Part 2 out of 5
"They are poor men," said she. "Would you have them robed in velvet?"
"My quarrel is with their looks, Madonna, not their garments," I answered
patiently. She laughed lightly, carelessly; even, I thought, a trifle
"You are very fanciful," said she, then added--"but if so be that you are
afraid to trust yourself in their company, why then, sir, I need bring you
no farther out of the road that you were following when first we met."
Did the child think that some jealousy actuated me, and prompted me to
inspire her with mistrust of my supplanters? She angered me. Yet now,
more than ever was I resolved to journey with her. Leave her at the mercy
of those ruffians, whom in her ignorance she was mad enough to trust, I
could not--not even had she whipped me. She was so young, so frail and
slight, that none but a craven could have found it in his heart to have
deserted her just then.
"If it please you Madonna," I answered smoothly, "I will make bold to
travel on with you."
It may be that my even accents stung her; perhaps she read in them some
measure of reproof of the ingratitude that lay in her altered bearing
towards me. Her eyes met mine across the table, and seemed to harden as
she looked. Her answer came in a vastly altered tone.
"Why, if you are bent that way, I shall be glad to have you avail yourself
of my escort, Boccadoro."
I had suffered the scorn now of her speech, now of her silence, for some
hours, but never was I so near to turning on her as at that moment; never
so near to consigning her to the fate to which her headstrong folly was
compelling her. That she should take that tone with me!
The violence of the sudden choler I suppressed turned me pale under her
steady glance. So that, seeing it, her own cheeks flamed crimson, and her
eyes fell, as if in token that she realised the meanness of her bearing.
To some natures there can be nothing more odious than such a realisation,
and of those, I think, was she; for she stamped her foot in a sudden pet,
and curtly asked the host why there was such delay with the horses.
"They are at the door, Madonna," he protested, bowing as he spoke. "And
your escort is already waiting in the saddle."
She turned and strode abruptly towards the threshold. Over her shoulder
she called to me:
"If you come with us, Boccadoro, you had best be brisk."
"I follow, Madonna," said I, with a grim relish, "so soon as I have paid
She halted and half turned, and I thought I saw a slight droop at the
corners of her mouth.
"You are keeping count of what I owe you?" she muttered.
"Aye, Madonna," I answered, more grimly still, "I am keeping count." And
I thought that my wits were vastly at fault if that account were not to be
greatly swelled ere Pesaro was reached. Haply, indeed, my own life might
go to swell it. I almost took a relish in that thought. Perhaps then,
when I was stiff and cold--done to death in her service--this handsome,
ungrateful child would come to see how much discomfort I had suffered for
My thoughts still ran in that channel as we rode out of Pesaro, for I
misliked the way in which those knaves disposed themselves about us. In
front went Madonna Paola; and immediately behind her, so that their
horses' heads were on a level with her saddle-bow, one on each side, went
two of those ruffians. The third, whom I had heard them call Stefano, and
who was the one who had made her the offer of their services, ambled at my
side, a few paces in the rear, and sought to draw me into conversation,
haply by way of throwing me off my guard.
Mistrust is a fine thing at times. "Forewarned is forearmed," says the
proverb, and of all forewarnings there is none we are more likely to heed
than our own mistrust; for whereas we may leave unheeded the warnings of a
friend, we seldom leave unheeded the warnings of our spirit.
And so, while my amiable and garrulous Ser Stefano engaged me in pleasant
conversation--addressing me ever as Messer the Fool, since he knew me not
by name--I wrapped my cloak about me, and under cover of it kept my
fingers on the hilt of my stout Pistoja dagger, ready to draw and use it
at the first sign of mischief. For that sign I was all eyes, and had I
been Argus himself I could have kept no better watch. Meanwhile I plied
my tongue and maintained as merry a conversation with Ser Stefano as you
could wish to hear, for he seemed a ready-witted knave of a most humorous
turn of fancy--God rest his rascally soul! And so it came to pass that I
did by him the very thing he sought to do by me; I lulled him into a
At last the sign I had been waiting for was given. I saw it as plainly as
if it had been meant for me; I believe I saw it before the man for whom it
was intended, and but for my fears concerning Madonna Paola, I could have
laughed outright at their clumsy assurance. The man who rode on Madonna's
right turned in his saddle and put up his hand as if to beckon Stefano. I
was regaling him with one of the choicest of Messer Sacchetti's paradoxes,
gurgling, myself, at the humour of the thing I told. I paid no heed to
the sign. I continued to expound my quip, as though we had the night
before us in which to make its elusive humour clear. But out of the tail
of my eye I watched my good friend Stefano, and I saw his right hand steal
round to the region of his back where I knew his dagger to be slung. Yet
was I patient. There should be no blundering through an excessive
precipitancy. I talked on until I saw that my suspicions were amply
realised. I caught the cold gleam of steel in the hand that he brought
back as stealthily as he had carried it to his poniard. Sant' Iddio!
What a coward he was for all his bulk, to go so slyly about the business
of stabbing a poor, helpless, defenceless Fool.
"But Sacchetti makes his point clear," I babbled on, most blandly; "almost
as clear, as comprehensive and as penetrating as should be to you the
point of this." And with a swift movement I swung half-round in my
saddle, and sank my dagger to the hilt in his side even as he was in the
act of raising his.
He made no sound beyond the faintest gurgle--the first vowel of a suddenly
choked word of wonder and surprise. He rocked a second in his saddle,
then crashed over, and lay with arms flung wide, like a huge black
crucifix, upon the white ground. At the same moment a piercing scream
broke from Madonna Paola.
I tremble still to think what might have been her fate had not those
ruffians who had laid hands on her fallen into the sorry error of holding
their single adversary too lightly. They heard the thud of the gallant
Stefano's fall, and they never doubted that mine was the body that had
gone down. They heard the rapid hoof-beats of my approach, yet, they
never turned their heads to ascertain whether they might not be mistaken
in their firm conviction that it was Messer Stefano who was joining them.
I kissed my blade for luck, and drove it straight and full into the back
of the fellow on Madonna Paola's right. He cried out, essayed to turn in
his saddle that he might deal with this unlooked-for assailant, then,
overcome, he lurched forward on to the withers of his horse and thence
rolled over, and was dragged away at the gallop, his foot caught in a
stirrup, by the suddenly startled brute he rode.
So far things had gone with an amazing and delightful ease. If only the
last of them had had the amiability to be intimidated by my prowess and to
have taken to his heels, I might have issued from that contest with the
unscathed glory of a very Mars. But from his throat there came, in answer
to his comrade's cry, a roar of rage. He fell back from Madonna, and
wheeled his horse to come at me, drawing his sword as he advanced.
"Ride on, Madonna," I shouted. "I will rejoin you presently."
The fellow laughed, a mighty ugly and discomposing laugh, which may or may
not have shaken her faith in my promise to rejoin her. It certainly went
near to shaking mine. However, she displayed a presence of mind full
worthy of the haughtiness and ingratitude of which she had showed herself
capable. She urged her mule forward, and, so, left him a clear road to
attack me. I made a mistake then that went mighty near to costing me my
life. I paused to twist my cloak about my left arm intending to use it as
a buckler. Had I but risked the arm itself, all unprotected, in that
task, it may well be that it had served me better. As it was, my
preparations were far from complete when already he was upon me, with the
result that the waving slack of my cloak was in my way to hamper and
retard the movements of my arm.
His sword leapt at me, a murderous blue-white flash of moonlit steel. I
put up my half-swaddled arm to divert the thrust, holding my dagger ready
in my right, and gripping my mule with all the strength of my two knees.
I caught the blade, it is true, and turned aside the stroke intended for
my heart. But the slack of the cloak clung to the neck of my mule, so
that I could not carry my arm far enough to send his point clear of my
body. It took me in the shoulder, stinging me, first icy cold then
burning hot, as it went tearing its way through. For just a second was I
daunted, more at knowing myself touched than by the actual pain. Then I
flung my whole body forward to reach him at the close quarters to which he
had come, and I buried my dagger in his breast, high up at the base of his
The force of the blow carried me forward, even as it bore him backward;
and so, with his sword-blade in my shoulder, and my dagger where I had
planted it, we hurtled over together and lay a second amidst what seemed a
forest of equine legs. Then something smote me across the head, and I was
Conceive me, if you can, a sorrier, or more useless thing. A senseless
My return to consciousness seemed to afford me such sensations as a diver
may experience as he rises up and up through the depth of water he has
plumbed--or as a disembodied soul may know in its gentle ascent towards
Heaven. Indeed the latter parallel may be more apt. For through the mist
that suffused my senses there penetrated from overhead a voice that seemed
to invoke every saint in the calendar on the behalf of some poor mortal.
A very litany of intercession was it, not quite, it would appear, devoid
"Sainted Virgin, restore him! Good St. Paul, who wert done to death with
a sword, let him not perish, else am I lost indeed!" came the voice.
I took a deep breath, and opened my eyes, whereat the voice cried out
gladly that its intercessions had been heard, and I knew that it was on my
behalf that the saints of Heaven had been disturbed in their beatific
peace. My head was pillowed in a woman's lap, and it took me a moment or
two to realise that that lap was Madonna Paula's, as was hers the voice
that had reached my awakening senses, the voice that now welcomed me back
to life in terms that were very different from the last that I could
remember her having used towards me.
"Thank God, Messer Boccadoro!" she exclaimed, as she bent over me.
Her face was black with shadow, but in her voice I caught a hint of tears,
and I wondered whether they were shed on my behalf or on her own.
"I do" I answered fervently. "Have you any notion of what hour it is?"
"None," she sighed. "You have been so long unconscious that I was losing
hope of ever hearing your voice again."
I became aware of a dull ache on the right side of my head. I put up my
hand, and withdrew it moist. She saw the action.
"One of the horses must have struck you with its hoof after you fell," she
explained. "But I was more concerned for your other wound. I withdrew
the sword with my own hands."
That other wound she spoke of was now making itself felt as well. It was
a gnawing, stinging pain in the region of my left shoulder, which seemed
to turn me numb to the waist on that side of my body, and render powerless
my arm. I questioned her touching my three adversaries, and she silently
pointed to three black masses that lay some little distance from us in the
"Not all dead?" I cried.
"I do not know," she answered, with a sob. "I have not dared go near
them. They frighten me. Mother of Heaven, what a night of horror it has
been! Oh, that I had taken your advice, Messer Boccacloro!" she exclaimed
in a passion of self-reproach.
I laughed, seeking to soften her distress.
"To me it seems, that whether you would or not, you have been compelled to
take it, after all. Those fellows lie there harmless enough, and I am
still--as I urged that I should be--your only escort."
"A nobler protector never woman had," she assured me, and I felt a hot
pearl of moisture fail upon my brow.
"You were wise, at least, to journey with a Fool," I answered her. "For
fools are proverbially lucky folk, and to-night has proven me of all fools
the luckiest. But, Madonna," I suggested, in a different tone, "should we
not be better advised to attempt to resume, this interesting journey of
ours? We do not seem to lack horses?"
