Part 3 out of 5
fatigue, and blackened with the dust that had caked upon my sweat. He
came forward again and helped hastily to strip off my harness, and when
that was done he fetched a great silver basin and a ewer of embossed gold
from which he poured me fragrant rose-water that I might wash. Macerated
sweet herbs he found me, lupin meal and glasswort, the better that I might
cleanse myself; and when, at last, I was refreshed by my ablutions, he
poured me a goblet of a full-bodied golden wine that seemed to infuse
fresh life into my veins. And all the time he spoke of the prowess I had
shown, and lamented that all these years he should have had me at his
Court and never guessed my worth.
At length I turned to resume my clothes. And since it must excite comment
and perhaps arouse suspicion were I to appear in any but my jester's
garish livery, I once more assumed my foliated cape, my cap and bells.
"Wear it yet for a little while," he said, "and thus complete the service
you have done me. Presently you may doff it for all time, and resume your
true estate. Biancomonte, as I promised you, shall be yours again. The
Lord of Pesaro does not betray his word."
I smiled grimly at the pride of his utterance.
"It is an easy thing," said I, "freely to give that which is no longer
He coloured with the anger that was ever ready.
"What shall that mean?" he asked.
"Why, that in a few days you will have Cesare Borgia here, and you will be
Lord of Pesaro no more. I have saved your honour for you. More than that
it were idle to attempt."
"Think not that I shall submit," he cried. "I shall find in Italy the
help I need to return and drive the usurper out. You must have faith in
that, yourself, else had you never bargained with me as you have done for
the return of your Estates."
To that I answered nothing, but urged him to go below and show himself;
and the better that he might bear himself among his courtiers, I detailed
to him the most salient features of that fight.
He went, not without a certain uneasiness which, however, was soon
dispelled by the thunder of acclamation with which he was received; not
only by his courtiers, but by the soldiers who had fought in that hot
skirmish, and who believed that it was he had led them.
Meanwhile I sat above, in the closet he had vacated, and thence I watched
him, with such mingling feelings in my heart as baffle now my halting pen.
Scorn there was in my mood and a hot contempt of him that he could stand
there and accept their acclamation with an air of humility that I am
persuaded was assumed: a certain envious anger was there, too, to think
that such a weak-kneed, lily-livered craven should receive the plaudits of
the deeds that I, his buffoon, had performed for him. Those acclamations
were not for him, although those who acclaimed him thought so. They were
for the man who had routed Ramiro del' Orca and his followers, and that
man assuredly was I. Yet there I crouched above, behind the velvet
curtains where none might see me, whilst he stood smiling and toying with
his brown beard and listening to the fine words of praise that, I could
imagine, were falling from the lips of Madonna Paola, who had drawn near
and was speaking to him.
There is in my nature a certain love of effectiveness, a certain taste for
theatrical parade and the contriving of odd situations. This bent of mine
was whispering to me then to throw wide the window, and, stemming their
noisy plaudits, announce to them the truth of what had passed. Yet what
if I had done so? They would have accounted it but a new jest of
Boccadoro, the Fool, and one so ill-conceived that they might urge the
Lord Giovanni to have him whipped for it.
Aye, it would have been a folly, a futile act that would have earned me
unbelief, contempt and anger. And yet there was a moment when jealousy
urged me almost headlong to that rashness. For in Madonna Paola's eyes
there was a new expression as they rested on the face of Giovanni Sforza--
an expression that told me she had come to love this man whom a little
while ago she had despised.
God! was there ever such an irony? Was there ever such a paradox? She
loved him, and yet it was not him she loved. The man she loved was the
man who had shown the qualities of his mind in the verses with which the
Court was ringing; the man who had that morning given proof of his high
mettle and knightly prowess by the deeds of arms he had performed. I was
that man--not he at whom so adoringly she looked. And so--I argued, in my
warped way and with the philosophy worthy of a Fool--it was I whom she
loved, and Giovanni was but the symbol that stood for me. He represented
the songs and the deeds that were mine.
But if I did not throw wide that window and proclaim the fact to ears that
would have been deaf to the truth of them, what think you that I did? I
took a subtler vengeance. I repaired to my own chamber, procured me pen
and ink, and, there, with a heart that was brimming over with gall, I
penned an epic modelled upon the stately lines of Virgil, wherein I sang
the prowess of the Lord Giovanni Sforza, describing that morning's mighty
feat of arms, and detailing each particular of the combat 'twixt Giovanni
and Ramiro del' Orca.
It was a brave thing when it was done; a finer and worthier poetical
achievement than any that I had yet encompassed, and that night, after
they had supped, as merrily as though Duke Valentino had never been heard
of, and whilst they were still sitting at their wine, I got me a lute and
stole down to the banqueting hall.
I announced myself by leaping on a table and loudly twanging the strings
of my instrument. There was a hush, succeeded by a burst of acclamation.
They were in a high good-humour, and the Fool with a new song was the very
thing they craved.
When silence was restored I began, and whilst my fingers moved sluggishly
across the strings, striking here and there a chord, I recited the epic I
had penned. My voice swelled with a feverish enthusiasm whose colossal
irony none there save one could guess. He, at first surprised, grew angry
presently, as I could see by the cloud that had settled on his brow. Yet
he restrained himself, and the rest of the company were too enthralled by
the breathless quality of my poem to bestow their glances on any
countenance save mine.
Madonna Paola sat upon the Lord of Pesaro's right, and her blue eyes were
round and her lips parted with enthusiasm as I proceeded. And when
presently I came to that point in the fight betwixt Giovanni and Ramiro
del' Orca, when Ramiro, having broken down the Lord Giovanni's visor, was
on the point of driving his sword into his adversary's face, I saw her
shrink in a repetition of the morning's alarm, and her bosom heaved more
swiftly, as though the issue of that combat hung now upon my lines and she
were made anxious again for the life of the man whom she had learnt to
I finished on a slow and stately rhythm, my voice rising and falling
softly, after the manner of a Gregorian chant, as I dwelt on the piety
that had succeeded the Lord of Pesaro's brave exploits, and how upon his
return from the stricken field he had repaired straight to his closet, his
battered and bloody harness on his back, that he might kneel ere he
disarmed and render thanks to God for the victory vouchsafed him.
On that "Te Deum" I finished softly, and as my voice ceased and the
vibration of my last chord melted away, a thunder of applause was my
Men leapt from their chairs in their enthusiasm, and crowded round the
table on which I was perched, whilst, when presently I sprang down, one
noble woman kissed me on the lips before them all, saying that my mouth
was indeed a mouth of gold.
Madonna Paola was leaning towards the Lord Giovanni, her eyes shining with
excitement and filmed with tears as they proudly met his glance, and I
knew that my song had but served to endear him the more to her by causing
her to realise more keenly the brave qualities of the adventure that I
sang. The sight of it almost turned me faint, and I would have eluded
them and got away as I had come but that they lifted me up and bore me so
to the table at which the Lord Giovanni sat. He smiled, but his face was
very pale. Could it be that I had touched him? Could it be that I had
driven the iron into his soul, and that he could not bear to confront me,
knowing what a dastard I must deem him?
The splendid Filippo of Santafior had risen to his feet, and was waving a
white, bejewelled hand in an imperious demand for silence. When at last
it came he spoke, his voice silvery and his accents mincing.
"Lord of Pesaro; I demand a boon. He who for years has suffered the
ignominy of the motley is at last revealed to us as a poet of such
magnitude of soul and richness of expression that he would not suffer by
comparison with the great Bojardo or tim greater Virgil. Let him be
stripped for ever of that hideous garb he wears, and let him be treated,
hereafter, with the dignity his high gifts deserve. Thus shall the day
come when Pesaro will take honour in calling him her son."
Loud and long was the applause that succeeded his words, and when at last
it had died down, the Lord Giovanni proved equal to the occasion, like the
consummate actor that he was.
"I would," said he, "that these high gifts, of which to-night he has
afforded proof, could have been employed upon a worthier subject. I fear
me that since you have heard his epic you will be prone to overestimate
the deed of which it tells the story. I would, too, my friends," he
continued, with a sigh, "that it were still mine to offer him such
encouragement as he deserves. But I am sorely afraid that my days in
Pesaro are numbered, that my sands are all but run--at least, for a little
while. The conqueror is at our gates, and it would be vain to set against
the overwhelming force of his numbers the handful of valiant knights and
brave soldiers that to-day opposed and scattered his forerunners. It is
my intention to withdraw, now that my honour is safe by what has passed,
and that none will dare to say that it was through fear that I fled. Yet
my absence, I trust, may be but brief. I go to collect the necessary
resources, for I have powerful friends in this Italy whose interests
touching the Duca Valentino go hand in hand with mine, and who will, thus,
be the readier to lend me assistance. Once I have this, I shall return
and then--woe to the vanquished!"
The tide of enthusiasm that had been rising as he spoke, now overflowed.
Swords leapt from their scabbards--mere toy weapons were they, meant more
for ornament than offence, yet were they the earnest of the stouter arms
those gentlemen were ready to wield when the time came. He quieted their
clamours with a dignified wave of the hand.
"When that day comes I shall see to it that Boccadoro has his deserts.
Meanwhile let the suggestion of my illustrious cousin be acted upon, and
let this gifted poet be arrayed in a manner that shall sort better with
the nobility of his mind that to-night he has revealed to us."
Thus was it that I came, at last, to shed the motley and move among men
garbed as themselves. And with my outward trappings I cast off, too, the
name of Boccadoro, and I insisted upon being known again as Lazzaro
But in so far as the Court of Pesaro was concerned, this new life upon
which I was embarked was of little moment, for on the Tuesday that
followed that first Sunday in October of such momentous memory, the Lord
Giovanni's Court passed out of being.
It came about with his flight to Bologna, accompanied by the Albanian
captain and his men, as well as by several of the knights who had joined
in Sunday's fray. Ardently, as I came afterwards to learn, did he urge
Madonna Paola and her brother to go with them, and I believe that the lady
would have done his will in this had not the Lord Filippo opposed the
step. He was no warrior himself, he swore--for it was a thing he made
open boast of, affecting to despise all who followed the coarse trade of
arms--and, as for his sister, it was not fitting that she should go with a
fugitive party made up of a handful of knights and some fifty rough
mercenaries, and be exposed to the hardships and perils that must be
theirs. Not even when he was reminded that the advancing conqueror was
Cesare Borgia did it affect him, for despite his shallow, mincing ways,
and his paraded scorn of war and warriors, the Lord Filippo was stout
enough at heart. He did not fear the Borgia, he answered serenely, and if
he came, he would offer him such hospitality as lay within his power.
He came at last, did the mighty Cesare, although between his coming and
Giovanni's flight a full fortnight sped. As for myself, I spent the time
at the Sforza Palace, whither the Lord Filippo had carried me as his
guest, he being greatly taken with me and determined to become my patron.
