessness and his own honesty of purpose
towards her. Most of all was he fretted by the fact that Zaccaria's
presence, after a coming so long expected and so long delayed, argued
that the news he bore was momentous. From this it might result that Gian
Maria should move at any moment and that his action might be of a
desperate character.

Now through the ranks of Fortemani's men there had run an inevitable
dismay at Francesco's arrest, and a resentment against Valentina who had
encompassed it. His hand it was that had held them together, his
judgment--of which they had had unequivocal signs--that had given them
courage. He was a leader who had shown himself capable of leading, and
out of confidence for whom they would have undertaken anything that he
bade them. Whom had they now? Fortemani was but one of themselves,
placed in command over them by an event purely adventitious. Gonzaga was
a fop whose capers they mimicked and whose wits they despised; whilst
Valentina, though brave enough and high-spirited, remained a girl of no
worldly and less military knowledge, whose orders it might be suicidal to
carry out.

Now by none were these opinions more strongly entertained than by Ercole
Fortemani himself. Never had he performed anything with greater
reluctance than the apprehension of Francesco, and when he thought of
what was likely to follow his consternation knew no bounds. He had come
to respect and, in his rough way, even to love their masterful Provost,
and since learning his true identity, in the hour of arresting him, his
admiration had grown to something akin to reverence for the condottiero
whose name to the men-at-arms of Italy was like the name of some patron

To ensure the safe keeping of his captive, he had been ordered by
Gonzaga, who now resumed command of Roccaleone, to spend the night in the
ante-room of Francesco's chamber. These orders he had exceeded by
spending a considerable portion of the night in the Count's very room.

"You have but to speak," the bully had sworn, by way of showing Francesco
the true nature of his feelings, "and the castle is yours. At a word
from you my men will flock to obey you, and you may do your will at

"Foul traitor that you are," Francesco had laughed at him. "Do you
forget under whom you have taken service? Let be what is, Ercole. But
if a favour you would do me, let me see Zaccaria--the man that came to
Roccaleone to-night."

This Ercole had done for him. Now Zaccaria was fully aware of the
contents of the letter he had carried, having been instructed by Fanfulla
against the chance arising of his being compelled, for his safety, to
destroy it--an expedient to which he now bitterly repented him that he
had not had recourse. From Zaccaria, then, Francesco learnt all that
there was to learn, and since the knowledge but confirmed his fears that
Gian Maria would delay action no longer, he fell a prey to the most
passionate impatience at his own detention.

In the grey hours of the morning he grew calmer, and by the light of a
lamp that he had called Ercole to replenish, he sat down to write a
letter to Valentina, which he thought should carry conviction of his
honesty to her heart. Since she would not hear him, this was the only
course. At the end of an hour--his moribund light grown yellow now that
the sun was risen--his letter was accomplished, and he summoned Ercole
again, to charge him to deliver it at once to Monna Valentina.

"I shall await her return from chapel," answered Ercole. He took the
letter and departed. As he emerged into the courtyard he was startled to
see the fool dash towards him, gasping for breath, and with excitement in
every line of his quaint face.

"Quickly, Ercole!" Peppe enjoined him. "Come with me."

"Devil take you, spawn of Satan--whither?" growled the soldier.

"I will tell you as we go. We have not a moment to spare. There is
treachery afoot---- Gonzaga----" he gasped, and ended desperately: "Will
you come?"

Fortemani needed no second bidding. The chance of catching pretty Messer
Romeo at a treachery was too sweet a lure. Snorting and puffing--for
hard drinking had sorely impaired his wind--the great captain hurried the
fool along, listening as they went to the gasps in which he brought out
his story. It was not much, after all. Peppe had seen Messer Gonzaga
repair to the armoury tower. Through an arrow-slit he had watched him
take down and examine an arbalest, place it on the table and sit down to

"Well?" demanded Ercole. "What else?"

"Naught else. That is all," answered the hunchback.

"Heaven and hell!" roared the swashbuckler, coming to a standstill and
glowering down upon his impatient companion. "And you have made me run
for this?"

"And is it not enough?" retorted Peppe testily. "Will you come on?"

"Not a foot farther," returned the captain, getting very angry. "is this
a miserable jest? What of the treachery you spoke of?"

"A letter and an arbalest!" panted the maddened Peppe, grimacing horribly
at this delay. "God, was there ever such a fool! Does this mean nothing
to that thick, empty thing you call a head? Have you forgotten how Gian
Maria's offer of a thousand florins came to Roccaleone? On an arbalest
quarrel, stupid! Come on, I say, and afterwards you shall have my
motley--the only livery you have a right to wear."