A couple of nags were standing by the road-side, together with our mules,
and I was afterwards to learn that she, herself, it was had tethered them.
"It must be yet some three leagues to Pesaro," I added, "and if we journey
slowly, as I fear me that we must, we should arrive there soon after
"Do you think that you can stand?" she asked, a hopeful ring in her voice.
"I might essay it," answered I, and I would have done so, there and then,
but that she detained me.
"First let me see to this hurt in your head," said she. "I have been
bathing it with snow while you were unconscious."
She gathered a fresh handful as she spoke, and, very tenderly she wiped
away the blood. Then from her own head she took the fine linen lanza that
she wore, and made a bandage--a bandage sweet with the faint fragrance of
marsh-mallow--and bound it about my battered skull. When that was done
she turned her attention to my shoulder. This was a more difficult
matter, and all that we could do was to attempt to stanch the blood, which
already had drenched my doublet on that side. To this end she passed a
long scarf under my arm, and wound it several times about my shoulder.
At last her gentle ministrations ended, I sought to rise. A dizziness
assailed me scarce was I on my feet, and it is odds I had fallen back, but
that she caught and steadied me.
"Mother in Heaven! You are too weak to ride," she exclaimed. "You must
not attempt it."
"Nay, but I will," I answered, with more stoutness of tone than I felt of
body, and notwithstanding that my knees were loosening under my weight.
"It is a faintness that will pass."
If ever man willed himself to conquer weakness, that did I then, and with
some measure of success--or else it was that my faintness passed of
itself. I drew away from her support, and straightening myself, I crossed
to where the animals were tethered, staggering at first, but presently
with a surer foot. She followed me, watching my steps with as much
apprehension as a mother may feel when her first-born makes his earliest
attempts at walking, and as ready to spring to my aid did I show signs of
stumbling. But I kept up, and presently my senses seemed to clear, and I
stepped out more surely.
Awhile we stood discussing which of the animals we should take. It was my
suggestion that we should ride the horses but she wisely contended that
the mules would prove the more convenient if the slower. I agreed with
her, and then, ere we set out, I went to see to my late opponents. One of
them--Ser Stefano--was cold and stiff; the other two still lived, and from
the nature of their wounds seemed likely to survive, if only they were not
frozen to death before some good Samaritan came upon them.
I knelt a moment to offer up a prayer for the repose of the soul of him
that was dead, and I bound up the wounds of the living as best I could, to
save them greater loss of blood. Indeed, had it lain in my power, I would
have done more for them. But in what case was I to render further aid?
After all, they had brought their fate upon themselves, and I doubt not
they were paying a score that they had heaped up heavily in the past.
I went back to the mules, and, despite my remonstrances, Madonna Paola
insisted upon aiding me to mount, urging me to have a care of my wound,
and to make no violent movement that should set it bleeding again. Then
she mounted too, nimble as any boy that ever robbed an orchard, and we set
out once more. And now it was a very contrite and humbled lady that rode
with me, and one that was at no pains to dissemble her contrition, but,
rather, could speak of nothing else.
It moved me strangely to have her suing pardon from me, as though I had
been her equal instead of the sometime jester of the Court of Pesaro,
dismissed for an excessive pertness towards one with whom his master
And presently, as was perhaps but natural after all that she had
witnessed, she fell to questioning me as to how it came to pass that one
of such wit, resource and courage should follow the mean calling to which
I had owned. In answer I told her without reservation the full story of
my shame. It was a thing that I had ever most zealously kept hidden, as
already I have shown.
To be a Fool was evil enough in all truth; but to let men know that under
my motley was buried the identity of a man patrician-born was something
infinitely worse. For, however vile the trade of a Fool may be, it is not
half so vile for a low-born clod who is too indolent or too sickly to do
honest work as for one who has accepted it out of a half-cowardice and
persevered in it through very sloth.
Yet on that night and after all that had chanced, no matter how my cheeks
might burn in the gloom as I rode beside her, I was glad for once to tell
that ignominious story, glad that she should know what weight of
circumstance had driven me to wear my hideous livery.
But since my story dealt oddly with that Lord of Pesaro, the kinsman whose
shelter she was now upon her way to seek, I must first assure myself that
the candour to which I was disposed would not offend.
"Does it happen, Madonna," I inquired, "that you are well acquainted with
the Lord of Pesaro?"
"Nay; I have never seen him," answered she. "When he was at Rome, a year
ago in the service of the Pope, I was at my studies in the convent. His
father was my father's cousin, so that my kinship is none so near. Why do
"Because my story deals with him, Madonna, and it is no pretty tale. Not
such a narrative as I should choose wherewith to entertain you. Still,
since you have asked for it, you shall hear it.
"It was in the year that Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, celebrated his
nuptials with the Lady Lucrezia Borgia--three years ago, therefore--that
one morning there rode into the courtyard of his castle of Pesazo a tall
and lean young man on a tall and lean old horse. He was garbed and
harnessed after a fashion that proclaimed him half-knight, half-peasant,
and caused the castle lacqueys to eye him with amusement and greet him
with derision. Lacqueys are great arbiters of fashion.
"In a loud, imperious voice this cockerel called for Giovanni, Lord of
Pesaro, whereupon, resenting the insolence of his manner, the men-at-arms
would have driven him out without more ado. But it chanced that from one
of the windows of his stronghold the tyrant espied his odd visitor. He
was in a mood that craved amusement, and marvelling what madman might be
this, he made his way below and bade them stand back and let me speak--for
I, Madonna, was that lean young man.
"'Are you,' quoth I, 'the Lord of Pesaro?'
"He answered me courteously that he was, whereupon I did my errand to him.
I flung my gauntlet of buffalo-hide at his feet in gage of battle.
"'Your father,' said I, 'Costanzo of Pesaro, was a foul brigand, who
robbed my father of his castle and lands of Biancomonte, leaving him to a
needy and poverty-stricken old age. I am here to avenge upon your
father's son my father's wrongs; I am here to redeem my castle and my
lands. If so be that you are a true knight, you will take up the
challenge that I fling you, and you will do battle with me, on horse or
foot, and with whatsoever arms you shall decree, God defending him that
has justice on his side.'
"Knowing the world as I know it now, Madonna," I interpolated, "I realise
the folly of that act of mine. But in those days my views belonged to a
long departed age of chivalry, of which I had learnt from such books as
came my way at Biancomonte, and which I believed was the life of to-day in
the world of men. It was a thing which some tyrants would have had me
broken on the wheel. But Giovanni Sforza never so much as manifested
anger. There was a complacent smile on his white face and his fingers
toyed carelessly with his beard.
"I waited patiently, very haughty of mien and very fierce at heart, and
when the amusement began to fade from his eyes, I begged that he would
deliver me his answer.
"'My answer,' quoth he, 'is that you get you back to the place from whence
you came, and render thanks to God on your knees every morning of the life
I am sparing you that Giovanni Sforza is more entertained than affronted
by your frenzy.'
"At his words I went crimson from chin to brow.
"'Do you disdain me?' I questioned, choking with rage. He turned, with a
shrug and a laugh, and bade one of his men to give this cavalier his
glove, and conduct him from the castle. Several that had stood at hand
made shift to obey him, whereat I fell into such a blind, unreasoning fury
that incontinently I drew my sword, and laid about me. They were many, I
was but one; and they were not long in overpowering me and dragging me
from my horse.
"They bound me fast, and Giovanni bade them let me have a priest, then get
me hanged without delay. Had he done that, the world being as it is,
perhaps none could blame him. But he elected to spare my life, yet on
such terms as I could never have accepted had it not been for the
consideration of my poor widowed mother, whom I had left in the hills of
Biancomonte whilst I went forth to seek my fortune--such was the tale I
had told her. I was her sole support, her only hope in life; and my death
must have been her own, if not from grief, why, then from very want. The
thought of that poor old woman crushed my spirit as I sat in durance
waiting for my end, and when the priest came, whom they had sent to shrive
me, he found me weeping, which he took to argue a contrite heart. He bore
the tale of it to Giovanni, and the Lord of Pesaro came to visit me in
consequence, and found me sorely changed from my furious mood of some
"I was a very coward, I own; but it was for my mother's sake. If I feared
death, it was because I bethought me of what it must mean to her."
"At sight of Giovanni I cast myself at his feet, and with tears in my eyes
and in heartrending tones, bespeaking a humility as great as had been my
erstwhile arrogance, I begged my life of him. I told him the truth--that
for myself I was not afraid to die, but that I had a mother in the hills
who was dependent on me, and who must starve if I were thus cut off.
"He watched me with his moody eyes, a saturnine smile about his lips.
Then of a sudden he shook with a silent mirth, whose evil, malicious depth
I was far indeed from suspecting. He asked me would I take solemn oath
that if he spared my life I would never again raise my hand against him.
That oath I took with a greediness born of my fear of the death that was
"'You have been wise,' said he,' and you shall have your life on one
condition--that you devote it to my service.'
"'Even that will I do,' I answered readily. He turned to an attendant,
and ordered him to go fetch a suit of motley. No word passed between us
until that man returned with those garish garments. Then Giovanni smiled
on me in his mocking, infernal way.
"'Not that,' I cried, guessing his purpose.
"'Aye, that,' he answered me; 'that or the hangman's noose. A man who
could devise so monstrous a jest as was your challenge to the Tyrant of
Pesaro should be a merry fellow if he would. I need such a one. There
are two Fools at my Court, but they are mere tumblers, deformed vermin
that excite as much disgust as mirth. I need a sprightlier man, a man of
some learning and more drollery; such a man, in short, as you would seem
"I recoiled in horror and disgust. Was this his clemency--this sparing of
my life that he might submit it to an eternal shame? For a moment my
mother was forgotten. I thought only of myself, and I grew resolved to
"'When you spoke of service,' said I 'I thought of service of an
"'The service that I offer you is honourable,' he said, with cold
amusement. 'Indeed, remembering that your life was forfeit, you should
account yourself most fortunate. You shall be well housed and well fed,
you shall wear silk and lie in fine linen, on condition that you are
merry. If you prove dull our castellan shall have you whipped--for such a
one as you could not be dull save out of sullenness, of which we shall
seek to cure you if you show signs of it.'
"'I will not do it,' I cried, 'it were too base.'
"'My friend,' he answered me, 'the choice is yours. You shall have an
hour in which to resolve what you will do. When they open this door for
you at sunset, come forth clad as you are, and you shall hang. If you
prefer to live, then don me that robe and cap of motley, and, on condition
that you are merry, life is yours.'"
I paused a moment. Our horses were moving slowly, for the tale engrossed
us both, me in the telling, her in the hearing. Presently--
"I need not harass you with the reflections that were mine during that
hour, Madonna. Rather let me ask you: how should a man so placed make
choice to be full worthy of the office proffered him?"
There was a moment's silence while she pondered.