We had news of Giovanni, first from Bologna and later from Ravenna,
whither he was fled. At first he talked of returning to Pesaro with three
hundred men he hoped to have from the Marquis of Mantua. But probably
this was no more than another piece of that big talk of his, meant to
impress the sorrowing and repining Madonna Paola, who suffered more for
him, maybe, than he suffered himself.
She would talk with me for hours together of the Lord Giovanni, of his
mental gifts, and of his splendid courage and military address, and for
all that my gorge rose with jealousy and with the force of this injustice
to myself, I held my peace. Indeed, indeed, it was better so. For all
that I was no longer Boccadoro the Fool, yet as Lazzaro Biancomonte, the
poet, I was not so much better that I could indulge any mad aspirations of
my own such as might have led me to betray the dastard who had arrayed his
craven self in the peacock feathers of my achievements.
In the course of the confidence with which the Lord Filippo honoured me I
made bold, on the eve of Cesare's arrival, to suggest to him that he
should remove his sister from the Palace and send her to the Convent of
Santa Caterina whilst the Borgia abode in the town, lest the sight of her
should remind Cesare of the old-time marriage plans which his family had
centred round this lady, and lead to their revival. Filippo heard me
kindly, and thanked me freely for the solicitude which my counsel argued.
For the rest, however, it was a counsel that he frankly admitted he saw no
need to follow.
"In the three years that are sped since the Holy Father entertained such
plans for the temporal advancement of his nephew Ignacio, the fortunes of
the House of Borgia have so swollen that what was then a desirable match
for one of its members is now scarcely worthy of their attention. I do
not think," he concluded, "that we have the least reason to fear a renewal
of that suit."
It may be that I am by nature suspicious and quick to see ignoble motives
in men's actions, but it occurred to me then that the Lord Filippo would
not be so greatly put about if indeed the Borgias were to reopen
negotiations for the bestowing of Madonna Paola's hand upon the Pope's
nephew Ignacio. That swelling of the Borgia fortunes which in the three
years had taken place and which, he contended, would render them more
ambitious than to seek alliance with the House of Santafior, rendered
them, nevertheless, in his eyes a more desirable family to be allied with
than in the days when he had counselled his sister's flight from Rome.
And so, I thought, despite what stood between her and the Lord Giovanni,
Filippo would know no scruple now in urging her into an alliance with the
House of Borgia, should they manifest a willingness to have that old
On the 29th of that same month of October, Cesare arrived in Pesaro. His
entry was a triumphant procession, and the orderliness that prevailed
among the two thousand men-at-arms that he brought with him was a thing
that spoke eloquently for the wondrous discipline enforced by this great
The Lord Filippo was among those that met him, and like the time-server
that he was, he placed the Sforza Palace at his disposal.
The Duca Valentino came with his retinue and the gentlemen of his
household, among whom was ever conspicuous by his great size and red
ugliness the Captain Ramiro del' Orca, who now seemed to act in many ways
as Cesare's factotum. This captain, for reasons which it is unnecessary
to detail, I most sedulously avoided.
On the evening of his arrival Cesare supped in private with Filippo and
the members of Filippo's household--that is to say, with Madonna Paola and
two of her ladies, and three gentlemen attached to the person of the Lord
Filippo. Cesare's only attendants were two cavaliers of his retinue,
Bartolomeo da Capranica, his Field-Marshal, and Dorio Savelli, a nobleman
Cesare Borgia, this man whose name had so terrible a sound in the ears of
Italy's little princelings, this man whose power and whose great gifts of
mind had made him the subject of such bitter envy and fear, until he was
the best-hated gentleman in Italy--and, therefore, the most calumniated--
was little changed from that Cardinal of Valencia, in whose service I had
been for a brief season. The pallor of his face was accentuated by the
ill-health in which he found himself just then, and the air of feverish
restlessness that had always pervaded him was grown more marked in the
years that were sped, as was, after all, but natural, considering the
nature of the work that had claimed him since he had deposed his priestly
vestments. He was splendidly arrayed, and he bore himself with an
imperial dignity, a dignity, nevertheless, tempered with graciousness and
charm, and as I regarded him then, it was borne in upon me that no fitter
name could his godfathers have bestowed on him than that of Cesare.
The Lord Filippo exerted all his powers worthily to entertain his noble
and illustrious guest, and by his extreme, almost servile affability it
not only would seem that he had forgotten the favour and shelter he had
received at the hands of the Lord Giovanni, but it confirmed my suspicions
of his willingness to advance his own fortunes by breaking with the fallen
tyrant in so far as his sister was concerned.
Short of actually making the proposal itself, it would seem that Filippo
did all in his power to urge his sister upon the attention of Cesare. But
Duke Valentino's mind at that time was too full of the concerns of
conquest and administration to find room for a matter to him so trifling
as the enriching of his cousin Ignacio by a wealthy alliance. To this
alone, I thought, was it due that Madonna Paola escaped the persecution
that might then have been hers.
On the morrow Cesare moved on to Rimini, leaving his administrators behind
him to set right the affairs of Pesaro, and ensure its proper governing,
in his name, hereafter.
And now that, for the present, my hopes of ever seeing my own wrongs
redressed and my estates returned to me were too slender to justify my
remaining longer in Pesaro, I craved of the Lord Filippo permission to
withdraw, telling him frankly that my tardily aroused duty called me to my
widowed mother, whom for some six years I had not seen. He threw no
difficulty in the way of my going; and I was free to depart. And now came
the hidden pain of my leave-taking of Madonna Paola. She seemed to grieve
at my departure.
"Lazzaro," she cried, when I had told her of my intention, "do you, too,
desert me? And I have ever held you my best of friends."
I told her of the mother and of the duty that I owed her, whereupon she
remonstrated no more, nor sought to do other than urge me to go to her.
And then I spoke of Madonna's kindness to me, and of the friendship with
which she had honoured one so lowly, and in the end I swore, with my hand
on my heart and my soul on my lips, that if ever she had work for me, she
would not need to call me twice.
"This ring, Madonna," said I, "was given me by the Lord Cesare Borgia, and
was to have proved a talisman to open wide for me the door to fortune. It
did better service than that, Madonna. It was the talisman that saved you
from your pursuers that day at Cagli, three years ago."
"You remind me, Lazzaro," she cried, "of how much you have sacrificed in
my service. Yours must be a very noble nature that will do so much to
serve a helpless lady without any hope of guerdon."
"Nay, nay," I answered lightly, "you must not make so much of it. It
would never have sorted with my inclinations to have turned man-at-arms.
This ring, Madonna, that once has served you, I beg that you will keep,
for it may serve you again."
"I could not, Lazzaro! I could not!" she exclaimed, recoiling, yet
without any show of deeming presumptuous my words or of being offended by
"If you would make me the reward that you say I have earned, you will do
this for me. It will make me happier, Madonna. Take it"--I thrust it
into her unwilling hand--"and if ever you should need me send it back to
me. That ring and the name of the place where you abide by the lips of
the messenger you choose, and with a glad heart, as fast as horse can bear
me, shall I ride to serve you once again."
"In such a spirit, yes," said she. "I take it willingly, to treasure it
as a buckler against danger, since by means of it I can bring you to my
aid in time of peril."
"Madonna, do not overestimate my powers," I besought her. "I would have
you see in me no more than I am. But it sometimes happens that the mouse
may aid the lion."
"And when I need the lion to aid the mouse, my good Lazzaro, I will send
There were tears in her voice, and her eyes were very bright.
"Addio, Lazzaro," she murmured brokenly. "May God and His saints protect
you. I will pray for you, and I shall hope to see you again some day, my
"Addio, Madonna!" was all that I could trust myself to say ere I fled from
her presence that she might not see my deep emotion, nor hear the sobs
that were threatening to betray the anguish that was ravaging my soul.
THE OGRE OF CESENA
However great the part that my mother--sainted woman that she was--may
have played in my life, she nowise enters into the affairs of this
chronicle, so that it would be an irrelevance and an impertinence to
introduce her into these pages. Of the joy with which she welcomed me to
the little home near Biancomonte, in which the earnings of Boccadoro the
Fool had placed her, it could interest you but little to read in detail,
nor could it interest you to know of the gentle patience with which she
cheered and humoured me during the period that I sojourned there, tilling
the little plot she owned, reaping and garnering like any born villano.
With a woman's quick intuition she guessed perhaps the canker that was
eating at my heart, and with a mother's blessed charity she sought to
soothe and mitigate my pain.
It was during this period of my existence that the poetic gifts I had
discovered myself possessed of whilst at Pesaro, burst into full bloom;
and not a little relief did I find in the penning of those love-songs--the
true expression of what was in my heart--which have since been given to
the world under the title of Le Rime di Boccadoro. And what time I tended
my mother's land by day, and wrote by night of the feverish, despairing
love that was consuming me, I waited for the call that, sooner or later, I
knew must come. What prophetic instinct it was had rooted that certainty
in my heart I do not pretend to say. Perhaps my hope was of such a
strength that it assumed the form of certainty to solace the period of my
hermitage. But that some day Madonna Paola's messenger would arrive
bringing me the Borgia ring, I was as confident as that some day I must
Two years went by, and we were in the Autumn of 1502, yet my faith knew no
abating, my confidence was strong as ever. And, at last, that confidence
was justified. One night of early October, as I sat at supper with my
mother after the labours of the day, a sound of hoofs disturbed the peace
of the silent night. It drew rapidly nearer, and long before the knock
fell upon our door, I knew that it was the messenger from my lady.
My mother looked at me across the board, an expression of alarm
overspreading her old face. "Who," her eyes seemed to ask me, "was this
horseman that rode so late?"
My hound rose from the hearth with a growl, and stood bristling, his eyes
upon the door. White-haired old Silvio, the last remaining retainer of
the House of Biancomonte, came forth from the kitchen, with inquiry and
fear blending on his wrinkled, weather-beaten countenance.
And I, seeing all these signs of alarm, yet knowing what awaited me on the
threshold, rose with a laugh, and in a bound had crossed the intervening
space. I flung wide the door, and from the gloom without a man's voice
greeted me with a question.
"Is this the house of Messer Lazzaro Biancomonte?"
"I am that Lazzaro Biancomonte," answered I. "What may your pleasure be?"
The stranger advanced until he came within the light. He was plainly
dressed, and wore a jerkin of leather and long boots. From his air I
judged him a servant or a courier. He doffed his hat respectfully, and
held out his right hand in which something was gleaming yellow. It was
the Borgia ring.
"Pesaro," was all he said.
I took the ring and thanked him, then bade him enter and refresh himself
ere he returned, and I called old Silvio to bring wine.