In the shock of enlightenment Ercole forgot to cuff the jester for his
insolence, and allowed himself once more to be hurried along, across the
outer court and up the steps that led to the battlements.

"You think----" he began.

"I think you had best tread more softly," snapped the fool, under his
breath, "and control that thunderous wheeze, if you would surprise Ser

Ercole accepted the hint, meek as a lamb, and leaving the fool behind him
on the steps, he went softly up, and approached the armoury tower.
Peering cautiously through the arrow-slit, and favoured by the fact that
Gonzaga's back was towards him, he saw that he was no more than in time.

The courtier was bending down, and by the creaking sound that reached him
Ercole guessed his occupation to be the winding of the arbalest string.
On the table at his side lay a quarrel swathed in a sheet of paper.

Swiftly and silently Ercole moved round the tower, and the next instant
he had pushed open the unfastened door and entered.

A scream of terror greeted him, and a very startled face was turned upon
him by Gonzaga, who instantly sprang upright. Then, seeing who it was,
the courtier's face reassumed some of its normal composure, but his
glance was uneasy and his cheek pale.

"Sant Iddio!" he gasped. "You startled me, Ercole. I did not hear you

And now something in the bully's face heightened the alarm in Gonzaga.
He still made an effort at self-control, as planting himself between
Ercole and the table, so as to screen the tell-tale shaft, he asked him
what he sought there.

"That letter you have written Gian Maria," was the gruff, uncompromising
answer, for Ercole reeked nothing of diplomatic issues.

Gonzaga's mouth jerked itself open, and his upper lip shuddered against
his teeth.

"What---- Wha----"

"Give me that letter," Ercole insisted, now advancing upon him, and
wearing an air of ferocity that drove back into Gonzaga's throat such
resentful words as he bethought him of. Then, like an animal at bay--and
even a rat will assert itself then--he swung aloft the heavy arbalest he
held, and stood barring Ercole's way.

"Stand back!" he cried; "or by God and His saints, I'll beat your brains

There was a guttural laugh from the swashbuckler, and then his arms were
round Gonzaga's shapely waist, and the popinjay was lifted from his feet.
Viciously he brought down the cross-bow, as he had threatened; but it
smote the empty air. The next instant Gonzaga was hurtled, bruised, into
a corner of the tower.

In a rage so great that he felt it draining him of his very strength and
choking the breath in his body, he made a movement to rise and fling
himself again upon his aggressor. But Fortemani was down upon him, and
for all his struggles contrived to turn him over on his face, twisting
his arms behind him, and making them fast with a belt that lay at hand.

"Lie still, you scorpion!" growled the ruffler, breathing hard from his
exertions. He rose, took the shaft with the letter tied about it, read
the superscription--"To the High and Mighty Lord Gian Maria Sforza"--and
with a chuckle of mingled relish and scorn, he was gone, locking the

Left alone, Gonzaga lay face downward where he had been flung, able to do
little more than groan and sweat in the extremity of his despair, whilst
he awaited the coming of those who would probably make an end of him.
Not even from Valentina could he hope for mercy, so incriminating was the
note he had penned. His letter was to enjoin the Duke to hold his men in
readiness at the hour of the Angelus next morning, and to wait until
Gonzaga should wave a handkerchief from the battlements. At that he was
to advance immediately to the postern, which he would find open, and the
rest, Gonzaga promised him, would be easy. He would take the whole
garrison at their prayers and weaponless.

When Francesco read it a light leapt to his eye and an oath to his lips;
but neither glance nor oath were of execration, as Ercole stood
expecting. A sudden idea flashed through the Count's mind, so strange
and humorous and yet so full of promise of easy accomplishment, that he
burst into a laugh.

"Now may God bless this fool for the most opportune of traitors!" he
exclaimed, in surprise at which Fortemani's mouth fell open, and the eyes
of Peppe grew very round.

"Ercole, my friend, here is a bait to trap that lout my cousin, such as I
could never have devised myself."

"You mean----?"

"Take it back to him," cried the Count, holding out the letter with a
hand that trembled in the eagerness of his spirit. "Take it back, and
get him by fair means or foul to shoot it as he intended; or if he
refuses, why, then, do you seal it up and shoot it yourself. But see
that it gets to Gian Maria!"

"May I not know what you intend?" quoth the bewildered Ercole.

"All in good time, my friend. First do my bidding with that letter.
Listen! It were best that having read it you agree to join him in his
betrayal of Roccaleone, your own fears as to the ultimate fate awaiting
you at Gian Maria's hands being aroused. Urge him to promise you money,
immunity, what you will, as your reward; but make him believe you
sincere, and induce him to shoot his precious bolt. Now go! Lose no
time, or they may be returning from chapel, and your opportunity will be
lost. Come to me here, afterwards, and I will tell you what is in my
mind. We shall have a busy night of it to-night, Ercole, and you must
set me free when the others are abed. Now go!"