"Why," she answered me, at last, "a fool I take it would have chosen
death: the wise man life, since it must hold the hope of better days."
"And since it asked a man of wit to play the fool to such a tune as the
Lord Giovanni piped, that wise young man chose life and folly. But was
that choice indeed so wise? The story ends not there. That young men
whose early life had been one of hardships found himself, indeed, well-
housed and fed as the Lord Giovanni had promised him, and so he fell into
a slothful spirit, and was content to play the Fool for bed and board.
"There were times when conscience knocked loudly at my heart, and I was
tortured with shame to see myself in the garb of Fools, the sport of all,
from prince to scullion. But in the three years that I had dwelt at
Pesaro my identity had been forgotten by the few who had ever been aware
of it. Moreover, a court is a place of changes, and in three years there
had been such comings and goings at the Court of Giovanni Sforza, that not
more than one or two remained of those that had inhabited it when first I
entered on my existence there. Thus had my position grown steadily more
bearable. I was just a jester and no more, and so, in a measure--though I
blush to say it--I grew content. I gathered consolation from the fact
that there were not any who now remembered the story of my coming to
Pesaro, or who knew of the cowardliness I had been guilty of when I
consented to mask myself in the motley and assume the name of Boccadoro.
I counted on the Lord Giovanni's generosity to let things continue thus,
and, meanwhile, I provided for my mother out of the vails that were earned
me by my shame. But there came a day when Giovanni in evil wantonness of
spirit chose to make merry at the Fool's expense.
"To be held up to scorn and ridicule is a part of the trade of such as I,
and had it been just Boccadoro whom Giovanni had exposed to the derision
of his Court, haply I had been his jester still. But such sport as that
would have satisfied but ill the deep-seated malice of his soul. The man
whom his cruel mockery crucified for their entertainment was Lazzaro
Biancomonte, whom he revealed to them, relating in his own fashion the
tale I have told you.
"At that I rebelled, and I said such things to him in that hour, before
all his Court, as a man may not say to a prince and live. Passion surged
up in him, and he ordered his castellan to flog me to the bone--in short,
to slay me with a whip.
"From that punishment I was saved by the intercessions of Madonna
Lucrezia. But I was driven out of Pesaro that very night, and so it
happens that I am a wanderer now."
At that I left it. I had no mind to tell her what motives had impelled
Lucrezia Borgia to rescue me, nor on what errand I had gone to Rome and
was from Rome returning.
She had heard me in silence, and now that I had done, she heaved a sigh,
for which gentle expression of pity out of my heart I thanked her. We
were silent, thereafter, for a little while. At length she turned her
head to regard me in the light of the now declining moon.
"Messer Biancomonte," said she, and the sound of the old name, falling
from her lips, thrilled me with a joy unspeakable, and seemed already to
reinvest me in my old estate, "Messer Biancomonte, you have done me in
these four-and-twenty hours such service as never did knight of old for
any lady--and you did it, too, out of the most disinterested and noble of
motives, proving thereby how truly knightly is that heart of yours, which,
for my sake, has all but beat its last to-night. You must journey on to
Pesaro with me despite this banishment of which you have told me. I will
be surety that no harm shall come to you. I could not do less, and I
shall hope to do far more. Such influence as I may prove to have with my
cousin of Pesaro shall be exerted all on your behalf, my friend; and if in
the nature of Giovanni Sforza there be a tithe of the gratitude with which
you have inspired me, you shall, at least, have justice, and Biancomonte
shall be yours again."
I was silent for a spell, so touched was I by the kindness she manifested
me--so touched, indeed, and so unused to it that I forgot how amply I had
earned it, and how rudely she had used me ere that was done.
"Alas!" I sighed. "God knows I am no longer fit to sit in the house of
the Biancomonte. I am come too low, Madonna."
"That Lazzaro, after whom you are named," she answered, "had come yet
lower. But he lived again, and resumed his former station. Take your
courage from that."
"He lived not at the mercy of Giovanni of Pesaro," said I.
There was a fresh pause at that. Then--"At least," she urged me, "you'll
come to Pesaro with me?"
"Why yes," said I. "I could not let you go alone." And in my heart I
felt a pang of shame, and called myself a cur for making use of her as I
was doing to reach the Court of Giovanni Sforza.
"You need fear no consequences," she promised me. "I can be surety for
that at least."
In the east a brighter, yellower light than the moon's began to show. It
was the dawn, from which I gathered that it must be approaching the
thirteenth hour. Pesaro could not be more than a couple of leagues
farther, and, presently, when we had gained the summit of the slight hill
we were ascending, we beheld in the distance a blurred mass looming on the
edge of the glittering sea. A silver ribbon that uncoiled itself from the
western hills disappeared behind it. That silvery streak was the River
Foglia; that heap of buildings against the landscape's virgin white, the
town of Pesaro.
Madonna pointed to it with a sudden cry of gladness. "See Messer
Biancomonte, how near we are. Courage, my friend; a little farther, and
yonder we have rest and comfort for you."
She had need, in truth, to cry me "Courage!" for I was weakening fast once
more. It may have been the much that I had talked, or the infernal
jolting of my mule, but I was losing blood again, and as we were on the
point of riding forward my senses swam, so that I cried out; and but for
her prompt assistance I might have rolled headlong from my saddle.
As it was, she caught me about the waist as any mother might have done her
son. "What ails you?" she inquired, her newly-aroused anxiety contrasting
sharply with her joyous cry of a moment earlier. "Are you faint, my
friend?" It needed no confession on my part. My condition was all too
plain as I leaned against her frail body for support.
"It is my wound," I gasped. Then I set my teeth in anguish. So near the
haven, and to fail now! It could not be; it must not be. I summoned all
my resolution, all my fortitude; but in vain. Nature demanded payment for
the abuses she had suffered.
"If we proceed thus," she ventured fearfully, "you leaning against me, and
going at a slow pace--no faster than a walk--think you, you can bear it?
Try, good Messer 'Biancomonte."
"I will try, Madonna," I replied. Perhaps thus, and if I am silent, we
may yet reach Pesaro together. If not--if my strength gives out--the town
is yonder and the day is coming. You will find your way without me."
"I will not leave you, sir," she vowed; and it was good to hear her.
"Indeed, I hope you may not know the need," I answered wearily. And thus
we started on once more.
Sant' Iddio! What agonies I suffered ere the sun rose up out of the sea
to flood us with his winter glory! What agonies were mine during those
two hours or so of that last stage of our eventful journey! "I must bear
up until we are at the gates of Pesaro," I kept murmuring to myself, and,
as if my spirit were inclined to become the servant of my will and hold my
battered flesh alive until we got that far, Pesaro's gates I had the joy
of entering ere I was constrained to give way.
Dimly I remember--for very dim were my perceptions growing--that as we
crossed the bridge and passed beneath the archway of the Porta Romana, the
officer turned out to see who came. At sight of me be gaped a moment in
"Boccadoro?" he exclaimed, at last. "So soon returned?"
"Like Perseus from the rescue of Andromeda," answered I, in a feeble
voice, "saving that Perseus was less bloody than am I. Behold the Madonna
Paola Sforza di Santafior, the noble cousin of our High and Mighty Lord."
And then as if my task being done, I were free to set my weary brain to
rest, my senses grew confused, the officer's voice became a hum that
gradually waxed fainter as I sank into what seemed the most luxurious and
delicious sleep that ever mortal knew.
Two days later, when I was conscious once more, I learned what excitement
those words of mine had sown, with what honours Madonna Paola was escorted
to the Castle, and how the citizens of Pesaro turned out upon hearing the
news which ran like fire before us. And Madonna, it seems, had loudly
proclaimed how gallantly I had served her, for as they bore me along in a
cloak carried by four men-at-arms, the cry that was heard in the streets
of Pesaro that morning was "Boccadoro!" They had loved me, had those good
citizens of Pesaro, and the news of my departure had cast a gloom upon the
town. To have their hero return in a manner so truly heroic provoked that
brave display of their affection, and I deeply doubt if ever in the days
of greatest loyalty the name of Sforza was as loudly cried in Pesaro as,
they tell me, was the name of Sforza's Fool that day.
THE SUMMONS FROM ROME
If Madonna Paola did not achieve quite all that she had promised me so
readily, yet she achieved more than from my acquaintance with the nature
of Giovanni Sforza--and my knowledge of the deep malice he entertained for
me--I should have dared to hope.
The Tyrant of Pesaro, as I was soon to learn, was greatly taken with this
fair cousin of his, whom that morning he had beheld for the first time.
And being taken with her, it may be that Giovanni listened the more
readily to her intercessions on my poor behalf. Since it was she who
begged this thing, he could not wholly refuse. But since he was Giovanni
Sforza, he could not wholly grant. He promised her that my life, at
least, should be secure, and that not only would he pardon me, but that he
would have his own physician see to it that I was made sound again. For
the time, that was enough, he thought. First let them bring me back to
life. When that was achieved, it would be early enough to consider what
course this life should take thereafter.
And she, knowing him not and finding him so kind and gracious, trusted
that he would perform that which he tricked her into believing that he
For some ten days I lay abed, feverish at first and later very weak from
the great loss of blood I had sustained. But after the second day, when
my fever had abated, I had some visitors, among whom was Madonna Paola,
who bore me the news that her intercessions for me with the Lord of Pesaro
were likely to bear fruit, and that I might look for my reinstatement.
Yet, if I permitted myself to hope as she bade me; I did so none too
My situation, bearing in mind how at once I had served and thwarted the
ends of Cesare Borgia, was perplexing.
Another visitor I had was Messer Magistri--the pompous seneschal of
Pesaro--who, after his own fashion, seemed to have a liking for me, and a
certain pity. Here was my chance of discharging the true errand on which
I was returned.
"I owe thanks," said I, "to many circumstances for the sparing of my life;
but above all people and all things do I owe thanks to our gracious Lady
Lucrezia. Do you think, Messer Magistri, that she would consent to see me
and permit me again to express the gratitude that fills my heart?"
Mosser Magistri thought that he could promise this, and consented to bear
my message to her. Within the hour she was at my bedside and divining
that, haply, I had news to give her of the letter I had born her brother,
she dismissed Magistri who was in attendance.
Once we were alone her first words were of kindly concern for my
condition, delivered in that sweet, musical voice that was by no means the
least charm of a princess to whom Nature had been prodigal of gifts. For
without going to that length of exaggerated praise which some have
bestowed--for her own ear, and with an eye to profit--upon Madonna
Lucrezia, yet were I less than truthful if I sought to belittle her ample
claims to beauty. Some six years later than the time of which I write she
was met on the occasion of her entry into Ferrara by a certain clown
dressed in the scanty guise of the shepherd Paris, who proffered her the
apple of beauty with the mean-souled flattery that since beholding her he
had been forced to alter his old-time judgment in favour of Venus.
He lied, like the brazen, self-seeking adulator that he was, and for which
he should have been soundly whipped. Her nose was a shade too long, her
chin a shade too short to admit, even remotely, of such comparisons.