"I am not returning," the man informed me. "I am a courier riding to
Parma, whom Madonna charged with that message to you in passing."
Nevertheless he consented to rest him awhile and sip the wine we set
before him, and what time he did so I engaged him in talk, and led him to
tell me what he knew of the trend of things at Pesaro, and what news there
was of the Lord Giovanni. He had little enough to tell. Pesaro was
flourishing and prospering under the Borgia dominion. Of the Lord
Giovanni there was little news, saving that he was living under the
protection of the Gonzagas in Mantua, and that so long as he was content
to abide there the Borgias seemed disposed to give him peace.
Next I made him tell me what he knew of Filippo di Santafior and Madonna
Paola. On this subject he was better informed. Madonna Paola was well
and still lived with her brother at the Palace of Pesaro. The Lord
Filippo was high in favour with the Borgias, and Cesare lately had been
frequently his guest at Pesaro, whilst once, for a few days, the Lord
Ignacio de Borgia had accompanied his illustrious cousin.
I flushed and paled at that piece of news, and the reason of her summons
no longer asked conjecture. It was an easy thing for me, knowing what I
knew, to fill in the details which the courier omitted in ignorance from
The Lord Filippo, seeking his own advancement, had so urged his sister
upon the notice of the Borgia family--perhaps even approached Cesare--in
such a manner that it was again become a question of wedding her to
Ignacio, who had, meanwhile, remained unmarried. I could read that
opportunist's motives as easily as if he had written them down for my
instruction. Giovanni Sforza he accounted lost beyond redemption, and I
could imagine how he had plied his wits to aid his sister to forget him,
or else to remember him no longer with affection. Whether he had
succeeded or not I could not say until I had seen her; but meanwhile,
deeming ripe the soil of her heart for the new attachment that should
redound so much to his own credit--now that the House of Borgia had risen
to such splendid heights--he was driving her into this alliance with
Faithful to the very letter of the promise I had made her, I set out that
same night, after embracing my poor, tearful mother, and promising to
return as soon as might be. All night I rode, my soul now tortured with
anxiety, now exalted at the supreme joy of seeing Madonna, which was so
soon to be mine. I was at the gates of Pesaro before matins, and within
the Palazzo Sforza ere its inmates had broken their fast.
The Lord Filippo welcomed me with a certain effusion, chiding me for my
long absence and the ingratitude it had seemed to indicate, and never
dreaming by what summons I was brought back.
"You are well-returned," he told me in conclusion. "We shall need you
soon, to write an epithalamium."
"You are to be wed, Magnificent?" quoth I at last, at which he laughed
"Nay, we shall need the song for my sister's nuptials. She is to wed the
Lord Ignacio Borgia, before Christmas."
"A lofty theme," I answered with humility, "and one that may well demand
resources nobler than those of my poor pen."
"Then get you to work at once upon it. I will have your chamber
He sent for his seneschal, a person--like most Of the servants at the
Palace--strange to me, and he gave orders that I should be sumptuously
lodged. He was grown more splendid than ever in the prosperity that
seemed to surround him here at Pesaro, in this Palace that had undergone
such changes and been so enriched during the past two years as to go near
When the seneschal had shown me to the quarters he had set apart for me, I
made bold to make inquiries concerning Madonna Paola.
"She is in the garden, Illustrious," answered the seneschal, deeming me,
no doubt, a great lord, from the respect which Filippo had indicated
should be shown me. "Madonna has the wisdom to seek the little sunshine
the year still holds. Winter will be soon upon us."
I agreed with the old man, and dismissed him. So soon as he was gone, I
quitted my chamber, and all dust staineded as I was I made my way down to
the garden. A turn in one of the boxwood-bordered alleys brought me
suddenly face to face with Madonna Paola.
A moment we stood looking at each other, my heart swelling within me until
I thought that it must burst. Then I advanced a step and sank on one knee
"You sent for me, Madonna. I am here." There was a pause, and when
presently I looked up into her blessed face I saw a smile of infinite
sorrow on her lips, blending oddly with the gladness that shone from her
"You faithful one," she murmured at last. "Dear Lazzaro, I did not look
for you so soon."
"Within an hour of your messenger's arrival I was in the saddle, nor did I
pause until I had reached the gates of Pesaro. I am here to serve you to
the utmost of my power, Madonna, and the only doubt that assails me is
that my power may be all too small for the service that you need."
"Is its nature known to you?" she asked in wonder. Then, ere I had
answered, she bade me rise, and with her own hand assisted me.
"I have guessed it," answered I, "guided by such scraps of information as
from your messenger I gleaned. It concerns, unless I err, the Lord
"Your wits have lost nothing of their quickness," she said, with a sad
smile, "and I doubt me you know all."
"The only thing I did not know your brother has just told me--that you are
to be wed before Christmas. He has ordered me to write your
She drew into step beside me, and we slowly paced the alley side by side,
and, as we went, withered leaves overhead, and withered leaves to make a
carpet for our fret, she told me in her own way more or less what I have
set down, even to her brother's self-seeking share in the transaction that
she dubbed hideous and abhorrent.
She was little changed, this winsome lady in the time that was sped. She
was in her twenty-first year, but in reality she seemed to me no older
than she had been on that day when first I saw her arguing with her grooms
upon the road to Cagli. And from this I reassured myself that she had not
been fretted overmuch by the absence of the Lord Giovanni.
Presently she spoke of him and of her plighted word which her brother and
those supple gentlemen of the House of Borgia were inducing her to
"Once before, in a case almost identical, when all seemed lost, you came--
as if Heaven directed--to my rescue. This it is that gives me confidence
in such aid as you might lend me now."
"Alas! Madonna," I sighed, "but the times are sorely changed and the
situations with them. What is there now that I can do?"
"What you did then. Take me beyond their reach."
"Ah! But whither?"
"Whither but to the Lord Giovanni? Is it not to him that my troth is
I shook my head in sorrow, a thrust of jealousy cutting me the while.
"That may not be," said I. "It were not seemly, unless the Lord Giovanni
were here himself to take you hence."
"Then I will write to the Lord Giovanni," she cried. "I will write, and
you shall bear my letter."
"What think you will the Lord Giovanni do?" I burst out, with a scorn that
must have puzzled her. "Think you his safety does not give him care
enough in the hiding-place to which he has crept, that he should draw upon
himself the vengeance of the Borgias?"
She stared at me in ineffable surprise. "But the Lord Giovanni is brave
and valiant," she cried, and down in my heart I laughed in bitter mockery.
"Do you love the Lord Giovanni, Madonna?" I asked bluntly.
My question seemed to awaken fresh astonishment. It may well be that it
awakened, too, reflection. She was silent for a little space. Then--
"I honour and respect him for a noble, chivalrous and gifted gentleman,"
she answered me, and her answer made me singularly content, spreading a
balm upon the wounds my soul had taken. But to her fresh intercessions
that I should carry a letter to him, I shook my head again. My mood was
"Believe me, Madonna, it were not only unwise, but futile."
"I swear it would be," I insisted, with a convincing force that left her
staring at me and wondering whence I derived so much assurance. "We must
wait. From now till Christmas we have more than two months. In two
months much may befall. As a last resource we may consider communication
with the Lord Giovanni. But it is a forlorn hope, Madonna, and so we will
leave it until all else has failed us."
She brightened at my promise that at least if other measures proved
unavailing, we should adopt that course, and her brightening flattered me,
for it bore witness to the supreme confidence she had in me.
"Lazzaro," said she, "I know you will not fail me. I trust you more than
any living mam; more, I think, than even the Lord Giovanni, whom, if God
pleases, I shall some day wed."
"Thanks, Madonna mia," I answered, gratefully indeed. "It is a trust that
I shall ever strive to justify. Meanwhile have faith and hope, and wait."
Once before, when, to escape the schemes of her brother who would have wed
her to the Lord Giovanni, she had appealed to me, the counsel I had given
her had been much the same as that which I gave her now. At the irony of
it I could have laughed had any other been in question but Madonna Paola--
this tender White Flower of the Quince that was like to be rudely wilted
by the ruthless hands of scheming men.
THE GOVERNOR OF CESENA
That night I would have supped in my own quarters but that Filippo sent
for me and bade me join him and swell the little court he kept. At times
I believe he almost thought that he was the true Lord of Pesaro--an
opinion that may have been shared by not a few of the citizens themselves.
Certainly he kept a greater state and was better housed than the duke of
It was a jovial company of perhaps a dozen nobles and ladies that met
about his board, and Filippo bade his servants lay for me beside him. As
we ate he questioned me touching the occupation that I had found during my
absence from Pesaro. I used the greatest frankness with him, and answered
that my life had been partly a peasants, partly a poet's.
"Tell me what you wrote," he bade me his eyes resting on my face with a
new look of interest, for his love of letters was one of the few things
about him that was not affected.
"A few novelle, dealing with court-life; but chiefly verses," answered I.
"And with these verses--what have you done?"
"I have them by me, Illustrious," I answered. He smiled, seemingly well
"You must read them to us," he cried. "If they rival that epic of yours,
which I have never forgotten, they should be worth hearing."
And presently, supper being done, I went at his bidding to my chamber for
my precious manuscripts, and, returning, I entertained the company with
the reading of a portion of what I had written. They heard me with an
attention that might have rendered me vain had my ambition really lain in
being accounted a great writer; and when I paused, now and again, there
was a murmur of applause, and many a pat on the shoulder from Filippo
whenever a line, a phrase or a stanza took his fancy.
I was perhaps too absorbed to pay any great attention to the impression my
verses were producing, but presently, in one of my pauses, the Lord
Filippo startled me with words that awoke me to a sense of my imprudence.
"Do you know, Lazzaro, of what your lines remind me in an extraordinary
"Of what, Excellency?" I asked politely, raising my eyes from my
manuscript. They chanced to meet the glance of Madonna Paola. It was
riveted upon me, and its expression was one I could not understand.
"Of the love-songs of the Lord Giovanni Sforza," answered he. "They
resemble those poems infinitely more than they resemble the epic you wrote
two years ago."
I stammered something about the similarity being merely one of subject.
But he shook his head at that, and took good note of my confusion.
"No," said he, "the resemblance goes deeper. There is the same facile
beauty of the rhymes the same freshness of the rhythm--remotely resembling
that of Petrarca, yet very different. Conceits similar to those that were
the beauty spots of the Lord Giovanni's verses are ubiquitous in yours,
and above all there is the same fervent earnestness, the same burning tone
of sincerity that rendered his strambotti so worthy of admiration."
"It may be," I answered him, my confusion growing under the steady gaze of
Madonna Paola, "it may be that having heard the verses of the Lord
Giovanni, I may, unconsciously, have modelled my own lines upon those that
made so deep an impression on me."
He looked at me gravely for a moment.
