Part 4 out of 5
a very natural anxiety racked me. Soon the monks would be descending to
the church, and they would discover the havoc there, and spread the alarm.
Who could say but that they might even discover the abstraction of the two
habits from the sacristy, and the hue and cry for two men in the sackcloth
of Dominicans would be afoot--for they would infer that two men so
disguised had made off with the body of Madonna Paola. The thought
stirred me like a goad. I stood up. The night was growing thinner, and,
suddenly, even as I rose, a light gleamed from one of the Windows of the
"God be thanked for that fellow's early rising," I cried out. "Come,
Madonna, let us be moving."
And I added my newly-conceived reasons for quitting the place without
Cursing us for being so early abroad--a curse to which I responded with a
sonorous "Pax Domini sit tecum" the still somnolent sentinel opened the
post and let us pass. I was glad in the end that we had waited and thus
avoided the necessity of showing my ring, for should inquiries be made
concerning two monks, that ring of mine might have betrayed the identity
of one of them. I gave thanks to Heaven that I knew the country well. A
quarter of a league or so from Pesaro we quitted the high-road and took to
the by-paths with which I was well acquainted.
Day came, grey and forbidding at first, but presently the rain ceased and
the sun flashed out a thousand diamonds from the drenched hedge-rows.
We plodded on; and at length, towards noon, when we had gained the
neighbourhood of the village of Cattolica, we halted at the hut of a
peasant on a small campagna. I had divested myself of my monk's habit,
and cut away the cowl from Madonna's. She had thereafter fashioned it by
means that were mysterious to my dull man's mind into a more feminine-
Thus we now presented ourselves to the old man who was the sole tenant of
that lonely and squalid house. A ducat opened his door as wide as it
would go, and gave us free access to every cranny of his dwelling. Food
he procured us--rough black bread, some pieces of roasted goat, and some
goat's milk--and on this we regaled ourselves as though it had been a
ducal banquet, for hunger had set us in the mood to account anything
delicious. And when we had eaten we fell to talking, the old man having
left us to go about such peasant duties as claimed his attention, and our
talk concerned ourselves, our future first, and later on our past. I
remember that Madonna returned to the matter of the deception that I had
practised, seeking to learn what reasons had impelled me, and I answered
her in all truth.
"Madonna mia, I think it must have been to win your love. When Giovanni
Sforza bade me, with many a threat, to write those verses, I undertook the
task with ready gladness, for in its performance I was to pour out the
tale of the passion that was consuming my poor heart. It occurred to me
that if those verses were worthy, you might come to love their author for
their beauty, and so I strove to render them beautiful. It was the same
spirit urged me to don the Lord Giovanni's armour and fight in that
splendid if futile skirmish. Even as you had come to love the author for
his verses, so might you come to love the warrior for his valour. That
you should account the one and the other the work of Giovanni Sforza was
to me a little thing, since I was well content to think that you but loved
him because you accounted his the things that I had performed. Therefore
was I the one you truly loved, although you did not know it. Could you
but conceive what consolation that reflection was to me, you would deal
lightly with me for my deceit."
"I can conceive it," she answered, very gently, her eyes downcast; "and
now that I know the motives that impelled you, I almost love you for that
deceit itself, for it seems to me that it holds some quality well worthy
Such was our talk, all of a nature to help us to a better understanding of
each other, and all seeming to endear us more and more by showing us how
close the past had already drawn us.
Later I rose and announced my intention of adventuring into Cattolica,
there to procure her garments more seemly than those she wore, in which
she might journey on and come into the presence of my mother. Also, there
was in Cattolica a man I knew, of whom I hoped for the loan of enough
money to enable me to purchase mules, to the end that we might journey in
more dignity and comfort. It was then about the twentieth hour, and I
hoped to return by nightfall. I took my leave of Madonna, enjoining her
to rest and to seek sleep whilst I was absent; and with that I set out.
Cattolica was no more than a half-league distant, and I looked to reach it
in a half-hour or so. I fell into thought as I trudged along, and I was
building plans for the sunlit future that was to be ours. I was a man
transformed that day, and I could have sung in spite of the chill December
wind that buffeted me, so full of joy and gladness was my heart.
At Biancomonte I was likely to spend my days as little better than a
peasant, but surely a peasant's estate with such a companion as was to be
mine was preferable to an emperor's throne without her.
The bleak landscape seemed to me invested with a beauty that at no other
time I should have noticed. God was good. I swore a thousand times, the
world was a good world--so good that Heaven could scarce be better.