Still, that she had a certain gracious beauty, as I have said, it is not
mine to deny. There was an almost childish freshness in her face, an
almost childish innocence in her fine gray eyes, and, above all, a golden
and resplendent hair as brought to mind the tresses of God's angels.
That fair child--for no more than a child was she--drew a chair to my
There she sate herself, whilst I thanked her for her concern on my behalf,
and answered that I was doing well enough, and should be abroad again in a
day or two.
"Brave lad," she murmured, patting my hand, which lay upon the coverlet,
as though she had been my sister and I anything but a Fool, "count me ever
your friend hereafter, for what you have done for Madonna Paola. For
although it was my own family you thwarted, yet you did so to serve one
who is more to me than any family, more than any sister could be."
"What I did, Madonna," I answered, "I did with the better heart since it
opened out a way that was barred me, solved me a riddle which my Lord,
your Illustrious brother, set me--one that otherwise might well have
overtaxed my wits."
"Ah?" Her gray eyes fell on me in a swift and searching glance, a glance
that revealed to the full their matchless beauty. Care seemed of a sudden
to have aged her face. The question of her eyes needed no translation
"The Lord Cardinal of Valencia entrusted me with a letter for you, in
answer to your own," I informed her, and from underneath my pillow I drew
the package, which during Magistri's absence I had abstracted from my boot
that I might have it in readiness when she came.
She sighed as she took it, and a wistful smile invested the corners of her
"I had hoped he would have found better employment for you," she said.
"His Excellency promised that he would more fitly employ me in the future
did I discharge this errand with secrecy and despatch. But by aiding
Madonna Paola I have burned my boats against returning to claim the
redemption of that promise; though had it not been for Madonna Paola and
what I did, I scarce know how I should have penetrated here to you."
She broke the seal, and rising crossed to the window, where she stood
reading the letter, her back toward me. Presently I heard a stifled sob.
The letter was crushed in her hand. Then moments passed ere she
confronted me once more. But her manner as all changed; she was agitated
and preoccupied, and for all that she forced herself to talk of me and my
affairs, her mind was clearly elsewhere. At last she left me, nor did I
see her again during the time I was confined to my bed.
On the eleventh day I rose, and the weather being mild and spring-like, I
was permitted by my grave-faced doctor to take the air a little on the
terrace that overlooks the sea. I found no garments but some suits of
motley, and so, in despite of my repugnance now to reassume that garb, I
had no choice but to array myself in one of these. I selected the least
garish one--a suit of black and yellow stripes, with hose that was half
black, half yellow, too; and so, leaning upon the crutch they had left me,
I crept forth into the sunlight, the very ghost of the man that I had been
a fortnight ago.
I found a stone seat in a sheltered corner looking southward towards
Ancona, and there I rested me and breathed the strong invigorating air of
the Adriatic. The snows were gone, and between me and the wall some
twenty paces off--there was a stretch of soft, green turf.
I had brought with me a book that Madonna Lucrezia had sent me while I was
yet abed. It was a manuscript collection of Spanish odes, with the
proverbs of one Domenico Lopez--all very proper nourishment for a jester's
mind. The odes seemed to possess a certain quaintness, and among the
proverbs there were many that were new to me in framing and in substance.
Moreover, I was glad of this means of improving my acquaintance with the
tongue of Spain, and I was soon absorbed. So absorbed, indeed, as never
to hear the footsteps of the Lord Giovanni, when presently he approached
me unattended, nor to guess at his presence until his shadow fell athwart
my page. I raised my eyes, and seeing who it was I made shift to get on
my feet; but he commanded me to remain seated, commenting sympathetically
upon my weak condition.
He asked me what I read, and when I had told him, a thin smile fluttered
across his white face.
"You choose your reading with rare judgment," said he. "Read on, and
prime your mind with fresh humour, prepare yourself with new conceits for
our amusement against the time when health shall be more fully restored
It was in such words as these that he intimated to me that I was pardoned,
and reinstated--as the Fool of the Court of Pesaro. That was to be the
sum of his clemency. We were precisely where we had been. Once before
had he granted me my life on condition that I should amuse him; he did no
more than repeat that mercy now. I stared at him in wonder, open-mouthed,
whereit he laughed.
"You are agreeably surprised, my Boccadoro?" said he, his fingers straying
to his beard as was his custom. "My clemency is no more than you deserve
in return for the service you have rendered to the House of Sforza." And
he patted my head as though I had been one of his dogs that had borne
itself bravely in the chase.
I answered nothing. I sat there as if I had been a part of the stone from
which my seat was hewn, for I lacked the strength to rise and strangle him
as he deserved--moreover, I was bound by an oath, which it would have
damned my soul to break, never to raise my hand against him.
And then, before he could say more, two ladies issued from the doorway on
my right. They were Madonna Lucrezia and Madonna Paola. Upon espying me
they hastened forward with expressions of pleased surprise at seeing me
risen and out, and when I would have got to my feet they stayed me as
Giovanni had done. Madonna Paola's words seemed addressed to heaven
rather than to me, for they were words of thanksgiving for this recovery
of my strength.
"I have no thanks," she ended warmly, "that can match the deeds by which
you earned them, Messer Biancomonte."
My eyes drifting to Giovanni's face surprised its sudden darkening.
"Madonna Paola," said he, in an icy voice, "you have uttered a name that
must not be heard within my walls of Pesaro, if you would prove yourself
the friend of Boccadoro. To remind me of his true identity is to remind
me of that which counts not in his favour."
She turned to regard him, a mild surprise in her blue eyes.
"But, my lord, you promised--" she began.
"I promised," he interposed, with an easy smile and manner never so
deprecatory, "that I would pardon him, grant him his life and restore him
to my favour."
"But did you not say that if he survived and was restored to strength you
would then determine the course his life should take?"
Still smiling, he produced his comfit-box, and raised the lid.
"That is a thing he seems to have determined for himself," he answered
smoothly--he could be smooth as a cat upon occasion, could this bastard of
Costanzo Sforza. "I came upon him here, arrayed as you behold him, and
reading a book of Spanish quips. Is it not clear that he has chosen?"
Between thumb and forefinger he balanced a sugar-crusted comfit of
coriander seed steeped in marjoram vinegar, and having put his question he
bore the sweet-meat to his mouth. The ladies looked at him, and from him
to me. Then Madonna Paola spoke, and there seemed a reproachful wonder in
"Is this indeed your choice?" she asked me.
"It is the choice that was forced on me," said I, in heat. "They left me
no garment save these of folly. That I was reading this book it pleases
my lord to interpret into a further sign of my intentions."
She turned to him again, and to the appeal she made was joined that of
Madonna Lucrezia. He grew serious and put up his hand in a gesture of
"I am more clement than you think," said he, "in having done so much. For
the rest, the restoration that you ask for him is one involving political
issues you little dream of. What is this?"
He had turned abruptly. A servant was approaching, leading a mud-splashed
courier, whom he announced as having just arrived.
"Whence are you?" Giovanni questioned him.
"From the Holy See," answered the courier, bowing, "with letters for the
High and Mighty Lord Giovanni Sforza, Tyrant of Pesaro, and his noble
spouse, Madonna Lucrezia Borgia."
He proffered his letters as he spoke, and Giovanni, whose brow had grown
overcast, took them with a hand that seemed reluctant. Then bidding the
servant see to the courier's refreshment, he dismissed them both.
A moment he stood, balancing the parchments a if from their weight he
would infer the gravity of their contents; and the affairs of Boccadoro
were, there and then, forgotten by us all. For the thought that rose
uppermost in our minds--saving always that of Madonna Lucrezia--was that
these communications concerned the sheltering of Madonna Paola, and were a
command for her immediate return to Rome. At last Giovanni handed his
wife the letter intended for her, and, in silence, broke the seal of his
He unfolded it with a grim smile, but scarce had he begun to read when his
expression softened into one of terror, and his face grew ashen. Next it
flared crimson, the veins on his brow stood out like ropes, and his eyes
flashed furiously upon Madonna Lucrezia. She was reading, her bosom
rising and falling in token of the excitement that possessed her.
"Madonna," he cried in an awful voice, "I have here a command from the
Holy See to repair at once to Rome, to answer certain charges that are
preferred against me relating to my marriage. Madonna, know you aught of
"I know, sir," she answered steadily, "that I, too, have here a letter
calling me to Rome. But there is no reason given for the summons."
Intuitively it flashed across my mind that whatever the matter might be,
Madonna Lucrezia had full knowledge of it through the letter I had brought
her from her brother.
"Can you conjecture, Madonna, what are these charges to which my letter
vaguely alludes?" Giovanni was inquiring.
"Your pardon, but the subject is scarcely of a nature to permit discussion
in the castle courtyard. Its character is intimate."
He looked at her very searchingly, but for all that he was a man of almost
twice her years, her wits were more than a match for his, and his scrutiny
can have told him nothing. She preserved a calm, unruffled front.
"In five minutes, Madonna," said he, very sternly, "I shall be honoured if
you will receive me in your closet."
She inclined her head, murmuring an unhesitating assent. Satisfied, he
bowed to her and to Madonna Paola--who had been looking on with eyes that
wonder had set wide open--and turning on his heel he strode briskly away.
As he passed into the castle, Madonna Lucrezia heaved a sigh and rose.
"My poor Boccadoro," she cried, "I fear me your affairs must wait a while.
But think of me always as your friend, and believe that if I can prevail
upon my brother to overlook the ill-turn you did him when you entered the
service of this child"--and she pointed to Madonna Paola--"I shall send
for you from Rome, for in Pesaro I fear you have little to hope for. But
let this be a secret between us."
From those words of hers I inferred, as perhaps she meant I should, that
once she left Pesaro to obey her father's summons, our little northern
state was to know her no more. Once again, only, did I see her, on the
occasion of her departure, some four days later, and then but for a
moment. Back to Pesaro she came no more, as you shall learn anon; but
behind her she left a sweet and fragrant memory, which still endures
though many years are sped and much calumny has been heaped upon her name.
I might pause here to make some attempt at refuting the base falsehoods
that had been bruited by that time-serving vassal Guicciardini, and others
of his kidney, whom the upstart Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere--sometime
pedlar--in his jealous fury at seeing the coveted pontificate pass into
the family of Borgia, bought and hired to do his loathsome work of calumny
and besmirch the fame of as sweet a lady as Italy has known. But this
poor chronicle of mine is rather concerned with the history of Madonna
Paola di Santafior, and it were a divergence well-nigh unpardonable to set
my pen at present to that other task. Moreover, there is scarce the need.