Ercole went, and Peppe, remaining, plagued the Count with questions which
he answered until in the end the fool caught the drift of his scheme, and
swore impudently that a greater jester than his Excellency did not live.
Then Ercole returned.

"Is it done? Has the letter gone?" cried Francesco. Fortemani nodded.

"We are sworn brothers in this business, he and I. He added a line to
his note to say that he had gained my cooperation, and that, therefore,
immunity was expected for me too."

"You have done well, Ercole." Francesco applauded him. "Now return me
the letter I gave you for Monna Valentina. There is no longer the need
for it. But return to me to-night toward the fourth hour, when all are
abed, and bring with you my men, Lanciotto and Zaccaria."



The morning of that Wednesday of Corpus Christi, fateful to all concerned
in this chronicle, dawned misty and grey, and the air was chilled by the
wind that blew from the sea. The chapel bell tinkled out its summons,
and the garrison trooped faithfully to Mass.

Presently came Monna Valentina, followed by her ladies, her pages, and
lastly, Peppe, wearing under his thin mask of piety an air of eager
anxiety and unrest. Valentina was very pale, and round her eyes there
were dark circles that told of sleeplessness, and as she bowed her head
in prayer, her ladies observed that tears were falling on the illuminated
Mass-book over which she bent. And now came Fra Domenico from the
sacristy in the white chasuble that the Church ordains for the Corpus
Christi feast, followed by a page in a clerkly gown of black, and the
Mass commenced.

There were absent only from the gathering Gonzaga and Fortemani, besides
a sentry and the three prisoners. Francesco and his two followers.

Gonzaga had presented himself to Valentina with the plausible tale that,
as the events of which Fanfulla's letter had given them knowledge might
lead Gian Maria at any moment to desperate measures, it might be well
that he should reinforce the single man-at-arms patrolling the walls.
Valentina, little recking now whether the castle held or fell, and still
less such trifles as Gonzaga's attendance at Mass, had assented without
heeding the import of what he said.

And so, his face drawn and his body quivering with the excitement of what
he was about to do, Gonzaga had repaired to the ramparts so soon as he
had seen them all safely into chapel. The sentinel was that same clerkly
youth Aventano, who had read to the soldiers that letter Gian Maria had
sent Gonzaga. This the courtier accepted as a good omen. If a man there
was among the soldiery at Roccaleone with whom he deemed that he had an
account to settle, that man was Aventano.

The mist was rapidly lightening, and the country grew visible for miles
around. In the camp of Gian Maria he observed a coming and going of men
that argued an inordinate bustle for so early an hour. They awaited his

He approached the young sentinel, growing more and more nervous as the
time for action advanced. He cursed Fortemani, who had selfishly refused
to take an active part in the admission of Gian Maria. Here was a task
that Fortemani could perform more satisfactorily than he. He had urged
this fact on Ercole's attention, but the swashbuckler had grinned and
shook his head. To Gonzaga fell the greater reward, and so Gonzaga must
do the greater work. It was only fair, the knave had urged; and while
Gonzaga was about it, he would watch the chapel door against
interruption. And so Gonzaga had been forced to come alone to try
conclusions with the sentry.

He gave the young man a nervous but pleasant "Good-morrow," and observed
with satisfaction that he wore no body armour. His original intention
had been to attempt to suborn him, and render him pliable by bribery; but
now that the moment for action was arrived he dared not make the offer.
He lacked for words in which to present his proposal, and he was afraid
lest the man should resent it, and in a fit of indignation attack him
with his partisan. He little imagined that Aventano had been forewarned
by Ercole that a bribe would be offered him and that he was to accept it
promptly. Ercole had chosen this man because he was intelligent, and had
made him understand enough of what was toward, besides offering a
substantial reward if he played his part well, and Aventano waited. But
Gonzaga, knowing naught of this, abandoned at the last moment the notion
of bribing him--which Ercole had enjoined him, and which he in his turn
had promised Ercole was the course he would pursue.

"You seem cold, Excellency," said the young man deferentially, for he had
observed that Gonzaga shivered.

"A chill morning, Aventano," returned the gallant, with a grin.

"True; but the sun is breaking through yonder. It will be warmer soon."