"That might be an explanation," he answered deliberately, "but frankly,
if I were asked, I should give a very different one."
"And that would be?" came, sharp and compelling, the voice of Madonna.
He turned to her, shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "Why, since you ask
me," he said, "I should hazard the opinion that Lazzaro, here, was of
considerable assistance to the Lord Giovanni in the penning of those
verses with which he delighted us all--and you, Madonna, I believe,
Madonna Paola crimsoned, and her eyes fell. The others looked at us with
inquiring glances--at her, at Filippo and at me. With a fresh laugh
Filippo turned to me.
"Confess now, am I not right?" he asked good-humouredly.
"Magnificent," I murmured in tones of protest, "ask yourself the question.
Was it a likely thing that the Lord Giovanni would enlist the services of
his jester in such a task?"
"Give me a straightforward answer," he insisted. "Am I right or wrong?"
"I am giving you more than a straightforward answer, my lord," I still
evaded him, and more boldly now. "I am setting you on the high-road to
solve the matter for yourself by an appeal to your own good sense and
reason. Was it in the least likely, I repeat, that the Lord Giovanni
would seek the services of his Fool to aid him write the verses in honour
of the lady of his heart?"
With a burst of mocking laughter, Filippo smote the table a blow of his
"Your prevarications answer me," he cried. "You will not say that I am
"But I do say that you are wrong!" I exclaimed, suddenly inspired. "I did
not assist the Lord Giovanni with his verses. I swear it."
His laughter faded; and his eyes surveyed me with a sudden solemnity.
"Then why did you evade my question?" he demanded shrewdly. And then his
countenance changed as swiftly again. It was illumined by the light of
sudden understanding. "I have it," he cried. "The answer is plain. You
did not assist the Lord Giovanni to write them. Why? Because you wrote
them yourself, and you gave them to him that he might pass them off as his
It was a merciful thing for me that the whole company fell into a burst of
laughter and applauded Filippo's quick discernment, which they never
doubted. All talked at once, and a hundred proofs were advanced in
support of Filippo's opinion. The Lord Giovanni's celebrated dullness of
mind, amounting almost to stupidity, was cited, and they reminded one
another of the profound astonishment with which they had listened to the
compositions that had suddenly burst from him.
Filippo turned to his sister, on whose pale face I saw it written that she
was as convinced as any there, and my feelings were those of a dastard who
has broken faith with the man who trusted him.
"Do you appreciate now, Madonna," he murmured, "the deceits and wiles by
which that craven crept like a snake into your esteem?"
I guessed at once that by that thrust he sought to incline her more to the
union he had in view for her.
"At least he was no craven," answered she. "His burning desire to please
me may have betrayed him into this foolish duplicity. But he still must
live in my memory as a brave and gallant gentleman; or have you forgotten,
Filippo, that noble combat with the forces of Ramiro del' Orca?"
To such a question Filippo had no answer, and presently his mood sobered a
little. For myself, I was glad when the time came to withdraw from that
company that twitted and pestered me and played upon my sense of shame at
the imprudence I had committed.
Now that I look back, I can scarce conceive why it should have so wrought
upon me; for, in truth, the little love I bore the Lord Giovanni might
rather have led me to rejoice that his imposture should be laid bare to
the eyes of all the world. I think that really there was an element of
fear in my feelings--fear that, upon reflection, Madonna Paola might ask
herself how came that burning sincerity into the love-songs written in her
honour which it was now disclosed that I had penned. The answer she might
find to such a question was one that might arouse her pride and so outrage
it as to lead her to cast me out of her friendship and never again suffer
me to approach her.
Such a conclusion, however, she fortunately did not arrive at. Haply she
accounted the fervour of those lines assumed, for when on the morrow she
met me, she did no more than gently chide me for the deceit that I had had
a hand in practising upon her. She accepted my explanation that my share
in that affair had been wrung from me with threats of torture, and putting
it from her mind she returned to the matter of the approaching alliance
she sought to elude, renewing her prayers that I should aid her.
"I have," she told me then, "one other friend who might assist us, and who
has the power perhaps if he but has the will. He is the Governor of
Cesena, and for all that he holds service under Cesare Borgia, yet he
seems much devoted to me, and I do not doubt that to further my interests
he would even consent to pit his wits against those of the family he
"In which case, Madonna," answered I, spurred to it, perhaps, by an
insensate pang of jealousy at the thought that there should be another
beside myself to have her confidence, "he would be a traitor. And it is
ever an ill thing to trust a traitor. Who once betrays may betray again."
That she manifested no resentment, but, on the contrary, readily agreed
with me, showed me how idle had been that jealousy of mine, and made me
ashamed of it.
"Why yes," she mused, "it is the very thought that had occurred to me, and
caused me to spurn the aid he proffered when last he was here."
"Ah!" I cried. "What aid was that?"
"You must know, Lazzaro," said she, "that he comes often to Pesaro from
Cesena, being a man in whom the Duke places great trust, and on whom he
has bestowed considerable powers. He never fails to lie at the Palace
when he comes, and he seems to--to have conceived a regard for me. He is
a man of twice my years," she added hurriedly, "and haply looks upon me as
he might upon a daughter."
I sniffed the air. I had heard of such men.
"A week ago, when last he came, I was cast down and grieved by the affair
of this marriage, which Filippo had that day disclosed to me. The
Governor of Cesena, observing my sadness, sought my confidence with a
kindliness of which you would scarce believe him capable; for he is a
fierce and blustering man of war. In the fulness of my heart there was
nothing that seemed so desirable as a friendly ear into which I might pour
the tale of my affliction. He heard me gravely, and when I had done he
placed himself at my disposal, assuring me that if I would but trust
myself to him, he would defeat the ends of the House of Borgia. Not until
then did I seem to bethink me that he was the servant of that house, and
his readiness to betray the hand that paid him sowed mistrust and a
certain loathing of him in my mind. I let him see it, perhaps, which was
unwise, and, may be, even ungrateful. He seemed deeply wounded, and the
subject was abandoned. But I have since thought that perhaps I acted with
a rashness that was--"
"With a rashness that was eminently justifiable," I interrupted her. "You
could not have been better advised than to have mistrusted such a man."
But touching this same Governor of Cesena, there was a fine surprise in
store for me. At dusk some two days later there was a sudden commotion in
the courtyard of the Palace, and when I inquired of a groom into its
cause, I was informed that his Excellency the Governor of Cesena had
Curious to see this man whose willingness to betray the house he served,
where Madonna was concerned, was by no means difficult to probe, I
descended to the banqueting-hall at supper time.
They were not yet at table when I entered, and a group was gathered in the
centre of the room about a huge man, at sight of whose red head and
crimson, brutal face I would have turned and sought again the refuge of my
own quarters but that his wolf's eye had already fastened on me.
"Body of God!" he swore, and that was all. But his eyes were on me in a
marvellous stare, as were now--impelled by that oath of his--the eyes of
all the company. We looked at each other for a moment, then a great laugh
burst from him, shaking his vast bulk and wrinkling his hideous face. He
thrust the intervening men aside as if they had been a growth of sedges he
would penetrate, and he advanced towards me; the Lord Filippo and his
sister looking on with all the rest in interested surprise.
In front of me he halted, and setting his hands on his hips he regarded me
with a brutal mirth.
"What may your trade be now?" he asked at last contemptuously.
I had taken rapid stock of him in the seconds that were sped, and from the
surpassing richness of his apparel, his gold-broidered doublet and
crimson, fur-edged surcoat, I knew that Messer Ramiro del' Orca was grown
to the high estate of Governor of Cesena.
"A new trade even as yours," I answered him.
"Nay, that is no answer," he cried, overlooking my offensiveness. "Do you
still follow the trade of arms?"
"I think," Filippo interposed, "that our Excellency is in some error.
This gentleman is Lazzaro Biancomonte, a poet of whom Italy will one day
be proud, despite the fact that for a time he acted as the Lord Giovanni
Ramiro looked at his interlocutor, as the mastiff may look at the lap dog.
He grunted, and blew out his cheeks.
"There is yet another part he played," said he, "as I have good cause to
remember--for he is the only man that can boast of having unhorsed Ramiro
del' Orca. He was for a brief season the Lord Giovanni Sforza himself."
"How?" asked the profoundly amazed Filippo, whilst all present pressed
closer to miss nothing of the disclosure that seemed to impend. Myself, I
groaned. There was naught that I could say to stem the tide of revelation
that was coming.
"Do you then keep this paladin here arrayed like a clerk?" quoth Ramiro in
his sardonic way. "And can it be that the secret of his feat of arms has
been guarded so well that you are still in ignorance of it?"
Filippo's wits worked swiftly, and swiftly they pieced together the hints
that Ramiro had let fall.
"You will tell us," said he, "that the fight in the streets of Pesaro, in
which your Excellency's party suffered defeat, was led by Biancomonte in
the armour of Giovanni Sforza?"
Ramiro looked at him with that displeasure with which the jester visits
the man who by anticipation robs his story of its points.
"It was known to you?" growled he.
"Not so. I have but learnt it from you. But it nowise astonishes me."
And he looked at his sister, whose eyes devoured me, as if they would read
in my soul whether this thing were indeed true. Under her eyes I dropped
my glance like a man ashamed at hearing a disgraceful act of his paraded.
"Had it indeed been the Lord Giovanni, he had been dead that day," laughed
Ramiro grimly. "Indeed it was nothing but my astonishment at sight of the
face I was about to stab, after having broken the fastenings of his visor
that stayed my hand for long enough to give him the advantage. But I bear
you no grudge for that," he ended, turning on me with a ferocious smile,
"nor yet for that other trick by which--as Boccadoro the Fool--you bested
me. I am not a sweet man when thwarted, yet I can admire wit and respect
courage. But see to it," he ended, with a sudden and most unreasonable
ferocity, his visage empurpling if possible still more, "see to it that
you pit neither that courage nor that wit against me again. I have heard
the story of how you came to be Fool of the Court of Pesaro. Cesena is a
dull place, and we might enliven it by the presence of a jester of such
nimble wits as yours."
He turned without awaiting my reply, and strode away to take his place at
table, whilst I walked slowly to my accustomed seat, and took little part
in the conversation that ensued, which, as you may imagine, had me and
that exploit of mine for scope.
Anon an elephantine trumpeting of laughter seemed to set the air
a-quivering. Ramiro was lying back in his chair a prey to such a passion
of mirth that it swelled the veins of his throat and brow until I thought
that they must burst--and, from my soul, I hoped they would. Adown his
rugged cheeks two tears were slowly trickling. The Lord Filippo, as
presently transpired, had been telling him of the epic I had written in
praise of the Lord Giovanni's prowess. Naught would now satisfy that ogre
but he must have the epic read, and Filippo, who had retained a copy of
it, went in quest of it, and himself read it aloud for the delight of all
assembled and the torture of myself who saw in Madonna Paola's eyes that
she accounted the deception I had practised on her a thing beyond pardon.