If any there be who doubt me, or if future generations should fall into
the error of lending credence to the lies of that villain Guicciardini, of
that arch-villain Giuliano della Rovere, or of other smaller fry who have
lent their helot's pens to weave mendacious records of her life, dubbing
her murderess, adulteress, and Heaven knows what besides--I will but refer
them to the archives of Ferrara, whose Duchess she became at the age of
one-and-twenty, and where she reigned for eighteen years. There shall it
be found recorded that she was an exemplary, God-fearing woman; a faithful
and honoured wife; a wise, devoted mother; and a princess, beloved and
esteemed by her people for her piety, her charity and her wisdom. If such
records as are there to be read by earnest seekers after truth be not
sufficient to convince, and to reveal those others whom I have named in
the light of their true baseness, then were it idle for me to set up in
these pages a passing refutation of the falsehoods which it has grieved me
so often to hear repeated.
It was two days later that the Lord Giovanni set out for Rome, obedient to
the command he had received. But before his departure--on the eve of it,
to be precise--there arrived at Pesaro a very wonderful and handsome
gentleman. This was the brother of Madonna Paola, the High and Mighty
Lord Filippo di Santafior. He had had a hint in Rome that his connivance
at his sister's defiant escape was suspected at the Vatican, and he had
wisely determined that his health would thrive better in a northern
climate for a while.
A very splendid creature was this Lord Filippo, all shimmering velvet,
gleaming jewels, costly furs and glittering gold. His face was
effeminate, though finely featured, and resembled, in much, his sister's.
He rode a cream-coloured horse, which seemed to have been steeped in musk,
so strongly was it scented. But of all his affectations the one with
which I as taken most was to see one of his grooms approach him when he
dismounted, to dust his wondrous clothes down to his shoes, which he wore
in the splayed fashion set by the late King of France who was blessed with
twelve toes on each of his deformed feet.
The Lord Giovanni, himself not lacking in effeminacy, was greatly taken by
the wondrous raiment, the studied lisp and the hundred affectations of
this peerless gallant. Had he not been overburdened at the time by the
Papal business that impended, he might there and then have cemented the
intimacy which was later to spring up between them. As it was, he made
him very welcome, and placed at his and his sister's disposal the
beautiful palace that his father had begun, and he, himself, had
completed, which was known as the Palazza Sforza. On the morrow Giovanni
left Pesaro with but a small retinue, in which I was thankful not to be
Two days later Madonna Lucrezia followed her husband, the fact that they
journeyed not together, seeming to wear an ominous significance. Her eyes
had a swollen look, such as attends much weeping, which afterwards I took
as proof that she knew for what purpose she was going, and was moved to
bitter grief at the act to which her ambitious family was constraining
After their departure things moved sluggishly at Pesaro. The nobles of
the Lord Giovanni's Court repaired to their several houses in the
neighboring country, and save for the officers of the household the place
Madonna Paola remained at the Sforza Palace, and I saw her only once
during the two mouths that followed, and then it was about the streets,
and she had little more than a greeting for me as she passed. At her side
rode her brother, a splendid blaze of finery, falcon on wrist.
My days were spent in reading and reflection, for there was naught else to
do. I might have gone my ways, had I so wished it, but something kept me
there at Pesaro, curious to see the events with which the time was growing
We grew sadly stagnant during Lent, and what with the uneventful course of
things, and the lean fare proscribed by Mother Church, it was a very
dispirited Boccadoro that wandered aimlessly whither his dulling fancy
took him. But in Holy Week, at last, we received an abrupt stir which set
a whirlpool of excitement in the Dead Sea of our lives. It was the sudden
reappearance of the Lord Giovanni.
He came alone, dust-stained and haggard, on a horse that dropped dead from
exhaustion the moment Pesaro was reached, and in his pallid cheek and
hollow eye we read the tale of some great fear and some disaster.
That night we heard the story of how he had performed the feat of riding
all the way from Rome in four-and-twenty hours, fleeing for his life from
the peril of assassination, of which Madonna Lucrezia had warned him.
He went off to his Castle of Gradara, where he shut himself up with the
trouble we could but guess at, and so in Pesaro, that brief excitement
spent, we stagnated once again.
I seemed an anomaly in so gloomy a place, and more than once did I think
of departing and seeking out my poor old mother in her mountain home,
contenting myself hereafter with labouring like any honest villano born to
the soil. But there ever seemed to be a voice that bade me stay and wait,
and the voice bore a suggestion of Madonna Paola. But why dissemble here?
Why cast out hints of voices heard, supernatural in their flavour? The
voice, I doubt not, was just my own inclination, which bade me hope that
once again it might be mine to serve that lady.
An eventful year in the history of the families of Sforza and Borgia was
that year of grace 1497.
Spring came, and ere it had quite grown to summer we had news of the
assassination of the Duke of Gandia, and the tale that he was done to
death by his elder brother, Cesare Borgia; a tale which seemed to lack for
reasonable substantiation, and which, despite the many voices that make
bold to noise it broadcast, may or may not be true.
In that same month of June messages passed between Rome and Pesaro, and
gradually the burden of the messages leaked out in rumours that Pope
Alexander and his family were pressing the Lord Giovanni to consent to a
divorce. At last he left Pesaro again; this time to journey to Milan and
seek counsel with his powerful cousin, Lodovico, whom they called "The
Moor." When he returned he was more sulky and downcast than ever, and at
Gradara he lived in an isolation that had been worthy of a hermit.
And thus that miserable year wore itself out, and, at last, in December,
we heard that the divorce was announced, and that Lucrezia Borgia was the
Tyrant of Pesaro's wife no more. The news of it and the reasons that were
put forward as having led to it were roared across Italy in a great,
derisive burst of laughter, of which the Lord Giovanni was the unfortunate
and contemptible butt.
"MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN"
And now, lest I grow tedious and weary you with this narrative of mine, it
may be well that I but touch with a fugitive pen upon the events of the
next three years of the history of Pesaro.
Early in 1498 the Lord Giovanni showed himself once more abroad, and he
seemed again the same weak, cruel, pleasure-loving tyrant he had been
before shame overtook him and drove him for a season into hiding. Madonna
Paola and her brother, Filippo di Santafior, remained in Pesaro, where
they now appeared to have taken up their permanent abode. Madonna Paola--
following her inclinations--withdrew to the Convent of Santa Caterina,
there to pursue in peace the studies for which she had a taste, whilst her
splendid, profligate brother became the ornament--the arbiter
elegantiarum--of our court.
Thus were they left undisturbed; for in the cauldron of Borgia politics a
stew was simmering that demanded all that family's attention, and of whose
import we guessed something when we heard that Cesare Borgia had flung
aside his cardinalitial robes to put on armour and give freer rein to the
boundless ambition that consumed him.
With me life moved as if that winter excursion and adventure had never
been. Even the memory of it must have faded into a haze that scarce left
discernible any semblance of reality, for I was once again Boccadoro, the
golden-mouthed Fool, whose sayings were echoed by every jester throughout
Italy. My shame that for a brief season had risen up in arms seemed to be
laid to rest once more, and I was content with the burden that was mine.
Money I had in plenty, for when I pleased him the Lord Giovanni's vails
were often handsome, and much of my earnings went to my poor mother, who
would sooner have died starving than have bought herself bread with those
ducats could she have guessed at what manner of trade Lazzaro Biancomonte
had earned them.
The Lord Giovanni was a frequent visitor at the Convent of Santa Caterina,
whither he went, ever attended by Filippo di Santafior, to pay his duty to
his fair cousin. In the summer of 1500, she being then come to the age of
eighteen, and as divinely beautiful a lady as you could find in Italy, she
allowed herself to be persuaded by her brother--who, I make no doubt had
been, in his turn, persuaded by the Lord of Pesaro--to leave her convent
and her studies, and to take up her life at the Sforza Palace, where
Filippo held by now a sort of petty court of his own.
And now it fell out that the Lord Giovanni was oftener at the Palace than
at the Castle, and during that summer Pesaro was given over to such
merrymaking as it had never known before. There was endless lute-
thrumming and recitation of verses by a score of parasite poets whom the
Lord Giovanni encouraged, posing now as a patron of letters; there were
balls and masques and comedies beyond number, and we were as gay as though
Italy held no Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, who was sweeping
northward with his all-conquering flood of mercenaries.
But one there was who, though the very centre of all these merry doings,
the very one in whose honour and for whose delectation they were set
afoot, seemed listless and dispirited in that boisterous crowd. This was
Madonna Paola, to whom, rumour had it, that her kinsman, the Lord
Giovanni, was paying a most ardent suit.
I saw her daily now, and often would she choose me for her sole companion;
often, sitting apart with me, would she unburden her heart and tell me
much that I am assured she would have told no other. A strange thing may
it have seemed, this confidence between the Fool and the noble Lady of
Santafior--my Holy Flower of the Quince, as in my thoughts I grew to name
her. Perhaps it may have been because she found me ever ready to be sober
at her bidding, when she needed sober company as those other fools--the
greater fools since they accounted themselves wise--could not afford her.
That winter adventure betwixt Cagli and Pesaro was a link that bound us
together, and caused her to see under my motley and my masking smile the
true Lazzaro Biancomonte whom for a little season she had known. And when
we were alone it had become her wont to call me Lazzaro, leaving that
other name that they had given me for use when others were at hand. Yet
never did she refer to my condition, or wound me by seeking to spur me to
the ambition to become myself again. Haply she was content that I should
be as I sas, since had I sought to become different it must have entailed
my quitting Pesaro, and this poor lady was so bereft of friends that she
could not afford to lose even the sympathy of the despised jester.
It was in those days that I first came to love her with as pure a flame as
ever burned within the heart of man, for the very hopelessness of it
preserved its holy whiteness. What could I do, if I would love her, but
love her as the dog may love his mistress? More was surely not for me--
and to seek more were surely a madness that must earn me less. And so, I
was content to let things be, and keep my heart in check, thanking God for
the mercy of her company at times, and for the precious confidences she
made me, and praying Heaven--for of my love was I grown devout--that her
life might run a smooth and happy course, and ready, in the furtherance of
such an object, to lay down my own should the need arise. Indeed there
were times when it seemed to me that it was a good thing to be a Fool to
know a love of so rare a purity as that--such a love as I might never have
known had I been of her station, and in such case as to have hoped to win
her some day for my own.
One evening of late August, when the vines were heavy with ripe fruit, and
the scent of roses was permeating the tepid air, she drew me from the
throng of courtiers that made merry in the Palace, and led me out into the
noble gardens to seek counsel with me, she said, upon a matter of gravest
moment. There, under the sky of deepest blue, crimsoning to saffron where
the sun had set, we paced awhile in silence, my own senses held in thrall
by the beauty of the eventide, the ambient perfumes of the air and the
strains of music that faintly reached us from the Palace. Madonna's head
was bent, and her eyes were set upon the ground and burdened, so my
furtive glance assured me, with a gentle sorrow. At length she spoke, and
at the words she uttered my heart seemed for a moment to stand still.
"Lazzaro," said she, "they would have me marry."
For a little spell there was a silence, my wits seeming to have grown too
numbed to attempt to seek an answer. I might be content, indeed, to love
her from a distance, as the cloistered monk may love and worship some
particular saint in Heaven; yet it seems that I was not proof against
jealousy for all the abstract quality of my worship.