I had come, perhaps, the better half of the distance I had to travel, and
I was giving full rein to my joyous fancy, when suddenly I espied ahead a
company of horsemen. They were approaching me at a brisk pace, but I took
no thought of them, accounting myself secure from any molestation. If it
so happened that it was a search party from Pesaro, seeking two men
disguised as monks who had ravished the coffin of Madonna Paola di
Santafior, what should they want of Lazzaro Biancomonte? And so, in my
confidence, I advanced even as they trotted quickly towards me.
Not until they were within a matter of a hundred paces did I raise my eyes
to take their measure; and then I halted on my step, smitten of a sudden
by an unreasoning and unreasonable fear, to see at their head the bulky
form of the Governor of Cesena. He saw me, too, and, what was worse, he
recognised me on the instant, for he clapped spurs to his horse and came
at me as if he would ride me down. Within three paces of me he drew up
his steed. Whether the memory of the other two occasions on which I had
thwarted him arose now in his mind and made him wonder had not some
fatality brought me across his path again to send awry his pretty schemes
concerning Madonna Paula, I cannot say for certain; yet some suspicion of
it occurred to me and filled me with apprehension.
"Body of Bacchus!" he roared. "Is it truly you, Boccadoro?"
"They call me Biancomonte now, Magnificent," I answered him. But my tone
was respectful, for it could profit me nothing to incense him.
"A fig for what they call you," he snapped contemptuously. "Whence are
"From Pesaro," I answered truthfully.
"From Pesaro? But you are travelling towards it."
"True. I was making for Cattolica, but I missed my way in seeking to
shorten it. I am now returning by the high-road."
The explanation satisfied him on that point, and being satisfied, he asked
me when I had left Pesaro. A moment I hesitated.
"Late last night," said I at last. He looked, at me, my foolish
hesitation having perhaps unslipped a suspicion that was straining at its
"In that case," said he, "you can scarcely have heard the strange story
that is being told there?"
I looked at him, as if puzzled, for a second. "If you mean the story of
Madonna Paoia's end, I heard it yesterday."
"Why, what story was that?" quoth he in some surprise, his beetling brows
coming together in one broad line of fur.
I shrugged my shoulders. "Men said that she had been poisoned."
"Oh, that," he cried indifferently. "But men say to-day that her body was
stolen from the Church of San Domenico where it lay. An odd happening, is
it not?" And his eyes covered me in a fierce scrutiny that again
suggested to me those suspicions of his that I might be the man who had
anticipated him. I was soon to learn that he had more grounds than at
first I thought for those same suspicions.
"Odd, indeed," I answered calmly, for all that I felt my pulses quickening
with apprehension. "But is it true?" I added.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Rumour's habit is to lie," he answered. "Yet
for such a lie as that, so monstrous an imagination would be needed that,
rather, am I inclined to account it truth. There are no more poets in
Pesaro since you left. But at what hour was it that you quitted the
To hesitate again were to betray myself; it were to suggest that I was
seeking an answer that should sort well with the rest of my story.
Besides, what could the hour signify?"
"It would be about the first hour of night," I said. He looked at me with
"You must indeed have wandered from your road to have got no farther than
this in all that time. Perhaps you were hampered by some heavy burden?"
He leered evilly, and I turned cold.
"I was burdened with nothing heavier than this body of mine and a rather
"Where, then, have you tarried?"
At this I thought it time to rebel. Were I too meekly to submit to this
examination, my very meekness might afford him fresh grounds for doubts.
"Once have I told you," I answered wearily, "that I lost my way. And,
however much it may flatter me to have your Excellency evincing such an
interest in my concerns, I am at a loss to find a reason for it."
He leered prodigiously once more, and his eyebrows shot up to the level of
"I will tell you, brute beast," he answered me. "I question you because I
suspect that you are hiding something from me."
"What should I hide from your Excellency?"
He dared not enlighten me on that point, for should his suspicions prove
unfounded he would have uselessly betrayed himself.
"If you are honest, why do you lie?"
"I?" I ejaculated. "In what have I lied?"
"In that you have told me that you left Pesaro at the first hour of night.
At the third hour you were still in the Church of San Domenico, whither
you followed Madonna Paola's bier."
It was my turn to knit my brows. "Was I indeed?" quoth I. "Why, yes, it
may well be. But what of that? Is the hour in which I quitted Pesaro a
matter of such moment as to be worth lying over? If I said that I left
about the first hour, it is because I was under the impression that it was
so. But I was so distraught by grief at Madonna's death that I may have
been careless in my account of time."