"Why, yes," answered the other abstractedly, and still he remained by the
sentinel, his hand, under the gay mantle of blue velvet, nervously
fingering the hilt of a dagger that he dared not draw. It came to him
that moments were passing, and that the thing must be done. Yet Aventano
was a sinewy youth, and if the sudden stab he meditated failed him, he
would be at the fellow's mercy. At the thought he shivered again, and
his face turned grey. He moved away a step, and then inspiration brought
him a cruel ruse. He uttered a cry.

"What is that?" he exclaimed, his eyes on the ground.

In an instant Aventano was beside him, for his voice had sounded alarmed
--a tone, in his present condition, not difficult to simulate.

"What, Excellency?"

"Down there," cried Gonzaga excitedly. "There from that fissure in the
stone. Saw you nothing?" And he pointed to the ground at a spot where
two slabs met.

"I saw nothing, Illustrious."

"It was like a flash of yellow light below there. What is under us here?
I'll swear there's treachery at work. Get down on your knees, and try if
anything is to be seen."

With a wondering glance at the courtier's white, twitching face, the
unfortunate young man went down on all fours to do his bidding. After
all--poor fellow!--he was hardly intelligent as Fortemani opined.

"There is nothing, Excellency," he said. "The plaster is cracked.
But---- Ah!"

In a panic of haste Gonzaga had whipped the dagger from its sheath and
sunk it into the middle of Aventano's broad back. The fellow's arms slid
out, and with a long-drawn, gurgling sigh he sank down and stretched
himself horribly on the stones.

In that instant the clouds parted overhead and the sun came out in a
blaze of golden glory. High above Gonzaga's head a lark burst into song.

For a moment the assassin remained standing above the body of his victim
with head sunk between the shoulders like a man who expects a blow, his
face grey, his teeth chattering, and his mouth twitching hideously. A
shudder shook him. It was the first life he had taken, and that carrion
at his feet filled him with sickly horror. Not for a kingdom--not to
save his vile soul from the eternal damnation that act had earned it--
would he have dared stoop to pluck the dagger from the back of the wretch
he had murdered. With something like a scream he turned, and fled in a
panic from the spot. Panting with horror, yet subconsciously aware of
the work he had to do, he paused a moment to wave a kerchief, then dashed
down the steps to the postern.

With trembling fingers he unlocked the door and set it wide to Gian
Maria's men, who, in answer to his signal, were now hurrying forward with
a bridge composed of pine trees, that they had hastily and roughly put
together during the previous day. This, with some efforts and more noise
than Gonzaga relished, was thrust across the moat. One of the men crept
across, and assisted Gonzaga to make fast his end.

A moment later Gian Maria and Guidobaldo stood in the castle-yard, and
after them came almost every man of the five score that Gian Maria had
brought to that siege. This was what Francesco had confidently expected,
knowing that it was not his cousin's way to run any risks.

The Duke of Babbiauo, whose face was disfigured by a bristling hedge of
reddish stubble--for in obedience to the vow he had made, he now carried
a fortnight's growth of beard on his round face--turned to Gonzaga.

"Is all well?" he asked, in a friendly tone, whilst Guidobaldo
contemptuously eyed the popinjay.

Gonzaga assured them that the whole thing had been effected without
disturbing the garrison at their prayers. Now that he deemed himself
well protected his usual serenity of manner returned.

"You may felicitate yourself, Highness," he ventured to say, with a grin,
to Guidobaldo, "that you have reared your niece in devout ways."

"Did you address me?" quoth the Duke of Urbino coldly. "I trust it may
not again be necessary."

Before the look of loathing in his handsome face Gonzaga cringed. Gian
Maria laughed in his piping treble.

"Have I not served your Highness faithfully?" fawned the gallant.

"So has the meanest scullion in my kitchens, the lowliest groom in my
stables--and with more honour to himself," answered the proud Duke. "Yet
he does not go the length of jesting with me." His eye carried a menace
so eloquent that Gonzaga drew back, afraid; but Gian Maria clapped him on
the shoulder in a friendly manner.

"Be of good heart, Judas," he laughed, his pale face a-grin, "I shall
find room for you in Babbiano, and work too, if you do it as well as
this. Come; the men are here now. Let us go forward whilst they are at
their prayers. But we must not disturb them," he added, more seriously.
"I will not be guilty of an impiety. We can lie in wait for them

He laughed gaily, for he seemed in a preposterously good humour, and
bidding Gonzaga lead the way he followed, with Guidobaldo at his side.
They crossed the courtyard, where his men were ranged, armed to the
teeth, and at the door of the archway leading to the inner court they
paused for Gonzaga to open it.

A moment the gallant stood staring. Then he turned a face of
consternation on the Dukes. His knees shook visibly.

"It is locked," he announced, in a husky voice.