"Lazzaro," she repeated presently, "did you hear me? They would have me
"I have heard some such talk," I answered, rousing myself at last; "and
they say that it is the Lord Giovanni who would prove worthy of your
"They say rightly, then," she acknowledged. "The Lord Giovanni it is."
Again there was a silence, and again it was she who broke it.
"Well, Lazzaro?" she asked. "Have you naught to say?"
"What would you have me say, Madonna? If this wedding accords with your
own wishes, then am I glad."
"Lazzaro, Lazzaro! you know that it does not."
"How should I know it, Madonna?"
"Because your wits are shrewd, and because you know me. Think you this
petty tyrant is such a man as I should find it in my heart to conceive
affection for? Grateful to him am I for the shelter he has afforded us
here; but my love--that is a thing I keep, or fain would keep, for some
very different man. When I love, I think it will be a valorous knight, a
gentleman of lofty mind, of noble virtues and ready address."
"An excellent principle on which to go in quest of a husband, Madonna mia.
But where in this degenerate world do you look to find him?"
"Are there, then, no such men?"
"In the pages of Bojardo and those other poets whom you have read too
earnestly there may be."
"Nay, there speaks your cynicism," she chided me. "But even if my ideals
be too lofty, would you have me descend from the height of such a pinnacle
to the level of the Lord Giovanni--a weak-spirited craven, as witnesses
the manner in which he permitted the Borgias to mishandle him; a cruel and
unjust tyrant, as witnesses his dealing with you, to seek no further
instances; a weak, ignorant, pleasure-loving fool, devoid of wit and
barren of ambition? Such is the man they would have me wed. Do not tell
me, Lazzaro, that it were difficult to find a better one than this."
"I do not mean to tell you that. After all, though it be my trade to
jest, it is not my way to deal in falsehood. I think, Madonna, that if we
were to have you write for us such an appreciation of the High and Mighty
Giovanni Sforza, you would leave a very faithful portrait for the
enlightenment of posterity."
"Lazzaro, do not jest!" she cried. "It is your help I need. That is the
reason why I am come to you with the tale of what they seek to force me
"To force you?" I cried. "Would they dare so much?"
"Aye, if I resist them further."
"Why, then," I answered, with a ready laugh, "do not resist them further."
"Lazzaro!" she cried, her accents telling of a spirit wounded by what she
accounted a flippancy.
"Mistake me not," I hastened to elucidate. "It is lest they should employ
force and compel you at once to enter into this union that I counsel you
to offer no resistance. Beg for a little time, vaguely suggesting that
you are not indisposed to the Lord Giovanni's suit."
"That were deceit," she protested.
"A trusty weapon with which to combat tyranny," said I.
"Well? And then?" she questioned. "Such a state of things cannot endure
for ever. It must end some day."
I shook my head, and I smiled down upon her a smile that was very full of
"That day will never dawn, unless the Lord Giovanni's impatience
transcends all bounds."
She looked at me, a puzzled glance in her eyes, a bewildered expression
knitting her fine brows.
"I do not take your meaning, my friend," she complained.
"Then mark the enucleation. I will expound this meaning of mine through
the medium of a parable. In Babylon of old, there dwelt a king whose name
was Belshazzar, who, having fallen into habits of voluptuousness and
luxury, was so enslaved by them as to feast and make merry whilst a
certain Darius, King of the Medes, was marching in arms against his
capital. At a feast one night the fingers of a man's hand were seen to
write upon the wall, and the words they wrote were a belated warning:
'Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.'"
She looked at me, her eyes round with inquiry, and a faint smile of
uncertainty on her lips.
"Let me confess that your elucidation helps me but little."
"Ponder it, Madonna," I urged her. "Substitute Giovanni Sforza for
Belshazzar, Cesare Borgia for King Darius, and you have the key to my
"But is it indeed so? Does danger threaten Pesaro from that quarter?"
"Aye, does it," I answered, almost impatiently. "The tide of war is
surging up, and presently will whelm us utterly. Yet here sits the Lord
Giovanni making merry with balls and masques and burle and banquets,
wholly unprepared, wholly unconscious of his peril. There may be no hand
to write a warning on his walls--or else, as in the case of Babylon, the
hand will write when it is too late to avert the evil--yet there are not
wanting other signs for those that have the wit to read them; nor is a
wondrous penetration needed."
"And you think then--" she began.
"I think that if you are obdurate with him, he and your brother may hurry
you by force into this union. But if you temporise with half-promises,
with suggestions that before Christmas you may grow reconciled to his
wishes, he will be patient."
"But what if Christmas comes and finds us still in this position?"
"It will need a miracle for that; or, at least, the death of Cesare
Borgia--an unlikely event, for they say he uses great precautions.
Saving the miracle, and providing Cesare lives, I will give the
Lord Giovanni's reign in Pesaro at most two months."
We had halted now, and were confronting each other in the descending
"Lazzaro, dear friend," she cried, almost with gaiety, "I was wise to take
counsel with you. You have planted in my heart a very vigorous growth of
We turned soon after, and started to retrace our steps, for she might be
ill-advised to remain absent overlong.
I left her on the terrace in a very different spirit from that in which
she had come to me, bearing with me her promise that she would act as I
had advised her. No doubt I had taken a load from her gentle soul, and
oddly enough I had taken, too, a load from mine.
Things fell out as I said they would in far as Giovanni Sforza and Filippo
were concerned. Madonna's seeming amenability to their wishes stayed
their insistence, and they could but respect her wishes to let the
betrothal be delayed yet a little while. And during the weeks that
followed, it was I scarce know whether more pitiable or more amusing to
see the efforts that Giovanni made to win her ardently desired affection.
Love has sharp eyes at times, and a dullard under the influence of the
baby god will turn shrewd and exert rare wiles in the conduct of his
wooing. Giovanni, by some intuition usually foreign to his dull nature,
seemed to divine what manner of man would be Madonna Paola's ideal, and
strove to pass himself off as possessed of the attributes of that ideal,
with an ardour that was pitiably comical. He became an actor by the side
of whom those comedians that played impromptus for his delectation were
the merest bunglers with the art. He gathered that Madonna Paola loved
the poets and their stately diction, and so, to please her better, he
became a poet for the season.
"Poeta nascitur" the proverb runs, and that proverb's truth was doubtless
forced home upon the Lord Giovanni at an early stage of his excursions
into the flowery meads of prosody. Fortunately he lacked the supreme
vanity that is the attribute of most poetasters, and he was able to see
that such things as after hours of midnight-labour he contrived to pen,
would evoke nothing but her amusement--unless, indeed, it were her scorn--
and render him the laughing-stock of all his Court.
So, in the wisdom of despair, he came to me, and with a gentleness that in
the past he had rarely manifested for me, he asked me was I skilled in
writing verse. There were not wanting others to whom he might have gone,
for there was no lack of rhymsters about his Court; but perhaps he thought
he could be more certain of my silence than of theirs.
I answered him that were the subject to my taste, I might succeed in
throwing off some passable lines upon it. He pressed gold upon me, and
bade me there and then set about fashioning an ode to Madonna Paola, and
to forget, when they were done, under pain of a whipping to the bone, that
I had written them.
I obeyed him with a right good-will. For what subject of all subjects
possible was there that made so powerful an appeal to my inclinations?
Within an hour he had the ode--not perhaps such a poem as might stand
comparison with the verses of Messer Petrarca, yet a very passable
effusion, chaste of conceit and palpitating with sincerity and adoration.
It was in that that I addressed her as the "Holy Flower of the Quince,"
which was the symbol of the House of Santafior.
So great an impression made that ode that on the morrow the Lord Giovanni
came to me with a second bribe and a second threat of torture. I gave him
a sonnet of Petrarchian manner which went near to outshining the merits of
the ode. And now, these requests of the Lord Giovanni's assumed an almost
daily regularity, until it came to seem that did affairs continue in this
manner for yet a little while, I should have earned me enough to have
repurchased Biancomonte, and, so, ended my troubles. And good was the
value that I gave him for his gold. How good, he never knew; for how was
he, the clod, to guess that this despised jester of his Court was pouring
out his very soul into the lines he wrote to the tyrant's orders?
It is scant wonder that, at last, Madonna Paola who had begun by smiling,
was touched and moved by the ardent worship that sighed from those
perfervid verses. So touched, indeed, was she as to believe the Lord
Giovanni's love to be the pure and holy thing those lines presented it,
and to conclude that his love had wrought in him a wondrous and ennobling
transformation. That so she thought I have the best of all reasons to
affirm, for I had it from her very lips one day.
"Lazzaro," she sighed, "it is occurring to me that I have done the Lord
Giovanni an injustice. I have misgauged his character. I held him to be
a shallow, unlettered clown, devoid of any finer feelings. Yet his verses
have a merit that is far above the common note of these writings, and they
breathe such fine and lofty sentiments as could never spring from any but
a fine and lofty soul."
How I came to keep my tongue from wagging out the truth I scarcely know.
It may be that I was frightened of the punishment that might overtake me
did I betray my master; but I rather think that it was the fear of
betraying myself, and so being flung into the outer darkness where there
was no such radiant presence as Madonna Paola's. For had I told her it
was I had penned those poems that were the marvel of the Court, she must
of necessity have guessed my secret, for to such quick wits as hers it
must have been plain at once that they were no vapourings of artistry, but
the hot expressions of a burning truth. It was in that--in their supreme
sincerity--that their chief virtue lay.
Thus weeks wore on. The vintage season came and went; the roses faded in
the gardens of the Palazzo Sforza, and the trees put on their autumn garb
of gold. October was upon us, and with it came, at last, the fear that
long ago should have spurred us into activity. And now that it came it
did not come to stimulate, but to palsy. Terror-stricken at the
conquering advance of Valentino--which was the name they now gave Cesare
Borgia; a name derived from his Duchy of Valentinois--Giovanni Sforza
abruptly ceased his revelling, and made a hurried appeal for help to
Francesco Gonzaga, Lord of Mantua--his brother-in-law, through the Lord of
Pesaro's first marriage. The Mantuan Marquis sent him a hundred
mercenaries under the command of an Albanian named Giacomo. As well might
he have sent him a hundred figs wherewith to pelt the army of Valentino!
Disaster swooped down swiftly upon the Lord of Pesaro. His very people,
seeing in what case they were, and how unprepared was their tyrant to
defend them, wisely resolved that they would run no risks of fire and
pillage by aiding to oppose the irresistible force that was being hurled
It was on the second Sunday in October that the storm burst over the Lord
Giovanni's head. He was on the point of leaving the Castle to attend Mass
at San Domenico, and in his company were Filippo Sforza of Santafior and
Madonna Paola, besides courtiers and attendants, amounting in all to
perhaps a score of gallant cavaliers and ladies. The cavalcade was drawn
up in the quadrangle, and Giovanni was on the point of mounting, when, of
a sudden, a rumbling noise, as of distant thunder, but too continuous for
that, arrested him, his foot already in the stirrup.