"More lies," he blazed with sudden passion. "It may have been the third
hour, you say. Fool, the gates of Pesaro close at the second hour of
night. Where are your wits?"
Outwardly calm, but inwardly in a panic--more for Madonna's sake than for
my own--I promptly held out the hand on which I wore the Borgia ring. In
a flash of inspiration did that counter suggest itself to me.
"There is a key that will open any gate in Romagna at any hour."
He looked at the ring, and of what passed in his mind I can but offer a
surmise. He may have remembered that once before I had fooled him with
the help of that gold circlet; or he may have thought that I was secretly
in the service of the Borgias, and that, acting in their interests, I had
carried off Madonna Paola. Be that as it may, the sight of the ring threw
him into a fury. He turned on his horse.
"Lucagnolo!" he called, and a man of officer's rank detached himself from
the score of men-at-arms and rode forward. "Let six men escort me home
to Cesena. Take you the remainder and beat up the country for three
leagues about this spot. Do not leave a house outside Cattolica
unsearched. You know what we are seeking?"
The man inclined his head.
"If it is within the circle you have appointed, we will find it," he
"Set about it," was the surly command, and Ramiro turned again to me.
"You have gone a little pale, good Messer Boccadoro," he sneered. "We
shall soon learn whether you have sought to fool me. Woe betide you,
should it be so. We bear a name for swift justice at Cesena."
"So be it then," I answered as calmly as I might. "Meanwhile, perhaps you
will now suffer me to go my ways."
"The readier since your way must lie with ours."
"Not so, Magnificent, I am for Cattolica."
"Not so, animal," he mimicked me with elephantine grace, "you are for
Cesena, and you had best go with a good will. Our manner of constraining
men is reputed rude." He turned again. "Ercole, take you this man behind
you. Assist him, Stefano."
And so it was done, and a few minutes later I was riding, strapped to the
steel-clad Ercole, away from Paola at every stride. Thus at every stride
the anguish that possessed me increased, as the fear that they must find
her rose ever higher.
IN THE CITADEL OF CESENA
I will not harass you at any further length with the feelings that were
mine as we sped northward towards Cesena. If you are a person of some
imagination and not destitute of human sympathy you will be able to
surmise them; if you are not--why then, my tale is not for you, and it is
more than probable that you will have wearied of it and flung it aside
long before you reach this page.
We rode so hard that by sunset Cesena was in sight, and ere night had
fallen we were within the walls of the citadel. It was when we had
dismounted and I stood in the courtyard between Ercole and another of the
soldiers that Ramiro again addressed me.
"Animal," said he, "they tell me that I bear a name for harsh measures and
rough ways. You shall be a witness hereafter of how deeply I am maligned.
For instead of putting you to the question and loosening your lying tongue
with the rack, I am content to keep you a prisoner until my men return
with that which I suspect you to be hiding from me. But if I then
discover that you have sought to fool me, you shall flutter from Ramiro
del' Orca's flagstaff."
He pointed up to the tower of the Castle, from which a beam protruded,
laden at that moment with a ghastly burden just discernible in the
thickening gloom. He named it well when he called it his "flagstaff," and
the miserable banner of carrion that hung from it was a fitting pennon for
the ruthless Governor of Cesena. Worthy was he to have worn the silver
hauberk of Werner von Urslingen with its motto, "The enemy of God, of pity
and of mercy."
Forbidding, black-browed men caught me with rough hands and dragged me off
to a dank, unlighted prison, as empty of furniture as it was full of
noisome smells. And there they left me to my ugly thoughts and my deeply
despondent mood what time the Governor of Cesena supped with his officers
in the hall of the Castle.
Ramiro drank deep that night as was his habit, and being overladen with
wine it entered his mind that in one of his dungeons lay Lazzaro
Biancomonte, who, at one time, had been known as Boccadoro, the merriest
Fool in Italy. In his drunkenness he grew merry, and when Ramiro del'
Orca grew merry men crossed themselves and betook them to their prayers.
He would fain be amused, and to serve that end he summoned one of his
sbirri and bade the fellow drag Boccadoro from his dungeon and fetch him
into his presence.
When they came for me I turned cold with fear that Madonna was already
taken, and, by contrast with such a fear as that, the reflection that he
might carry out his threat to hang me from that black beam of his, faded
into insignificant proportions.
They ushered me into a great hall, not ill-furnished, the floor strewed
plentifully with rushes, and warmed by an enormous fire of blazing oak.