Filippo had a taste for letters, as I think I have made clear, and he read
those lines with the same fire and fervour that I, myself, had breathed
into them two years ago. But instead of the rapt and breathless attention
with which my reading had been attended, the present company listened with
a smile, whilst ever and anon a short laugh or a quiet chuckle would mark
how well they understood to-night the subtle ironies which had originally
I crept away, sick at heart, while they were still making sport over my
work, cursing the Lord Giovanni, who had forced me to these things, and my
own mad mood that had permitted me in an evil hour to be so forced. Yet
my grief and bitterness were little things that night compared with what
Madonna was to make them on the morrow.
She sent for me betimes, and I went in fear and trembling of her wrath and
scorn. How shall I speak of that interview? How shall I describe the
immeasurable contempt with which she visited me, and which I felt was
perhaps no more than I deserved.
"Messer Biancomonte," said she coldly, "I have ever accounted you my
friend, and disinterested the motives that inspired a heart seemingly
noble to do service to a forlorn and helpless lady. It seems that I was
wrong. That the indulging of a warped and malignant spirit was the
inspiration you had to appear to befriend me."
"Madonna, you are over-cruel," I cried out, wounded to the very soul of
"Am I so?" she asked, with a cold smile upon her ivory face. "Is it not
rather you who were cruel? Was it a fine thing to do to trick a lady into
giving her affection to a man for gifts which he did not possess? You
know in what manner of regard I held the Lord Giovanni Sforza so long as I
saw him with the eyes of reason and in the light of truth. And you, who
were my one professed friend, the one man who spoke so loudly of dying in
my service, you falsified my vision, you masked him--either at his own and
at my brother's bidding, or else out of the malignancy of your nature--in
a garb that should render him agreeable in my eyes. Do you realise what
you have done? Does not your conscience tell you? You have contrived that
I have plighted my troth to a man such as I believed the Lord Giovanni to
be. Mother of Mercy!" she ended, with a scorn ineffable; "when I dwell
upon it now, it almost seems that it was to you I gave my heart, for yours
were the deeds that earned my regard--not his."
Such was the very argument that I had hugged to my starving soul, at the
time the things she spoke of had befallen, and it had consoled me as
naught in life could have consoled me. Yet now that she employed it with
such a scornful emphasis as to make me realise how far beneath her I
really was, how immeasurably beyond my reach was she, it was as much
consolation to me as confession without absolution may be to the perishing
sinner. I answered nothing. I could not trust myself to speak. Besides,
what was there that I could say?
"I summoned you back to Pesaro," she continued pitilessly, "trusting in
your fine words and deeming honest the offer of services you made me. Now
that I know you, you are free to depart from Pesaro when you will."
Despite my shame, I dared, at last, to raise my eyes. But her face was
averted, and she saw nothing of the entreaty, nothing of the grief that
might have told her how false were her conclusions. One thing alone there
was might have explained my actions, might have revealed them in a new
light; but that one thing I could not speak of.
I turned in silence, and in silence I quitted the room; for that, I
thought, was, after all, the wisest answer I could make.
Despite Madonna Paola's dismissal, I remained in Pesaro. Indeed, had I
attempted to leave, it is probable that the Lord Filippo would have
deterred me, for I was much grown in his esteem since the disclosures that
had earned me the disfavour of Madonna. But I had no thought of going. I
hoped against hope that anon she might melt to a kinder mood, or else that
by yet aiding her, despite herself, to elude the Borgia alliance, I might
earn her forgiveness for those matters in which she held that I had so
gravely sinned against her.
The epithalamium, meanwhile, was forgotten utterly and I spent my days in
conceiving wild plans to save her from the Lord Ignacio, only to abandon
them when in more sober moments their impracticable quality was borne in
In this fashion some six weeks went by, and during the time she never once
addressed me. We saw much during those days of the Governor of Cesena.
Indeed his time seemed mainly spent in coming and going 'twixt Cesena and
Pesaro, and it needed no keen penetration to discern the attraction that
brought him. He was ever all attention to Madonna, and there were times
when I feared that perhaps she had been drawn into accepting the aid that
once before he had proffered. But these fears were short-lived, for, as
time sped, Madonna's aversion to the man grew plain for all to see. Yet
he persisted until the very eve, almost, of her betrothal to Ignacio.
One evening in early December I chanced, through the purest accident, to
overhear her sharp repulsion of the suit that he had evidently been
"Madonna," I heard him answer, with a snarl, "I may yet prove to you that
you have been unwise so to use Ramiro del' Orca."
"If you so much as venture to address me again upon the subject," she
returned in the very chilliest accents, "I will lay this matter of your
odious suit before your master Cesare Borgia."
They must have caught the sound of my footsteps in the gallery in which
they stood, and Ramiro moved away, his purple face pale for once, and his
eyes malevolent as Satan's.
I reflected with pleasure that perhaps we had now seen the last of him,
and that before that threat of Madonna's he would see fit to ride home to
Cesena and remain there. But I was wrong. With incredible effrontery and
daring he lingered. The morrow was a Sunday, and, on the Tuesday or
Wednesday following, Cesare Borgia and his cousin Ignacio were expected.
Filippo was in the best of moods, and paid more heed to the Governor of
Cesena's presence at Pesaro than he did to mine. It may be that he
imagined Ramiro del' Orca to be acting under Cesare's instructions.
That Sunday night we supped together, and we were all tolerably gay, the
topic of our talk being the coming of the bridegroom. Madonna's was the
only downcast face at the board. She was pale and worn, and there were
dark circles round her eyes that did much to mar the beauty of her angel
face, and inspired me with a deep and sorrowing pity.
Ramiro announced his intention of leaving Pesaro on the morrow, and ere he
went he begged leave to pledge the beautiful Lady of Santafior, who was so
soon to become the bride of the valiant and mighty Ignacio Borgia. It was
a toast that was eagerly received, so eager and uproariously that even
that poor lady herself was forced to smile, for all that I saw it in her
eyes that her heart was on the point of breaking.
I remember how, when we had drunk, she raised her goblet--a beautiful
chaste cup of solid gold--and drank, herself, in acknowledgment; and I
remember, too, how, chancing to move my head, I caught a most singular,
ill-omened smile upon the coarse lips of Messer Ramiro.
At the time I thought of it no more, but in the morning when the horrible
news that spread through the Palace gained my ears, that smile of Ramiro
del' Orca recurred to me at once.
It was from the seneschal of the Palace that I first heard that tragic
news. I had but risen, and I was descending from my quarters, when I came
upon him, his old face white as death, a palsy in his limbs.
"Have you heard the news, Ser Lazzaro?" he cried in a quavering voice.
"The news of what?" I asked, struck by the horror in his face.
"Madonna Paola is dead," he told me, with a sob.
I stared at him in speechless consternation, and for a moment I seemed
forlorn of sense and understanding.
"Dead?" I remember whispering. "What is it you say?" And I leaned
forward towards him, peering into his face. "What is it you say?"
"Well may you doubt your ears," he groaned. "But, Vergine Santissima! it
is the truth. Madonna Paola, that sweet angel of God, lies cold and
stiff. They found her so this morning."
"God of Heaven!" I cried out, and leaving him abruptly I dashed down the
Scarce knowing what I did, acting upon an impulsive instinct that was as
irresistible as it was unreasoning, I made for the apartments of Madonna
Paola. In the antechamber I found a crowd assembled, and on every face
was pallid consternation written. Of my own countenance I had a glimpse
in a mirror as I passed; it was ashen, and my hollow eyes were wild as a
Someone caught me by the arm. I turned. It was the Lord Filippo, pale as
the rest, his affectations all fallen from him, and the man himself
revealed by the hand of an overwhelming sorrow. With him was a grave,
white-bearded gentleman, whose sober robe proclaimed the physician.
"This is a black and monstrous affair, my friend," he murmured.
"Is it true, is it really true, my lord?" I cried in such a voice that all
eyes were turned upon me.
"Your grief is a welcome homage to my own," he said. "Alas, Dio Santo! it
is most hideously true. She lies there cold and white as marble, I have
just seen her. Come hither, Lazzaro." He drew me aside, away from the
crowd and out of that antechamber, into a closet that had been Madonna's
oratory. With us came the physician.
"This worthy doctor tells me that he suspects she has been poisoned,
"Poisoned?" I echoed. "Body of God! but by whom? We all loved her.
There was not in Pesaro a man worthy of the name but would have laid down
his life in her service. Who was there, then, to poison that dear saint?"
It was then that the memory of Ramiro del' Orca, and the look that in his
eyes I had surprised whilst Madonna drank, flashed back into my mind.
"Where is the Governor of Cesena?" I cried suddenly. Filippo looked at me
with quick surprise.
"He departed betimes this morning for his castle. Why do you ask?"
I told him why I asked; I told him what I knew of Ramiro's attentions to
Madonna, of the rejection they had suffered, and of the vengeance he had
seemed to threaten. Filippo heard me patiently, but when I had done he
shook his head.
"Why, all being as you say, should he work so wanton a destruction?" he
asked stupidly, as if jealousy were not cause enough to drive an evil man
to destroy that which he may not possess. "Nay, nay, your wits are
disordered. You remember that he looked at Madonna whilst she drank, and
you construe that into a proof that he had poisoned the cup she drank
from. But then it is probable that we all looked at her in that same
"But not with such eyes as his," I insisted.
"Could he have administered the poison with his own hands?" asked the
"No," said I, "that were a difficult matter. But he might have bribed a
servant to drop a powder in her wine."
"Why then," said he, "it should be an easy thing to find the servant. Do
you chance to remember who served the wine?"
"I remember," answered Filippo readily.
"Let the man be questioned; let him be racked if necessary. Thus shall
you probably arrive at a true knowledge; thus discover under whose
directions he was working."
It was the only thing to do, and Filippo sent me about it there and then,
telling me the servant in question was a Venetian of the name of
Zabatello. If confirmation had been needed that this fellow had been the
tool of the poisoner--there was no reason to suppose that he would have
done the thing to have served any ends of his own--that confirmation I had
upon discovering that Zabatello was fled from Pesaro, leaving no trace
Men were sent out by the Lord Filippo in every direction to endeavour to
find the rogue and bring him back. Whether they caught him or not seemed,
after all a little thing to me. She was dead; that was the one all-
absorbing, all-effacing fact that took possession of my mind, blotting out
all minor matters that might be concerned with it. Even the now assured
fact that she had been poisoned was a thing that found little room in my
consideration on that day of my burning grief.