"We made too much noise in entering," suggested Guidobaldo, "and they
have taken the alarm."

The explanation relieved the growing uneasiness in Gian Maria's mind. He
turned with an oath to his men.

"Here, some of you," his sharp voice commanded. "Beat me down this door.
By the Host! Do the fools think to keep me out so easily?"

The door was broken down, and they advanced. But only some half-dozen
paces, for at the end of that short gallery they found the second door
barring their progress. Through this, too, they broke, Gian Maria
fiercely blaspheming at the delay. Yet when it was done he was none so
eager to lead the way.

In the second courtyard he deemed it extremely probable that they should
find Valentina's soldiers awaiting them. So bidding his men pass on, he
remained behind with Guidobaldo until he heard word that the inner court
was likewise empty.

And now the entire hundred of his followers were assembled there to
overpower the twenty that served Monna Valentina; and Guidobaldo--despite
Gian Maria's scruples--strode coolly forward to the chapel door.

* * * * * * *

Within the chapel Mass had started. Fra Domenico at the foot of the
altar had pattered through the Confiteor, his deep voice responded to by
the soprano of the ministering page. The Kyrie was being uttered when
the attention of the congregation was attracted by the sound of steps
approaching the chapel door to the accompaniment of an ominous clank of
steel. The men rose in a body, fearing treachery, and cursing--despite
the sanctity of the place--the circumstance that they were without

Then the door opened, and down the steps rang the armed heels of the new-
comers, so that every eye was turned upon them, including that of Fra
Domenico, who had pronounced the last "Christe eleison" in a quavering

A gasp of relief, followed by an angry cry from Valentina, went up when
they recognised those that came. First stepped the Count of Aquila in
full armour, sword at side and dagger on hip, carrying his head-piece on
the crook of his left arm. Behind him towered the bulk of Fortemani, his
great face flushed with a strange excitement, a leather hacketon over his
steel cuirass, girt, too, with sword and dagger, and carrying his shining
morion in his hand. Last came Lanciotto and Zaccaria, both fully
equipped and armed at all points.

"Who are you that come thus accoutred into God's House to interrupt the
holy Mass?" cried the bass voice of the friar.

"Patience, good father," answered Francesco calmly, "The occasion is our

"What does this mean, Fortemani?" demanded Valentina imperiously, her
eyes angrily set upon her captain, utterly ignoring the Count. "Do you
betray me too?"

"It means, Madonna," answered the giant bluntly, "that your lap-dog,
Messer Gonzaga, is at this very moment admitting Gian Maria and his
forces to Roccaleone, by the postern."

There was a hoarse cry from the men, which Francesco silenced by a wave
of his mailed hand.

Valentina looked wildly at Fortemani, and then, as if drawn by a greater
will than her own, her eyes were forced to travel to the Count. He
instantly advanced, and bowed his head before her.

"Madonna, this is no hour for explanations. Action is needed, and that
at once. I was wrong in not disclosing my identity to you before you
discovered it by such unfortunate means and with the assistance of the
only traitor Roccaleone has harboured, Romeo Gonzaga--who, as Fortemani
has just told you, is at this moment admitting my cousin and your uncle
to the castle. But that my object was ever other than to serve you, or
that I sought, as was represented to you, to turn this siege to my own
political profit, that, Madonna, I implore you in your own interests to
believe untrue."

She sank on to her knees and with folded hands began to pray to the
Mother of Mercy, deeming herself lost, for his tone carried conviction,
and he had said that Gian Maria was entering the castle.

"Madonna," he cried, touching her lightly on the shoulder; "let your
prayers wait until they can be of thanksgiving. Listen. By the
vigilance of Peppe there, who, good soul that he is, never lost faith in
me or deemed me a dastard, we were informed last night--Fortemani and I--
of this that Gonzaga was preparing. And we have made our plans and
prepared the ground. When Gian Maria's soldiers enter, they will find
the outer doors barred and locked, and we shall gain a little time while
they break through them. My men, as you will observe, are even now
barring the door of the chapel to impose a further obstacle. Now while
they are thus engaged we must act. Briefly, then, if you will trust us
we will bear you out of this, for we four have worked through the night
to some purpose."

She looked at him through a film of tears, her face drawn and startled.
Then she put her hands to her brow in a gesture of bewildered

"But they will follow us," she complained.

"Not so," he answered, smiling. "For that, too, have we provided. Come,
Madonna, time presses."

A long moment she looked at him. Then brushing aside the tears that
dimmed her sight, she set a hand on either of his shoulders, and stood
so, before them all, gazing up into his calm face.

"How shall I know that what you say is true--that I may trust you?" she
asked, but her voice was not the voice of one that demands an
overwhelming proof ere she will believe.