"What is that?" he asked, an ashen pallor overspreading his effeminate
face, as, doubtless, the thought of the enemy came uppermost in his mind.
Men looked at one another with fear in their eyes and some of the ladies
raised their voices in querulous beseeching for reassurance. They had
their answer even as they asked. The Albanian Giacomo, who was now
virtually the provost of the Castle, appeared suddenly at the gates with
half a score of men. He raised a warning hand, which compelled the Lord
Giovanni to pause; then he rasped out a brisk command to his followers.
The winches creaked, and the drawbridge swung up even as with a clank and
rattle of chains the portcullis fell.
That done, he came forward to impart the ominous news which one of his
riders had brought him at the gallop from the Porta Romana.
A party of some fifty men, commanded by one of Cesare's captains, had
ridden on in advance of the main army to call upon Pesaro to yield to the
forces of the Church. And the people, without hesitation, had butchered
the guard and thrown wide the gates, inviting the enemy to enter the town
and seize the Castle. And to the end that this might be the better
achieved, a hundred or so had traitorously taken up arms, and were
pressing forward to support the little company that came, with such
contemptuous daring, to storm our fortress and prepare the way for
It was a pretty situation this for the Lord Giovanni, and here were fine
opportunities for some brave acting under the eyes of his adored Madonna
Paola. How would he bear himself now? I wondered.
He promised mighty well once the first shock of the news was overcome.
"By God and His saints!" he roared, "though it may be all that it is given
me to do, I'll strike a blow to punish these dastards who have betrayed
me, and to crush the presumption of this captain who attacks us with fifty
men. It is a contempt which he shall bitterly repent him."
Then he thundered to Giacomo to marshal his men, and he called upon those
of his courtiers who were knights to put on their armour that they might
support him. Lastly he bade a page go help him to arm, that he might lead
his little force in person.
I saw Madonna Paola's eyes gleam with a sudden light of admiration, and I
guessed that in the matter of Giovanni's valour her opinions were
undergoing the same change as the verses had caused them to undergo in the
matter of his intellect.
Myself, I was amazed. For here was a Lord Giovanni I seemed never to have
known, and I was eager to behold the sequel to so fine a prologue.
That valorous bearing that the Lord Giovanni showed whilst, with Madonna
Paola's glance upon him, his fear of seeming afraid was greater than his
actual fear of our assailants, he cast aside like a mantle once he was
within the walls of his Castle, and under the eyes of none save the page
and myself, for I followed idly at a respectful distance.
He stood irresolute and livid of countenance, his eagerness to arm and to
lead his mercenaries and his knights all departed out of him. It was that
curiosity of mine to see the sequel to his stout words that had led me to
follow him, and what I saw was, after all, no more than I might have
looked for--the proof that his big talk of sallying forth to battle was
but so much acting. Yet it must have been acting of such a quality as to
have deceived even his very self.
Now, however, by the main steps, he halted in the cool gloom of the
gallery, and I saw that fear had caught his heart in an icy grip and was
squeezing it empty. In his irresolution he turned about, and his gloomy
eye fell upon me loitering in the porch. At that he turned to the page
who followed in obedience to his command.
"Begone!" he growled at the lad, "I will have Boccadoro, there, to help me
arm." And with a poor attempt at mirth--"The act is a madness," he
muttered, "and so it is fitting that folly should put on my armour for it.
Come with me, you," he bade me, and I, obediently, gladly, went forward
and up the wide stone staircase after him, leaving the page to speculate
as he listed on the matter of his abrupt dismissal.
I read the Lord Giovanni's motives, as clearly as if they had been written
for me by his own hand. The opinion in which I might hold him was to him
a matter of so small account that he little cared that I should be the
witness of the weakness which he feared was about to overcome him--nay,
which had overcome him already. Was I not the one man in Pesaro who
already knew his true nature, as revealed by that matter of the verses
which I had written, and of which he had assumed the authorship? He had
no shame before me, for I already knew the very worst of him, and he was
confident that I would not talk lest he should destroy me at my first
word. And yet, there was more than that in his motive for choosing me to
go with him in that hour, as I was to learn once we were closeted in his
"Boccadoro," he cried, "can you not find me some way out of this?" Under
his beard I saw the quiver of his lips as he put the question.
"Out of this?" I echoed, scarce understanding him at first.
"Aye, man--out of this Castle, out of Pesaro. Bestir those wits of yours.
Is there no way in which it might be done, no disguise under which I might
"Escape?" quoth I, looking at him, and endeavouring to keep from my eyes
the contempt that was in my heart. Dear God! Had revenge been all I
sought of him, how I might have gloated over his miserable downfall!
"Do not stand there staring with those hollow eyes," he cried, anger and
fear blending horridly in his voice and rendering shrill its pitch. "Find
me a way. Come, knave, find me a way, or I'll have you broken on the
wheel. Set your wits to save that long, lean body from destruction.
Think, I bid you."
He was moving restlessly as he spoke, swayed by the agitation of terror
that possessed him like a devil. I looked at him now without dissembling
my scorn. Even in such an hour as this the habit of hectoring cruelty
"What shall it avail me to think?" I asked him in a voice that was as cold
and steady as his was hot and quavering. "Were you a bird I might suggest
flight across the sea to you. But you are a man, a very human, a very
mortal man, although your father made you Lord of Pesaro."
Even as I was speaking, the thunder of the besiegers reached our ears--
such a dull roar it was as that of a stormy sea in winter time. Maddened
by his terror he stood over me now, his eyes flashing wildly in his white
"Another word in such a tone," he rasped, his fingers on his dagger, "and
I'll make an end of you. I need your help, animal!"
I shook my head, my glance meeting his without fear. I was of twice his
strength, we were alone, and the hour was one that levelled ranks. Had he
made the least attempt to carry out his threat, had he but drawn an inch
of the steel he fingered, I think I should have slain him with my hands
without fear or thought of consequences.
"I have no help for you such as you need," I answered him. "I am but the
Fool of Pesaro. Whoever looked to a Fool for miracles?"
"But here is death," he almost moaned.
"Lord of Pesaro," I reminded him, "your mercenaries are under arms by your
command, and your knights are joining them. They wait for the fulfilment
of your promise to lead them out against the enemy. Shall you fail them
in such an hour as this?"
He sank, limp as an empty scabbard, to a chair.
"I dare not go. It is death," he answered miserably.
"And what but death is it to remain here?" I asked, torturing him with
more zest than ever he had experienced over the agonies of some poor
victim on the rack. "In bearing yourself gallantly there lies a slender
chance for you. Your people seeing you in arms and ready to defend them
may yet be moved to a return of loyalty."
"A fig for their loyalty," was his peevish, craven answer. "What shall it
avail me when I'm slain!"
God! was there ever such a coward as this, such a weak-souled, water-
"But you may not be slain," I urged him. And then I sounded a fresh note.
"Bethink you of Madonna Paola and of the brave things you promised her."
He flushed a little, then paled again, then sat very still. Shame had
touched him at last, yet its grip was not enough to make a man of him. A
moment he remained irresolute, whilst that shame fought a hard battle with
But those fears proved stronger in the end, and his shame was overthrown
"I dare not," he gasped, his slender, delicate hands clutching at the arms
of his chair. "Heaven knows I am not skilled in the use of arms."
"It asks no skill," I assured him. "Put on your armour, take a sword and
lay about you. The most ignorant scullion in your kitchens could perform
it given that he had the spirit."
He moistened his lips with his tongue, and his eyes looked dead as a
snake's. Suddenly he rose and took a step towards the armour that was
piled about a great leathern chair. Then he paused and turned to me once
"Help me to put it on," he said in a voice that he strove to render
steady. Yet scarcely had I reached the pile and taken up the breast-
plate, when he recoiled again from the task. He broke into a torrent of
"I will not sacrifice myself," he almost screamed. "Jesus! not I. I will
find a way out of this. I will live to return with an army and regain my
"A most wise purpose. But, meanwhile, your men are waiting for you;
Madonna Paola di Santafior is waiting for you, and--hark!--the bellowing
crowd is waiting for you."
"They wait in vain," he snarled. "Who cares for them? The Lord of Pesaro
"Care you, then, nothing for them? Will you have your name written in
history as that of a coward who would not lift his sword to strike one
blow for honour's sake ere he was driven out like a beast by the mere
sound of voices?"
That touched him. His vanity rose in arms.
"Take up that corselet," he commanded hoarsely. I did his bidding, and,
without a word, he raised his arms that I might fit it to his breast. Yet
in the instant that I turned me to pick up the back-piece, a crash
resounded through the chamber. He had hurled the breastplate to the
ground in a fresh access of terror-rage. He strode towards me, his eyes
glittering like a madman's.
"Go you!" he cried, and with outstretched arms he pointed wildly across
the courtyard. "You are very ready with your counsels. Let me behold
your deeds, Do you put on the armour and go out to fight those animals."
He raved, he ranted, he scarce knew what he said or did, and yet the words
he uttered sank deep into my heart, and a sudden, wild ambition swelled my
"Lord of Pesaro," I cried, in a voice so compelling that it sobered him,
"if I do this thing what shall be my reward?"
He stared at me stupidly for a moment. Then he laughed in a silly,
"Eh?" he queried. "Gesu!" And he passed a hand over his damp brow, and
threw back the hair that cumbered it. "What is the thing that you would
"Why, the thing you bade me," I answered firmly. "Put on your armour, and
shut down the visor so that all shall think it is the Lord Giovanni,
Tyrant of Pesaro, who rides. If I do this thing, and put to rout the
rabble and the fifty men that Cesare Borgia has sent, what shall be my
He watched me with twitching lips, his glare fixed upon me and a faint
colour kindling in his face. He saw how easy the thing might be. Perhaps
he recalled that he had heard that I was skilled in arms--having spent my
youth in the exercise of them, against the time when I might fling the
challenge that had brought me to my Fool's estate. Maybe he recalled how
I had borne myself against long odds on that adventure with Madonna Paola,
years ago. Just such a vanity as had spurred him to have me write him
verses that he might pretend were of his own making, moved him now to
grasp at my proposal. They would all think that Giovanni's armour
contained Giovanni himself. None would ever suspect Boccadoro the Fool
within that shell of steel. His honour would be vindicated, and he would
not lose the esteem of Madonna Paola. Indeed, if I returned covered with
glory, that glory would be his; and if he elected to fly thereafter, he
might do so without hurt to his fair name, for he would have amply proved
his mettle and his courage.
In some such fashion I doubt not that the High and Mighty Giovanni Sforza
reasoned during the seconds that we stood, face to face and eye to eye, in
that room, the cries of the impatient ones below almost drowned in the
roar of the multitude beyond.
At last he put out his hands to seize mine, and drawing me to the light he
scanned my face, Heaven alone knowing what it was he sought there.
"If you do this," said he, "Biancomonte shall be yours again, if it
remains in my power to bestow it upon you now or at any future time. I
swear it by my honour."