She was dead, dead, dead! The hideous phrase boomed again and again
through my distracted mind. Compared with that overwhelming catastrophe,
what signified to me the how or why or when she had died. She was dead,
and the world was empty.
For hours I sat on the rocks, alone by the sea, on that stormy day of
December, and I indulged my grief where no prying eyes could witness it,
amid the solitude of wild and angry Nature. And the moan and thud with
which the great waves hurled themselves against the base of the black rock
on which I was perched afforded but a feeble echo of the storm that raged
and beat within my desolated soul.
She was dead, dead, dead! The waves seemed to shout it as they leapt up
and spattered me with brine; the wind now moaned it piteously, now
shrieked it fiercely as it scudded by, wrapping its invisible coils about
me, and seeming intent on tearing me from my resting-place.
Towards evening, at last, I rose, and skirting the Castle, I entered the
town, dishevelled and bedraggled, yet caring nothing what spectacle I
might afford. And presently a grim procession overtook me, and at sight
of the black, cowled and visored figures that advanced in the lurid light
of their wax torches, I fell on my knees there in the street, and so
remained, my knees deep in the mud, my head bowed, until her sainted body
had been borne past. None heeded me. They bore her to San Domenico, and
thither I followed presently, and in the shadow of one of the pillars of
the aisle I crouched whilst the monks chanted their funereal psalms.
The singing ended, the friars departed, and presently those of the Court
and the sight-seers from the streets began to leave the church. In an
hour I was alone--alone with the beloved dead, and there, on my knees, I
stayed, and whether I prayed or blasphemed during that horrid hour, my
memory will not let me say.
It may have been towards the third hour of night when at last I staggered
up--stiff and cramped from my long kneeling on the cold stone. Slowly, in
a half-dazed condition, I move down the aisle and gained the door of the
church. I essayed to open it. It resisted my efforts, and then I
realised that it was locked for the night.
The appreciation of my position afforded me not the slightest dismay. On
the contrary, I think my feelings were rather of relief. I had not known
whither I should repair--so distraught was my mood--and now chance had
settled the matter for me by decreeing that I should remain.
I turned and slowly I paced back until I stood beside the great black
catafalque, at each corner of which a tall wax taper was burning. My
footsteps rang with a hollow sound through the vast, gloomy spaces of that
cold, empty church; my very breathing seemed to find an echo in it. But
these were not things to occupy my mind in such a season, no more than was
the icy cold by which I was half-numbed--yet of which I seemed to remain
unconscious in the absorbing anguish that possessed me.
Near the foot of the bier there was a bench, and there I sat me down, and
resting my elbows on my knees I took my dishevelled head between my frozen
hands. My thoughts were all of her whose poor murdered clay was there
encased above me. I reviewed, I think, each scene of my life where it had
touched on hers; I evoked every word she had addressed to me since first I
had met her on the road to Cagli.
And anon my mood changed, and, from cold and frozen that it had been by
grief, it grew ablaze with the fire of anger and the lust to wreak
vengeance upon him that had brought her to this condition. Let Filippo
fear to move without proofs, let him doubt such proofs as I had set before
him and deem them overslender to warrant action. Such scruples should not
serve to restrain me. I was no lukewarm brother. Here in Pesaro I would
remain until her poor body was delivered to the earth, and then I would
set out upon a last emprise. Messer Ramiro del' Orca should account to me
for this vile deed.
There in the House of Peace I sat gnawing my hands and maturing my bloody
plans whilst the night wore on. Later a still more frenzied mood obsessed
me--a burning desire to look again upon the sweet face of her I had loved,
the sainted visage of Madonna Paola. What was there to deter me? Who was
there to gainsay me?
I stood up and uttered that challenge aloud in my madness. My voice
echoed mournfully up the aisles, and the sound of the echo chilled me, yet
my purpose gathered strength.
I advanced, and after a moment's pause, with the silver-broidered hem of
the pall in my hands, I suddenly swept off that mantle of black cloth,
setting up such a gust of wind as all but quenched the tapers. I caught
up the bench on which I had been sitting, and, dragging it forward, I
mounted it and stood now with my breast on a level with the coffin-lid. I
laid hands on it and found it unfastened. Without thought or care of how
I went about the thing, I raised it and let it crash over to the ground.
It fell on the stone flags with a noise like that of thunder, which boomed
and reverberated along the gloomy vault above.
A figure, all in purest white, lay there under my eyes, the face covered
by a veil. With deepest reverence, and a prayer to her sainted soul to
forgive the desecration of my loving hands, I tremblingly drew that veil
aside. How beautiful she was in the calm peace of death! She lay there
like one gently sleeping, the faintest smile upon her lips, and as I
looked it seemed hard to believe that she was truly dead. Why, her lips
had lost nothing of their colour; they were as rosy red--or nearly so--as
ever I had seen them in life. How could this be? The lips of the dead
are wont to put on a livid hue. I stared a moment, my reverence and grief
almost effaced by the intensity of my wonder. This face, so ivory pale,
wore not the ashen aspect of one that would never wake again. There was a
warmth about that pallor. And then I caught my nether lip in my teeth
until it bled, and it is a miracle that I did not scream, seeing how
overwrought was my condition.
For it had seemed to me that the draperies on her bosom had slightly
moved, a gentle, almost imperceptible heave as if she breathed. I looked,
and there it came again.
God! into what madness was I come that my eyes could so deceive me? It
was the draught that stirred the air about the church and blew great
shrouds of wax adown the taper's yellow sides. I manned myself to a more
sober mood, and looked again.
And now my doubts were all dispelled. I knew that I had mastered any
errant fancy, and that my eyes were grown wise and discriminating, and I
knew, too, that she lived. Her bosom slowly rose and fell; the colour of
her lips, the hue of her cheeks confirmed the assurance that she breathed.
The poison had failed in its work.
I paused a second yet to ponder. That morning her appearance had been
such that the physician had been deceived by it, and had pronounced her
cold. Yet now there were these signs of life. What could it portend but
that the effects of the poison were passing off and that she was
In the wild madness of joy that sent the blood drumming and beating
through my brain, my first impulse was to run for help. Then I bethought
me of the closed doors, and I realised that no matter how I shouted none
would hear me. I must succour her myself as best I could, and meanwhile
she must be protected from the chill air of that December night in that
church that was colder than the tomb. I had my cloak, a heavy,
serviceable garment; and if more were needed, there was the pall which I
had removed, and which lay in a heap about the legs of my bench.
I leaned forward, and passing my hand under her head, I gently raised it.
Then slipping it downwards, I thrust my arm after it until I had her round
the waist in a firm grip. Thus I raised her from the coffin, and the
warmth of her body on my arm, the ready, supple bending of her limbs, were
so many added proofs that she was not dead.
Gently and reverently I lifted her in my arms, an intoxication of holy joy
pervading me, and the prayers falling faster from my lips than ever they
had done since as a lad I had recited them at my mother's knee. A moment
I laid her on the bench, whilst I divested myself of my cloak. Then
suddenly I paused, and stood listening, holding my breath.
Steps were advancing towards the door.
My first impulse was to rush forward and call to those who came, shouting
my news and imploring their help. Then a sudden, an almost instinctive
suspicion caught and chilled me. Who was it came at such an hour? What
could any man seek in the Church of San Domenico at dead of night? Was
the church indeed their goal, or were they but passers-by?
That last question went not long unanswered. The steps came nearer,
whilst I stood appalled, my skin roughening like a dog's. They halted at
the door. Something heavy hurtled against it.
A voice, the voice of Ramiro del' Orca--I knew it upon the instant--
reached my ears which concentration had rendered superacute.
"It is locked, Baldassare. Get out those tools of yours and force it."
My wits were working now at fever-pace. It may be that I am swift of
thought beyond the ordinary man, or it may be that what then came to me
was either a flash of inspiration or the conclusion to which I leapt by
instinct. But in that moment the whole plot of Madonna's poisoning was
revealed to me. Poisoned she had been--aye, but by some drug that did but
produce for a little while the outward appearance of death so truly
simulated as to deceive the most experienced of doctors. I had heard of
such poisons, and here, in very truth, was one of them at work. His
vengeance on her for her indifference to his suit was not so clumsy and
primitive as that of simply slaying her. He had, by his infernal
artifice, intended, secretly, to bear her off. To-morrow when men found a
broken church-door and a violated bier, they would set the sacrilege down
to some wizard who had need of the body for his dark practices of magic.
I cursed myself in that hour that I had not earlier been moved to peer
into her coffin whilst yet there might have been time to have saved her.
Now? The sweat stood out in beads upon my brow. At that door there were,
to judge by the sound of footsteps and of voices, some three or four men
besides Messer Ramiro. For only weapon I had my dagger. What could I do
with that to defend her? Ramiro's plan would suffer no frustration
through my discovery; when to-morrow the sacrilege was discovered the cold
body of Lazzaro Biancomonte lying beside the desecrated bier would be but
an item in the work of profanation they would find--an item that nowise
would modify the conclusion to which I anticipated they would come.
A strange and mysterious thing is the working of terror on the human mind.
Some it renders incapable of thought or action, paralysing their limbs and
stagnating the blood in their veins; such creatures die in anticipating
death. Others under the stress of that grim passion have their wits
preternaturally sharpened. The instinct of self-preservation assumes
command of all their senses, and urges them to swift and feverish action.
I thank God with a full heart that to this latter class do I belong.
After one gelid moment, spent with eyes and mouth agape, my hands fallen
limp beside me and my hair bristling with affright, I became myself again
and never calmer than in that dread moment. I went to work with
superhuman swiftness. My cheeks may have been livid, my very lips
bloodless; but my hands were steady and my wits under full control.
Concealment--concealment for myself and her--was the thing that now
imported; and no sooner was the thought conceived than the means were
devised. Slender means were they, yet Heaven knows I was in no case to be
exacting, and since they were the best the place afforded I must trust to
them without demurring, and pray God that Messer Ramiro might lack the wit
to search. And with that fresh hope it came to me that I must find a way
so to dispose as to make him believe that to search would be a futile
waste of energy.
The odds against me lay in the little time at my disposal. Yet a little
time there was. The door was stout, and Messer Ramiro might take no
violent means of bursting it, lest the noise should arouse the street--and
I well could guess how little he would relish having lights to shine upon
this deed of night of his.
With what tools his sbirro was at work I could not say; but surely they
must be such as would leave me a few moments. Already the fellow had
begun. I could make out a soft crunching sound, as of steel biting into
wood. To act, then!
With movements swift as a cat's, and as silent, I went to work. Like a
ghost I glided round the coffin to the other side, where the lid was
lying. I took it up, and when for a moment I had deposited Madonna Paola
on the ground, I mounted the bench and gently but quickly set back that
lid as it had been. Next, I gathered up the cumbrous pall, and mounting
the bench once more I spread it across the coffin. This way and that I
pulled it, straightening it into the shape that it had worn when first I
had entered, and casting its folds into regular lines that would lend it
the appearance of having remained undisturbed.