"By my honour and my knighthood," he answered, in a ringing voice, "I
make oath here, at the foot of God's altar, that my purpose--my only
purpose--has been, is, and shall be to serve you, Monna Valentina."

"I believe you," she cried; to sob a moment later:

"Forgive me, Francesco, and may God, too, forgive my lack of faith in

He softly breathed her name in such sweet accents that a happy peace
pervaded her, and the bright courage of yore shone in her brown eyes.

"Come, sirs!" he cried now, with a sudden briskness that startled them
into feverish obedience. "You, Fra Domenico, cut off your sacerdotals,
and gird high your habit. There is climbing for you. Here, a couple of
you, move aside that altar-step. My men and I have spent the night in
loosening its old hinges."

They raised the slab, and in the gap beneath it was disclosed a flight of
steps leading down to the dungeons and cellars of Roccaleone.

Down this they went in haste but in good order, marshalled by Francesco,
and when the last had passed down, he and Lanciotto, aided by others
below, who had seized a rope that he had lowered them, replaced the slab
from underneath, so that no trace should remain of the way by which they
had come.

A postern had been unbarred below by Fortemani, who had led the way with
a half-dozen of the men; and a huge scaling ladder that lay in readiness
in that subterranean gallery was rushed out across the moat, which at
this point was a roaring torrent.

Fortemani was the first to descend that sloping bridge, and upon reaching
the ground he made fast the lower end.

Next went a dozen men at Francesco's bidding, armed with the pikes that
had been left overnight in the gallery. At a word of command they
slipped quietly away. Then came the women, and lastly, the remainder of
the men.

Of the enemy they caught no glimpse; not so much as a sentry, for every
one of Gian Maria's men had been pressed into the investment of the
castle. Thus they emerged from Roccaleone, and made their way down that
rough bridge into the pleasant meadows to the south. Already Fortemani
and his dozen men had disappeared at the trot, making for the front of
the castle, when Francesco stepped last upon the bridge, and closed the
postern after him. Then he glided rapidly to the ground, and with the
assistance of a dozen ready hands he dragged away the scaling ladder.
They carried it some yards from the brink of the torrent, and deposited
it in the meadow. With a laugh of purest relish Francesco stepped to
Valentina's side.

"It will exercise their minds to discover how we got out," he cried, "and
they will be forced to the conclusion that we are angels all, with wings
beneath our armour. We have not left them a single ladder or a strand of
rope in Roccaleone by which to attempt to follow us, even if they
discover how we came. But come, Valentina mia, the comedy is not
finished yet. Already Fortemani will have removed the bridge by which
they entered and engaged such few men as may have been left behind, and
we have the High and Mighty Gian Maria in the tightest trap that was ever



In the sunshine of that bright May morning Francesco and his men went
merrily to work to possess themselves of the ducal camp, and the first
business of the day was to arm those soldiers who had come out unarmed.
Of weapons there was no lack, and to these they helped themselves in
liberal fashion, whilst here and there a man would pause to don a
haubergeon or press a steel cap on his head.

Three sentries only had been left to guard the tents, and of these
Fortemani and a couple of his men had made prisoners whilst the others
were removing the bridge by which the invaders had entered. And now
beneath the open postern by the drawbridge gaped a surging torrent that
no man would have the hardihood to attempt to swim.

In that opening, presently, appeared Gian Maria, his face red for once,
and behind him a clamouring crowd of men-at-arms who shared their
master's rage at the manner in which they had been trapped.

At the rear of the tents Valentina and her ladies awaited the issue of
the parley that now seemed toward. The bulk of the men were busy at Gian
Maria's cannons, and under Francesco's supervision they were training
them upon the drawbridge.

From the castle a mighty shout went up. The men disappeared from the
postern to reappear a moment later on the ramparts, and Francesco laughed
deep down in his throat as he perceived the purpose of this. They had
bethought them of the guns that were mounted there, and were gone to use
them against Valentina's little army. Gun after gun they tried, and a
fierce cry of rage burst forth when they realised by what dummies they
had been held in check during the past week. This was followed by a
silence of some moments, terminated at last by the sound of a bugle.

Answering that summons to a parley, and with a last word of injunction to
Fortemani, who was left in charge of the men at the guns, Francesco rode
forward on one of Gian Maria's horses, escorted by Lanciotto and Zaccaria
similarly mounted, and each armed with a loaded arquebuse.

Under the walls of Roccaleone he drew rein, laughing to himself at this
monstrous change of sides. As he halted--helmet on head, but beaver
open--a body came hurtling over the battlements and splashed into the
foaming waters below. It was the corpse of Aventano, which Gian Maria
had peremptorily bidden them to remove from his sight.