"Swear it by your fear of Hell or by your hope of Heaven and the compact
is made," I answered, and so palsied was he and so fallen in spirit that
he showed no resentment at the scorn of his honour my words implied, but
there and then took the oath I that demanded.
"And now," I urged, "help me to put on this armour of yours."
Hurriedly I cast off my jester's doublet and my head-dress with its
jangling bells, and with a wild exultation, a joy so fierce as almost to
bring tears to my eyes, I held my arms aloft whilst that poor craven
strapped about my body the back and breast plates of his corselet. I, the
Fool, stood there as arrogant as any knight, whilst with his noble hands
the Lord of Pesaro, kneeling, made secure the greaves upon my legs, the
sollerets with golden spurs, the cuissarts and the genouilleres. Then he
rose up, and with hands that trembled in his eagerness, he put on my
brassarts and shoulder-plates, whilst I, myself, drew on my gauntlets.
Next he adjusted the gorget, and handed me, last of all, the helm, a
splendid head-piece of black and gold, surmounted by the Sforza lion.
I took it from him and passed it over my head. Then ere I snapped down
the visor and hid the face of Boccadoro, I bade him, unless he would
render futile all this masquerade, to lock the door of his closet, and lie
there concealed till my return. At that a sudden doubt assailed him.
"And what," quoth he, "if you do not return?"
In the fever that had possessed me this was a thing that had not entered
into my calculations, nor should it now. I laughed, and from the hollow
of my helmet not a doubt but the sound must have seemed charged with
mockery. I pointed to the cap and doublet I had shed.
"Why, then, Illustrious, it will but remain for you to complete the
"Dog!" he cried; "beast, do you deride me?"
My answer was to point out towards the yard.
"They are clamouring," said I. "They wax impatient. I had better go
before they come for you." As I spoke I selected a heavy mace for only
weapon, and swinging it to my shoulder I stepped to the door. On the
threshold he would have stayed me, purged by his fear of what might befall
him did I not return. But I heeded him not.
"Fare you well, my Lord of Pesaro," said I. "See that none penetrates to
your closet. Make fast the door."
"Stay!" he called after me. "Do you hear me? Stay!"
"Others will hear you if you commit this folly," I called back to him.
"Get you to cover." And so I left him.
Below, in the courtyard, my coming was hailed by a great, enthusiastic
clamour. They had all but abandoned hope of seeing the Lord Giovanni, so
long had he been about his arming. As they brought forward my charger, I
sought with my eyes Madonna Paola. I beheld her by her brother--who, it
seemed, was not going with us--in the front rank of the spectators. Her
cheeks were tinged with a slight flush of excitement, and her eyes glowed
at the brave sight of armed men.
I mounted, and as I rode past her to take my place at the head of that
company, I lowered my mace and bowed. She detained me a moment, setting
her hand upon the glossy neck of my black charger.
"My Lord," she said, in a low voice, intended for my ear alone, "this is a
brave and gallant thing you do, and however slight may be your hope of
prevailing, yet your honour will be safe-guarded by this act, and men will
remember you with respect should it come to pass that a usurper shall
possess anon your throne. Bear you that in mind to lend you a glad
courage. I shall pray for you, my Lord, till you return."
I bowed, answering never a word lest my voice should betray me; and musing
on the matter of the strange roads that lead to a woman's heart, I passed
on, to gain the van.
Two months ago, knowing Giovanni as he was, he had been detestable to her,
and she contemplated with loathing the danger in which she stood of being
allied to him by marriage. Since then he had made good use of a poor
jester's mental gifts to incline her by the fervour of some verses to a
kindlier frame of mind, and now, making good use of that same jester's
courage, he completed her subjection by the display of it. She was
prepared to wed the Lord Giovanni with a glad heart and a proud
willingness whensoever he should desire it.
But Giacomo was beside me now, and in the quadrangle a silence reigned,
all waiting for my command. From without there came such a din as seemed
to argue that all hell was at the Castle gates. There were shouts of
defiance and screams of abuse, whilst a constant rain of stones beat
against the raised drawbridge.
They thought, no doubt, that Giovanni and his followers were at their
prayers, cowering with terror. No notion had they of the armed force,
some six score strong, that waited to pour down upon them. I briskly
issued my command, and four men detached themselves and let down the
bridge. It fell with a crash, and ere those without had well grasped the
situation we had hurled ourselves across and into them with the force of a
wedge, flinging them to right and to left as we crashed through with
hideous slaughter. The bridge swung up again when the last of Giacomo's
mercenaries was across, and we were shut out, in the midst of that fierce
For some five minutes there raged such a brief, hot fight as will be
remembered as long as Pesaro stands. No longer than that did it take for
the crowd of citizens to realise that war was not their trade, and that
they had better leave the fighting to Cesare Borgia's men; and so they
fell away and left us a clear road to come at the men-at-arms. But
already some forty of our saddles were empty, and the fight, though brief,
had proved exhausting to many of us.
Before us, like an array of mirrors in the October sun, shone the serried
ranks of the steel-cased Borgia soldiers, their lances in rest, waiting to
receive us. Their leader, a gigantic man whose head was armed by no more
than a pot of burnished steel, from which escaped the long red ringlets of
his hair, was that same Ramiro del' Orca who had commanded the party
pursuing Madonna Paola three years ago. He was, since, become the most
redoubtable of Cesare's captains, and his name was, perhaps, the best
hated in Italy for the grim stories that were connected with it.
As we rode on he backed to join the foremost rank of his soldiers, and his
voice--a voice that Stentor might have envied--trumpeted a laugh at sight
"Gesu!" he roared, so that I heard him above the thunder of our hoofs.
"What has come to Giovanni Sforza. Has he, perchance, become a man since
Madonna Lucrezia divorced him? I will bear her the news of it, my good
Giovanni--my living thunderbolt of Jove!"
His men echoed his boisterous mood, infected by it, and this, I argued,
boded ill for the courage of those that followed me. Another moment and
we had swept into them, and many there were who laughed no more, or went
to laugh with those in Hell.
For myself I singled out the blustering Ramiro, and I let him know it by a
swinging blow of my mace upon his morion. It was a most finely-tempered
piece of steel, for my stroke made no impression on it, though Ramiro
winced and raised his stout sword to return the compliment.
"Body of God!" he croaked, "you become a very god of war, Giovanni. To
me, then, my lusty Mars! We'll make a fight of it that poets shall sing
of over winter fires. Look to yourself!"
His sword caught me a cunning, well-aimed blow on the side of my helm, and
thence, glanced to my shoulder. But for the quality of Giovanni's head-
piece of a truth there had been an end to the warring of a Fool. I smote
him back, a mighty blow upon his epauliere that shore the steel plate from
his shoulder, and left him a vulnerable spot. At that he swore
ferociously, and his bloodshot eyes grew wicked as the fiend's. A second
time he essayed that side-long blow upon my helm, and with such force and
ready address that he burst the fastening of my visor on the left, so that
it swung down and left my beaver open.
With a cry of triumph he closed with me, and shortened his sword to stab
me in the face. And then a second cry escaped him, for the countenance he
beheld was not the countenance he had looked to see. Instead of the fair
skin, the handsome features and the bearded mouth of the Lord Giovanni, he
beheld a shaven face, a hooked nose and a complexion swarthy as the
"I know you, rogue," he roared. "By the Host! your valour seemed too
fierce for Giovanni Sforza. You are Bocca--"
Exerting all the strength that I had been gradually collecting, I hurled
him back with a force that almost drove him from the saddle, and rising in
my stirrups I rained blow after blow upon his morion ere he could recover.
"Dog!" I muttered softly, "your knowledge shall be the death of you."
He drew away from me at last, and during the moments that I spent in
readjusting my visor he sallied, and charged me again. His blustering was
gone and his face grown pale, for such blows as mine could not have been
without effect. Not a doubt of it but he was taken with amazement to find
such fighting qualities in a Fool--an amazement that must have eclipsed
even that of finding Boccadoro in the armour of Giovanni Sforza.
Again he swung his sword in that favourite stroke of his; but this time I
caught the edge upon my mace, and ere he could recover I aimed a blow
straight at his face. He lowered his head, like a bull on the point of
charging, and so my blow descended again upon his morion, but with a force
that rolled him, senseless, from the saddle.
Before I could take a breathing space I was beset by, at least, a dozen of
his followers who had stood at hand during the encounter, never doubting
that victory must be ultimately with their invincible captain. They drove
me back foot by foot, fighting lustily, and performing--it was said
afterwards by the anxious ones that watched us from the Castle, among whom
was Madonna Paola--such deeds of strength and prowess as never romancer
sang of in his wildest flight of fancy.
My men had suffered sorely, but the brave Giacomo still held them
together, fired by the example that I set him, until in the end the day
was ours. Discouraged by the disabling of their captain, so soon as they
had gathered him up our opponents thought of nothing but retreat; and
retreat they did, hotly pursued by us, and never allowed to pause or
slacken rein until we had hurled them out of the town of Pesaro, to get
them back to Cesare Borgia with the tale of their ignominious
THE FALL OF PESARO
As we rode back through the town of Pesaro, some fifty men of the six
score that had sallied from the Castle a half-hour ago, we found the
streets well-nigh deserted, the rebellious citizens having fled back to
the shelter of their homes, like rats to their burrows in time of peril.
As we advanced through the shambles that we had left about the Castle
gates, it occurred to me that within the courtyard a crowd would be
waiting to receive and welcome me, and it became necessary to devise some
means of avoiding this reception. I beckoned Giacomo to my side.
"Let it be given out that I will speak to no man until I have rendered
thanks to Heaven for this signal victory," I muttered to the unsuspecting
Albanian. "Do you clear a way for me so soon a we are within."
He obeyed me so well that when the bridge had been let down, he preceded
me with a couple of his men and gently but firmly pressed back those that
would have approached--among the first of whom were Madonna Paola and her
"Way!" he shouted. "Make way for the High and Mighty Lord of Pesaro!"
Thus I passed through, my half-shattered visor sufficiently closed still
to conceal my face, and in this manner I gained the door of the eastern
wing and dismounted. Two or three attendants sprang forward, ready to go
with me that they might assist me to disarm. But I waved them imperiously
back, and mounted the stairs alone. Alone I crossed the ante-chamber, and
tapped at the door of the Lord Giovanni's closet. Instantly it opened,
for he had watched my return and been awaiting me. Hastily he drew me in
and closed the door.
He was flushed with excitement and trembling like a leaf. Yet at the
sight that I presented he lost some of his high colour, and recoiled to
stare at my armour, battered, dinted, and splashed with browning stains,
which loudly proclaimed the fray through which I had been.
He fell to praising my valour, to speaking of the great service I had
rendered him, and of the gratitude that he would ever entertain for me,
all in terms of a fawning, cloying sweetness that disgusted me more than
ever his cruelties had done. I took off my helmet whilst he spoke, and
let it fall with a crash. The face I revealed to him was livid with