And what time I toiled, the half of my mind intent upon my task, the other
half was as intent upon the progress of the worker at the door.
At last it was done. I set the bench where first it had been, at the foot
of the catafalque, and gathering up Madonna in my arms, as though her
weight had been an infant's, I bore her swiftly out of the circle of light
of those four tapers into the black, impenetrable gloom beyond. On I sped
towards the high-altar, flying now as men fly in evil dreams, with the
sensation of an enemy upon them and their progress a mere standing-still.
Thus I gained the chancel, hurtling against the railing as I passed, and
pausing for an instant, wondering whether those without could have heard
the noise which in my clumsiness I had made. But the grinding sound
continued uninterrupted, and I breathed more freely. I mounted the altar-
steps, the distant light behind me still feebly guiding me; I ran round to
the right, and heaved a great sigh of relief to find my hopes verified,
and that the altar of San Domenico was as the altar of other churches I
had known. It stood a pace or so from the wall, and behind it there was
just such narrow hiding-room as I had looked to find.
I paused at the mouth of that black opening, and even as I paused,
something hard that gave out a metallic sound fell at the far end of the
church. Instinct told me it was the lock which those miscreants had cut
from the door. I waited for no more, but like a beast scudding to cover I
plunged into that black space.
Madonna, wrapped in my cloak as she was, I set down upon the ground, and
then I crept forward on hands and knees and thrust out my head, trusting
to the darkness to envelop me.
I waited thus for some seconds, my heart beating now against my ribs as if
it would hurl itself out of my bosom, my head and face on fire with the
fever of reaction that succeeded my late cold pallor.
From where I watched it was impossible to see the door hidden in the black
gloom. Away in the centre of the church, an island of light in that vast
sea of blackness, stood the catafalque with its four wax torches.
Something creaked, and almost immediately I saw the flames of those tapers
bend towards me, beaten over by the gust that smote them from the door.
Thus I surmised that Ramiro and his men had entered. The soft fall of
their feet; for they were treading lightly now, succeeded, and at last
they came into view, shadowy at first, then sharply outlined as they
approached the light.
A moment they stood in half-whispered conversation, their voices a mere
boom of sound in which no word was to be distinguished. Then I saw Ramiro
suddenly step forward--I knew him by his great height--and drag away, even
as I had done, the pall that hid the coffin. Next he seized the bench and
gave a brisk order to his men in a less cautious voice, so that I caught
"Spread a cloak," said he, and, in obedience, the four that were with him
took a cloak among them, each holding one of its corners. It was thus
that he meant to bear her with him.
He mounted now the bench, and I could imagine with what elation of mind he
put out his hands to remove the coffin-lid. As well as if his soul had
been transformed into a book conceived for my amusement did I surmise the
exultant mood that then possessed him. He had tricked Filippo; he had
out-witted us all--Madonna herself, included--and he was leaving no trace
behind him that should warrant any so much as to dare to think that this
vile deed was the work of Messer Ramiro del' Orca, Governor of Cessna
But Fate, that arch-humourist, that jester of the gods, delights in mighty
contrasts, and has a trick of exalting us by false hopes and hollow lures
on the very eve of working our discomfiture. From the soul that but a
moment back had been aglow with evil satisfaction there burst a sudden
blasphemous cry of rage that disregarded utterly the sanctity of that
"By the Death of Christ! the coffin is empty!"
It was the roar of a beast enraged, and it was succeeded by a heavy crash
as he let fall the coffin-lid; a second later a still louder sound awoke
the night-echoes of that silent place. In a burst of maniacal frenzy he
had caught the coffin itself a buffet of his mighty fist, and hurled it
from its trestles.
Then he leapt down from the bench, and flung all caution to the winds in
the excitement that possessed him.
"It is a trick of that smooth-faced knave Filippo," he cried. "They have
laid a trap for us, animals, and you never informed yourselves."
I could imagine the foam about the corners of his mouth, the swelling
veins in his brow, and the mad bulging of his hideous eyes, for terror
spoke in his words, and the Governor of Cesena, overbearing bully though
he was, could on occasion, too, become a coward.
"Out of this!" he growled at them. "See that your swords hang ready.
One of them murmured something that I could not catch. Mother in Heaven!
if it should be a suggestion of what actually had taken place, a
suggestion that the church should be searched ere they abandoned it? But
Ramiro's answer speedily relieved my fears.
"I'll take no risks," he barked. "Come! Let us go separately. I first,
and do you follow me and get clear of Pesaro as best you can." His voice
grew lower, and from what else he said I but caught the words, "Cesena"
and "to-morrow night," from which I gathered that he was appointing that
as their next meeting-place.
Ramiro went, and scarce had the echoes of his footsteps died away ere the
others followed in a rush, fearful of being caught in some trap that was
here laid for them, and but restrained from flying on the instant by their
still greater fear of that harsh master, Ramiro.
Thanking Heaven for this miraculous deliverance, and for the wit it had
lent me so to prepare a scene that should thoroughly mislead those
ravishers, I turned me now to Madonna Paola. Her breathing was grown more
heavy and more regular, so that in all respects she was as one sleeping
healthily. Soon I hoped that she might awaken, for to seek to bear her
thence and to the Palace in my arms would have been a madness. And now it
occurred to me that I should have restoratives at hand against the time of
her regaining consciousness. Inspiration suggested to me the wine that
should be stored in the sacristy for altar purposes. It was
unconsecrated, and there could be no sacrilege in using it.
I crept round to the front of the altar. At the angle a candle-branch
protruded, standing no higher than my head. It held some three or four
tapers, and was so placed to enable the priest to read his missal at early
Mass on dark winter mornings. I plucked one of the candles from its
socket, and hastening down the church, I lighted it from one of the
burning tapers of the bier. Screening it with my hand, I retraced my
steps and regained the chancel. Then turning to the left, I made for a
door that I knew should give access to the sacristy. It yielded to my
touch, and I passed down a short stone-flagged passage, and entered the
spacious chamber beyond. An oak settle was placed against one wall, and
above it hung an enormous, rudely-carved crucifix. Facing it against the
other wall loomed a huge piece of furniture, half-cupboard, half-buffet.
On a bench in a corner stood a basin and ewer of metal, whilst a few
vestments hanging beside these completed the furniture of this austere and
white-washed chamber. Setting my candle on the buffet, I opened one of
the drawers. It was full of garments of different kinds, among which I
noticed several monks' habits. I rummaged to the bottom only to find some
odd pairs of sandals.
Disappointed, I closed the drawer and tried another, with no better
fortune. Here were under-vestments of fine linen, newly washed and
fragrant with rosemary. I abandoned the drawer and gave my attention to
the cupboard above. It was locked, but the key was there. It opened, and
my candle reflected a blaze on gold and silver vessels, consecrated
chalices; a dazzling monstra, and several richly-carved ciboria of solid
gold, set with precious stones. But in a corner I espied a dark-brown,
gourd-shaped object. It was a skin of wine, and, with a half-suppressed
cry of joy, I seized it. In that instant a piercing scream rang through
the stillness of the church, and startled me so that I stood there for
some seconds, frozen in horror, a hundred wild conjectures leaping to my
Had Ramiro remained hidden, and was he returned? Did the scream mean that
Madonna Paola had been awakened by his rough hands?
A second time it came, and now it seemed to break the hideous spell that
its first utterance had cast over me. Dropping the leather bottle, I sped
back, down the stone passage to the door that abutted on the chancel.
There, by the high-altar, I saw a form that seemed at first luminous and
ghostly, but in which presently I recognised Madonna Paola, the dim rays
of the distant tapers finding out the white robe with which her limbs were
hung. She was alone, and I knew then that it was but the very natural
fear consequent upon awakening in such a place that had provoked the cry I
"Madonna," I called, advancing swiftly towards her. "Madonna Paola!"
There was a gasp, a moment's stillness, then--
"Lazzaro?" She cried, questioningly. "What has happened? Why am I here?"
I was beside her now, and found her trembling like an aspen.
"Something horrible has happened, Madonna," I answered. "But it is over
now, and the evil is averted."
"But how came I here?"
"That you shall learn." I stooped to gather up the cloak which had
slipped from her shoulders as she advanced. "Do you wrap this about you,"
I urged her, and with my own hands I assisted to enfold her in that
mantle. "Are you faint, Madonna?" I asked.
"I scarce know," she answered in a frightened voice. "There is a black
horror upon me. Tell me," she implored again, "what does it mean?"
I drew her away now, promising to satisfy her in the fullest manner once
she were out of these forbidding surroundings. I led her to the sacristy
and seating her upon the settle I produced that wine-skin once again.
At first she babbled like a child of not being thirsty; but I was
"It is no matter of quenching thirst, Madonna," I told her. "The wine
will warm and revive you. Come Madonna mia, drink."
She obeyed me now, and having got the first gulp down her throat she drank
a lusty draught that was not long in bringing a healthier colour to
replace the ashen pallor of her cheeks.
"I am so cold, Lazzaro," she complained.
I turned to the drawer in which I had espied the rough monks' habits, and
pulling one out I held it for her to don. She sat there now, in that
garment of coarse black cloth, the cowl flung back upon her shoulder, the
fairest postulate that ever entered upon a novitiate.
"You are good to me, Lazzaro," she murmured plaintively, "and I have used
you very ill." She paused a second, passing her hand across her brow.
Then--"What is the hour?" she asked.
It was a question that I left unheeded. I bade her brace herself and have
courage for the tale I was to tell. I assured her that the horror of it
was all passed and that she had naught to fear. So soon as her natural
curiosity should be satisfied it should be hers to return to her brother
at the Palace.
"But how came I thence?" she cried. "I must have lain in a swoon, for I
remember nothing." And then her swift mind, leaping to a reasonable
conclusion; and assisted, perhaps, by the memory of the shattered
catafalque which she had seen--"Did they account me dead, Lazzaro?" she
asked of a sudden, her eyes dilating with a curious affright as they were
turned upon my own.
"Yes, Madonna," answered I, "you were accounted dead." And, with that, I
told her the entire story of what had befallen, saving only that I left my
own part unmentioned, nor sought to explain my opportune presence in the
church. When I spoke of the coming of Ramiro and his knaves she shuddered
and closed her eyes in very awe. At length, when I had done, she opened
them again, and again she turned them full upon me. Their brightness
seemed to increase a moment, and then I saw that she was quietly weeping.
"And you were there to save me, Lazzaro?" she murmured brokenly. "Lazzaro
mio, it seems that you are ever at hand when I have need of you. You are
indeed my one true friend--the one true friend that never fails me."