"I desire to speak with Monna Valentina della Rovere," cried the furious

"You may speak with me, Gian Maria," answered Francesco's voice, clear
and metallic. "I am her representative, her sometime Provost of

"Who are you?" quoth the Duke, struck by a familiar note in that mocking

"Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila."

"By God! You!"

"An age of marvels, is it not?" laughed Francesco.

"Which will you lose, my cousin--a wife or a duchy?"

Rage struck Gian Maria speechless for a moment. Then he turned to
Guidobaldo and whispered something; but Guidobaldo, who seemed vastly
interested now in this knight below, merely shrugged his shoulders.

"I will lose neither, Messer Francesco," roared the Duke. "Neither, by
God!" he screamed. "Neither, do you hear me?"

"I should be deaf else," was the easy answer, "But you are gravely at
fault. One or the other you must relinquish, and it is yours to make a
choice between them. The game has gone against you, Gian Maria, and you
must pay."

"But have I no voice in the bartering of my niece?" asked Guidobaldo,
with cold dignity. "Is it for you, Lord Count, to say whether your
cousin shall wed her or not?"

"Why, no. He may wed her if he will, but he will be a duke no longer.
In fact, he will be an outcast with no title to lay claim to, if indeed
the Babbianians will leave him a head at all; whilst I, at least, though
not a duke with a tottering throne, am a count with lands, small but
securely held, and shall become a duke if Gian Maria refuses to
relinquish me your niece. So that if he be disposed to marry her, will
you be disposed to let her marry a homeless vagrant or a headless

Guidobaldo's face seemed to change, and his eyes looked curiously at the
white-faced Duke beside him.

"So you are the other pretender to my niece's hand, Lord Count?" he
asked, in his coldest voice.

"I am, Highness," answered Francesco quietly. "The matter stands thus:
Unless Gian Maria is in Babbiano by morning, he forfeits his crown, and
it passes to me by the voice of the people; but if he will relinquish his
claim to Monna Valentina in my favour, then I shall journey straight to
Aquila, and I shall trouble Babbiano no more. If he refuses, and insists
upon this wedding, abhorrent to Monna Valentina, why, then, my men shall
hold him captive behind those walls until it be too late for him to reach
his duchy in time to save the crown. In the meantime I will ride to
Babbiano in his stead, and--reluctant though I be to play the duke--I
shall accept the throne and silence the people's importunities. He can
then endeavour to win your Highness's consent to the union."

For perhaps the first time in his life Guidobaldo was guilty of an act of
positive discourtesy. He broke into a laugh--a boisterous, amused laugh
that cut into Gian Maria's heart like a knife.

"Why, Lord Count," he said, "I confess that you have us very much in your
hands to mould us as you will. Now, you are such a soldier and such a
strategist as it would pleasure me to have about my person in Urbino.
What says your Highness?" he continued, turning now to the almost
speechless Gian Maria. "I have yet another niece with whom we might
cement the union of the two duchies; and she might prove more willing.
Women, it seems, will insist upon being women. Do you not think that
Monna Valentina and this your valiant cousin----"

"Heed him not!" screamed Gian Maria, now in a white heat of passion. "He
is a smooth-tongued dog that would argue the very devil out of hell.
Make no terms with the hind! I have a hundred men, and----" He swung
suddenly round. "Let down that drawbridge, cowards!" he bawled at them,
"and sweep me those animals from my tents."

"Gian Maria, I give you warning," cried Francesco, loudly and firmly. "I
have trained your own guns on to that bridge, and at the first attempt to
lower it I'll blow it into splinters. You come not out of Roccaleone
save at my pleasure and upon my terms, and if you lose your duchy by your
obstinacy, it will be your own work; but answer me now, that I may take
my course."

Guidobaldo, too, restrained Gian Maria, and countermanded his order for
the lowering of the bridge. And now on his other side Gonzaga crept up
to him, and whispered into his ear the suggestion that he should wait
until night had fallen.

"Wait until night, fool!" blazed the Duke, turning on him, in a fierce
joy at finding one whom he might rend. "If I wait until then, my throne
is lost to me. This comes of sorting with traitors. It is your fault,
you Judas!" he cried more fiercely still, his face distorted; "but you at
least shall pay for what you have done."

Gonzaga saw a sudden flash of steel before his eyes, and a piercing
scream broke from him as Gian Maria's dagger buried itself in his breast.
Too late Guidobaldo put forward a hand to stay the Duke.