By the door stood two pikemen in armour, like a pair of statues; in the
centre of the floor was a heavy oaken board, laden now with flagons and
beakers, at which sat Ramiro with a pair of gossips so villainous to look
at, that the sight of them reminded me of the adage "God makes a man and
then accompanies him."
The Governor made a hideous noise at sight of me, which I was constrained
to accept as an expression of horrid glee.
"Boccadoro," said he, "do you recall that when last I had the honour of
being entertained by your pert tongue, I promised you that did you ever
cross my path again I would raise you to the dignity of Fool of my Court
Into what magniloquence does vanity betray us! His Court of Cesena! As
well might you describe a pig-sty as a bower of roses.
But his words, despite the unsavoury thing of which they seemed to hold a
promise, fell sweetly on my ear, inasmuch as for the time they relieved my
fears touching Madonna. It was not to advise me of her capture that he
had had me haled into his odious presence. I gathered courage.
"Have you not fools enough already at Cesena?" I asked him.
A moment he looked as if he were inclining to anger. Then he burst into a
coarse laugh, and turned to one of his gossips.
"Did I not tell you, Lampugnani, that his wit was quick and penetrating?
Hear him, rogue. Already has he discerned your quality." He laughed
consumedly at his own jest, and turning to me he pointed to a crimson
bundle on a chair beside me. "Take those garments," he roughly bade me.
"Go dress yourself in them, then come you back and entertain us."
Without answering him, and already anticipating the nature of the clothes
he bade me don, I lifted one of the garments from the heap. It was a
foliated jester's cap, with a bell hanging from every point, which gave
out a tinkling sound as I picked it up. I let it fall again as though it
had scorched me, the memory of what stood between Madonna Paola and me
rising like a warning spectre in my mind. I would not again defile myself
by the garb of folly; not again would I incur the shame of playing the
Fool for the amusement of others.
"May it please your Excellency to excuse me," I answered in a firm tone.
"I have made a vow never again to put on motley."
He eyed me sardonically for a moment, as if enjoying in anticipation the
pleasure of compelling me against my will. He sat back in his chair and
threw one heavily-booted leg across the other.
"In the Citadel of Cesena," said he, "we fear neither God nor Devil, and
vows are as water to us--things we cannot stomach. It does not please me
to excuse you."
I may have paled a little before the sinister smile with which he
accompanied his words, but I stood my ground boldly.
"It is not," said I, "a question of what a vow may be to you and yours,
but of what a vow is to me. It is a thing I cannot break."
"Sangue di Cristo!," he snarled, "we will break it for you, then--that or
your bones. Resolve yourself, beast, the motley or the rack--or yet, if
you prefer it, there is the cord yonder." And he pointed to the far end
of the chamber where some ropes were hanging from a pulley, the implements
of the ghastly torture of the cord. Of such a nature was this monster
that he made a torture-chamber of his dining-hall.
"Let the rogue make acquaintance with it," laughed Lampugnani, showing a
mouthful of yellow teeth behind the black beard that bushed his lips.
"I'll swear his dancing would afford us more amusement than his quips.
Swing him up, Illustrious."
But the Illustrious seemed to ponder the matter.
"You shall have five minutes in which to decide," he informed me
presently. "They say that I am cruel. Behold how patient is my clemency.
Five minutes shall you have where many another would hang you out of hand
for bearding him as you have done me."
"You may begin at once," said I. "neither five minutes nor five years
will alter my determination."
His brow grew black with anger. "We shall see," was all he said.
There was a silence now in which we waited, a storm of thoughts battling
in my mind. Presently Ramiro caught up one of the flagons and applied it
to his cup. It proved empty, and in a gust of passion he hurled it
against the wall where it burst into a thousand pieces. Clearly he was
very angry, and it taxed my wits to account for the little measure of
patience he was showing me.
"Beppo!" he called. A page lounging by the buffet sprang to attention.
He was a slender, rather delicate lad, fair of hair and blue of eyes, not
more than twelve years of age. An elderly man who stood beside him--one
Mariani, the seneschal of Cesena--stepped forward also, solicitude in his
"Bring me wine," bawled the ogre. "Must I tell you what I need? If you
do not put those eyes of yours to better service, I'll have them plucked
from your empty head. Bestir, animal."
The old man caught up a beaker from the buffet and handed it to the boy.
"Here, my son," said he. "Hasten to his Excellency."