"Are you feeling stronger, Madonna?" I asked abruptly, roughly almost.
"Yes, I am stronger." She stood up as if to test her strength. "Indeed
little ails me saving the horror of this thing. The thought of it seems
to turn me sick and dizzy."
"Sit then and rest," said I. "Presently, when you are more recovered, we
will set out."
"Whither shall we go?" she asked.
"Why, to the Palace, to your brother."
"Why, yes," she answered, as though it were the last suggestion that she
had been expecting, "And to-morrow--it will be to-morrow, will it not?--
comes the Lord Ignacio to claim his bride. He will owe you no mean
There was a pause. I paced the chamber, a hundred thoughts crowding my
mind, but overriding them all the conjecture of how far it might be from
matins, and how soon we might be discovered by the monks. Presently she
"Lazzaro," she inquired very gently, "what was it brought you to the
"I came with the others, Madonna, to the burial service," answered I, and
fearing such questions as might follow--questions that I had been dreading
ever since I had brought her to the sacristy--"If you are recovered we had
best be going," I told her gruffly.
"Nay, I am not yet enough recovered," answered she. "And before we go,
there are some points in this strange adventure that I would have you make
clear to me. Meanwhile, we are very well here. If the good fathers come
upon us, what shall it signify?"
I groaned inwardly, and I grew, I think, more afraid than when Ramiro and
his men had broken into the church an hour ago.
"What kept you here after all were gone?"
"I remained to pray, Madonna," I answered brusquely. "Is aught else to be
done in a church?"
"To pray for me, Lazzaro?" she asked.
"Faithful heart," she murmured. "And I had used you so cruelly for the
deception you practised. But you merited my cruelty, did you not,
Lazzaro? Say that you did, else must I perish of remorse."
"Perhaps I deserved it, Madonna. But perhaps not so much as you bestowed,
had you but understood my motives," I said unguardedly.
"If I had understood your motives?" she mused. "Aye, there is much I do
not understand. Even in this night's transactions there are not wanting
things that remain mysterious despite the explanations you have supplied
me. Tell me, Lazzaro, what was it led you to suppose that I still lived?
"I did not suppose it," I blundered like a fool, never seeing whither her
"You did not?" she cried, in deep surprise; and now, when it was too late,
I understood. "What was it, then, induced you to lift the coffin-lid?"
"You ask me more than I can tell you," I answered, almost roughly. "Do
you thank God, Madonna, that it was so, and never plague your mind to
learn the 'why' of it."
She looked at me with eyes that were singularly luminous.
"But I must know," she insisted. "Have I not the right? Tell me now: Was
it that you wished to see my face again before they gave me over to the
"Perhaps it was that, Madonna," I answered in confusion, avoiding her
glance. Then--"Shall we be going?" I suggested fiercely. But she never
heeded that suggestion.
She spoke as if she had not heard, and the words she uttered seemed to
turn me into stone.
"Did you love me then so much, dear Lazzaro?"
I swung round to face her now, and I know that my face was white--whiter
than hers had been when I had beheld her in her coffin. My eyes seemed to
burn in their sockets as they met hers. A madness overtook me and whelmed
my better judgment. I had undergone so much that day through grief, and
that night through a hundred emotions, that I was no longer fully master
of myself. Her words robbed me, I think, of my last lingering shred of
"Love you, Madonna?" I echoed, in a voice that was as unlike my own as was
the mood that then possessed me. "You are the air I breathe, the sun that
lights my miserable world. You are dearer to me than honour, sweeter than
life. You are the guardian angel of my existence, the saint to whom I
have turned morning and evening in my prayers for grace. Do I love you,
And there I paused. The thought of what I did and what the consequences
must be rushed suddenly upon me. I shivered as a man shivers in awaking.
I dropped on my knees before her, bowing my head and flinging wide my
"Forgive, Madonna," I cried entreatingly. "Forgive and forget. Never
again will I offend."
"Neither forgive nor forget will I," came her voice, charged with an
ineffable sweetness, and her hands descended on my bowed bead, as if she
would bless and soothe me. "I am conscious of no offence that craves
forgiveness, and what you have said I would not forget if I could. Whence
springs this fear of yours, dear Lazzaro? Am I more than woman, or you
less than man that you should tremble for the confession that in a wild
moment I have dragged from you? For that wild moment I shall be thankful
to my life's end; for your words have been the sweetest ever my poor ears
listened to. Once I thought that I loved the Lord Giovanni Sforza. But
it was you I loved; for the deeds that earned him my affection were deeds
of yours and not of his. Once I told you so in scorn. Yet since then I
have come soberly to ponder it. I account you, Lazzaro, the noblest
friend, the bravest gentleman and the truest lover that the world has
known. Need it surprise you, then, that I love you and that mine would be
a happy life if I might spend it in growing worthy of this noble love of
There was a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes--a matter at which I
take no shame. Air seemed to fail me for a moment, and I almost thought
that I should swoon, so overcome was I. Transport the blackest soul from
among the damned of Hell, wash it white of its sins and seat it on one of
the glorious thrones of Heaven, then ponder its emotions, and you may
learn something of what I felt. At last, when I had mastered the
exquisite torture of my joy--
"Madonna mia," I cried, "bethink you of what you say. You are the noble
lady of Santafior, and I--"
"No more of this," she interrupted me. "You are Lazzaro Biancomonte, of
patrician birth, no matter to what odd shifts a cruel fortune may have
driven you. Will you take me?"
She had my face between her palms, and she forced my glance to meet her
own saintly eyes.
"Will you take me, Lazaro?" she repeated.
"Holy Flower of the Quince!" was all that I could murmur, whereat she
gently smiled. "Santo Fior di Cotogno!"
And then a great sadness overwhelmed me. A tide that neaped the frail
bark of happiness high and dry upon the shores of black despair.
"To-morrow Madonna, comes the Lord Ignacio Borgia," I groaned.
"I know, I know," said she. "But I have thought of that. Paula Sforza di
Santafior is dead. Requiescat! We must dispose that they will let her
rest in peace."
AN ILL ENCOUNTER
Speechless I stared at her a moment, so taken was I with the immensity of
the thing that she suggested. Fear, amazement, and joy jostled one
another for the possession of my mind.
"Why do you look so, Lazzaro?" she exclaimed at last. "What is it daunts
"How is the thing possible?" quoth I.
"What difficulty does it present?" she questioned back. "The Governor of
Cesena has rendered very possible what I propose. We may look on him
to-morrow as our best friend."
"But Ramiro knows," I reminded her.
"True, but do you think that he will dare to tell the world what he knows?
He might be asked to say how he comes by his knowledge, and that should
prove a difficult question to answer. Tell me, Lazzaro," she continued,
"if he had succeeded in carrying me away, what think you would have been
said in Pesaro to-morrow when the coffin was found empty?"
"They would assume that your body had been stolen by some wizard or some
daring student of anatomy."
"Ah! And if we were quietly to quit the church and be clear of Pesaro
before morning, would not the same be said?"
"Probably," answered I.
"Then why hesitate? Is it that you do not love me enough, Lazzaro?"
I smiled, and my eyes must have told her more than any protestation could.
Then I sighed. "I hesitate, Madonna, because I would not have you do now
what you might come, hereafter, bitterly to repent. I would not let you
be misled by the impulse of a moment into an act whose consequences must
endure as long as life itself."
"Is that the reasoning of a lover?" she asked me, very quietly. "Is this
cold argument, this weighing of issues, consistent with the stormy passion
you professed so lately?"
"It is," I answered stoutly. "It is because I love you more than I love
myself that I would have you reflect ere you adventure your life upon such
a broken raft as mine. You are Paola Sforza di Santafior, and I--"
"Enough of that," she interrupted me, rising. She swept towards me, and
before I knew it her hands were on my shoulders, her face upturned, and
her blue eyes on mine, depriving me of all will and all resistance.
"Lazzaro," said she, and there was an intensity almost fierce in her low
tones, "moments are flying and you stand here reasoning with me, and
bidding me weigh what is already weighed for all time. Will you wait
until escape is rendered impossible, until we are discovered, before you
will decide to save me, and to grasp with both hands this happiness of
ours that is not twice offered in a lifetime?"
She was so close to me that I could almost feel the beating of her heart.
Some subtle perfume reaching me and combining with the dominion that her
eyes seemed to have established over me completed my subjugation. I was
as warm wax in her hands. Forgotten were all considerations of rank and
station. We were just a man and a woman whose fates were linked
irrevocably by love. I stooped suddenly, under the sway of an impulse, I
could not resist, and kissed her upturned face, turning almost dizzy in
the act. Then I broke from her clasp, and bracing myself for the task to
which we stood committed by that kiss--
"Paola," said I, "we must devise the means to get away. I will bear you
to my mother's home near Biancomonte, that you may dwell there at least
until we are wed. But the thing that exercises my mind is how to make
our unobserved escape from Pesaro."
"I have thought of it already," she informed me quietly.
"You have thought of it?" I cried. "And of what have you thought?"
For answer she stepped back a pace, and drew the cowl of the monk's habit
over her head until her features were lost in the shadows of it. She
stood before me now, a diminutive Dominican brother. Her meaning was
clear to me at once. With a cry of gladness I turned to the drawer whence
I had taken the habit in which she was arrayed, and selecting another one
I hastily donned it above the garments that I wore.
No sooner was it done than I caught her by the arm.
"Come, Madonna," I bade her in an urgent voice. At the first step she
stumbled. The habit was so long that it cumbered her feet. But that was
a difficulty soon conquered. With my dagger I cut a piece from the skirt
of it, enough to leave her freedom of movement; and, that accomplished, we
We crossed the church swiftly and silently, and a moment I left her in the
porch whilst I surveyed the street. All was quiet. Pesaro still slept,
and it must have wanted some two hours or more to the dawn.
A fine rain was falling as we sallied out, and there was a sting in the
December wind which made us draw our cowls the tighter about our face.
Abandoning the main street, I led her down some narrow alleys, deserted
like all the rest of the city, and not so much as a stray cat abroad in
that foul weather. It was very dark, and a hundred times we stumbled,
whilst in some places I almost carried her bodily to avoid the filth of
the quarter we were traversing. At length we gained the space in front of
the gates that open on to the northern road, known as Porta Venezia, and I
would have blundered on and roused the guard to let us out, using the
Borgia ring once more--that talisman whose power had grown during these
years, so that it would now open me almost any door in Italy. But Paola
stayed me. Wisely she counselled that we should do nothing that might
draw too much attention upon ourselves, and she urged me to wait until the
dawn, when the guard would be astir and the gates opened.
So we fled to the shelter of a porch, and there we waited, huddling
ourselves out of the reach of the icy rain. We talked little during the
time we spent there. For my own part I had overmuch food for thought, and