And so, by a strangely avenging justice, the magnificent Gonzaga sank
dead on the very spot on which he had so cravenly and dastardly poniarded

"Throw me that carrion into the moat," growled Gian Maria, still
quivering with rage that had prompted his ferocious act.

He was obeyed, and thus murdered and murderer were united in a common

After the first attempt to restrain Gian Maria, Guidobaldo had looked on
in unconcern, deeming the act a very fitting punishment of a man with
whose treachery he, at least, had never been in sympathy.

As he saw the body vanish in the torrent below, Gian Maria seemed to
realise what he had done. His anger fell from him, and with bent head he
piously crossed himself. Then turning to an attendant who stood at his

"See that a Mass is said for his soul to-morrow," he solemnly bade him.

As if the act had served to pacify him and restore him to his senses,
Gian Maria now stepped forward and asked his cousin, in calmer tones than
he had hitherto employed, to make clear the terms on which he would
permit him to return to Babbiano within the time to which his people
limited him.

"They are no more than that you relinquish your claim to Monna Valentina,
and that you find consolation--as I think his Highness of Urbino has
himself suggested--in the Lord Guidobaldo's younger niece."

Before he could reply Guidobaldo was urging him, in a low voice to accept
the terms.

"What else is there for you?" Montefeltro ended pregnantly.

"And this other niece of yours----?" quoth Gian Maria lamely.

"I have already passed my word," answered Guidobaldo.

"And Monna Valentina?" the other almost whined.

"May wed this headstrong condottiero of hers. I'll not withstand them.
Come; I am your friend in this. I am even sacrificing Valentina to your
interests. For if you persist, he will ruin you. The game is his, my
lord. Acknowledge your defeat, as I acknowledge mine, and pay."

"But what is your defeat to mine?" cried Gian Maria, who saw through
Guidobaldo's appreciation of the fact that such a nephew-in-law as
Francesco del Falco was far from undesirable in the troublous times that

"It is at least as absolute," returned Guidobaldo, with a shrug. And in
this vein the Duke of Urbino continued for some moments, till, in the
end, Gian Maria found himself not only deserted by his ally, but having
this ally now combating on his cousin's side and pressing him to accept
his cousin's terms, distasteful though they were. Thus urged, Gian Maria
lamely acknowledged his defeat and his willingness to pay the forfeit.
With that he asked how soon he might be permitted to leave the castle.

"Why, at once, now that I have your word," answered Francesco readily,
whereat treachery gleamed from Gian Maria's eye, to be swiftly quenched
by Francesco's next words. "But lest your men and mine should come to
trouble with one another, you will order yours to come forth without arms
or armour, and you will depose your own. His Highness Guidobaldo is the
only man in whose favour I can make an exception to this condition. Let
it be broken, and I promise you that you will very bitterly regret it.
At sight of the first armed man issuing from those gates, I'll give the
word to fire on you, and your own guns shall work your destruction."

Thus was the second siege of Roccaleone ended almost as soon as it was
begun, and thus did Gian Maria capitulate to the conqueror. The Duke of
Babbiano and his men marched out sheepishly and silently, and took their
way to Babbiano, no word--not even so much as a glance--passing between
Gian Maria and the lady who had been the cause of his discomfiture, and
who blithely looked on at his departure.

Guidobaldo and his few attendants lingered after his late ally had gone.
Then he bade Francesco lead him to his niece, in which Francesco readily
obeyed him.

The Duke embraced her coldly--still that he embraced her at all after
what was passed augured well.

"You will come with me to Urbino, Lord Count?" he said suddenly to
Francesco. "It were best to celebrate the nuptials there. Everything is
in readiness--for all had been prepared for Gian Maria."

A great joy came into Valentina's eyes; her cheeks flushed and her glance
fell; but Francesco scanned the Duke's face with the keen eye of one who
is incredulous of so much good fortune.

"Your Highness means me well?" he made bold to ask. Guidobaldo
stiffened, and a frown broke the serenity of his lofty brow.

"You have my princely word," he answered solemnly, at which, with bended
knee, Francesco stooped to kiss his ducal hand.

And so they departed on the horses that they kept as the spoils of war.
They made a goodly show, Guidobaldo riding at their head, with Francesco
and Valentina, whilst the rear was brought up by Peppe and Fra Domenico,
who, touched by this epidemic of goodwill, were at last fraternising with
each other.

And as they rode it chanced that presently Guidobaldo fell behind, so
that for a moment Francesco and Valentina found themselves alone a little
ahead of the others. She turned to him, a shyness in her brown eyes, a
tremble at the corners of her red lips:

"You have not yet said that you forgive me, Francesco," she complained,
in a timerous whisper. "Were it not seemly that you did since we are to
be wed so soon?"

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