The lad took the beaker from his father's hands, and trembling in his fear
of Ramiro's anger, he sprang forward to serve him. In his haste the poor
youth slipped in some grease that had clung to the rushes. In seeking to
recover himself he tripped over the feet of one of the halberdiers that
guarded me, and measured his length upon the floor at Ramiro's feet,
flooding the Governor's legs with the wine he carried.
How shall I tell you of the horror that was the sequel?
For just one instant Ramiro looked down at the sprawling lad, his eyes
glowing like a madman's. Then suddenly he rose, stooped, and set one hand
to the boy's belt, the other to the collar of his jerkin. Feeling himself
lifted, and knowing whose were the dread hands that held him, poor Beppo
uttered a single scream of terror. Then Ramiro swung him round with an
ease that displayed the man's prodigious strength. For just a second he
seemed to hesitate how to dispose of the human bundle that he held. Then,
as if suddenly taking his resolve, that devil hurled the lad across the
little intervening space, straight into the heart of the blazing fire.
Beppo hurtled against the logs with a sickening crash, and a thousand
sparks leapt up and vanished in the cavern of the chimney. Ramiro wheeled
sharply about, and snatching the pike from the hands of one of my guards,
he pinned down the poor body of the boy to make sure of his victim's
Away by the buffet old Mariani looked on with a face as grey as ashes, his
eyes protruding in horror at the thing they witnessed. One glimpse I had
of him, and I scarce know which was the sight that sickened me more, the
fathers anguish or the twitching limbs of the burning child. Two legs and
two arms protruded from the blaze and writhed and wriggled horribly what
time the flames peeled the garments from them and licked the flesh from
the bones. At length they fell still and sank down into the white heat of
the logs, a hideous, pungent odour spreading through the chamber. From
the old man by the buffet, who had stood spellbound during this ghastly
scene, there broke at last an anguished cry.
"Mercy, my lord, mercy!"
The Governor of Cesena straightened himself from his task, pulled the pike
from the flames, and restored it to the man-at-arms. Then turning to
"Fetch me wine," he bade him curtly, as he seated himself once more upon
the chair from which he had risen to perform that deed of ghastly
A torch spluttered suddenly in its sconce, and the fierce hissing of the
fire--like some monster licking its chops over a bloody meal--were the
only sounds that disturbed the stillness that ensued.
Every man there, including Ramiro's table companions, was white to the
lips; for accustomed though they might be to horrors in that brigand's
nest, this was a horror that surpassed anything they had ever witnessed.
The silence irked Messer Ramiro. He looked round from under his shaggy
brows, and he spluttered out an oath.
"Will you bring me this wine, pig?" he growled at the almost senseless
Mariani, and in his air and voice there was a promise of such terrific
things that the old man put aside his horror to make room for his fears,
and mechanically seizing another flagon he hurried forward to minister to
the wants of his fearful lord.
Ramiro eyed him with cynical amusement.
"Your hand shakes, Mariani," he derided him. "Are you cold? Go warm
yourself," he added, with a brutal laugh and a jerk of his thumb towards
My eyes have looked upon some gruesome sights, and I have heard such tales
of ruthless cruelty as you would deem almost passing possibility. I have
read of the awful doings of the Lord Bernabo Visconti at Milan in the
olden time, but I believe that compared with this monster of Cesena that
same Bernabo was no worse than a sucking dove. How it befell that men
permitted him to live, how it was that none bethought him to put poison in
his wine or a knife in his back, is something that I shall never wholly
understand. Could it be that these robbers of whom he made a hedge for
his protection were no better than himself, or was it that the man's
terrific brutality was on such a scale that it filled them with an almost
supernatural awe of him? To men better versed than am I in the mysterious
ways of human nature do I leave the answering of these questions.
The ogre turned his bloodshot eyes upon me, as with his hand he caressed
his tawny beard. He seemed to have cooled a little now, and to have
regained some mastery of his drunken self. Old Mariani tottered back to
his buffet, and stood leaning against it, his eyes wandering, with the
look of a man demented, to the fire that had devoured his child. There,
indeed, if he escaped the madness with which the poignancy of his grief
was threatening him, was a tool that might turn its edge against this
inhuman monster, this devil, this bloody carnifex of a Governor.
"Chance," said Ramiro, "has designed that you should see something of how
we deal with clumsy knaves at Cesena, Boccadoro. To disobedient ones I
can assure you that we are not half so merciful. There is no such short
shrift for them. You have had more than the time I promised you for
reflection. The garments await you yonder. Let us know--"
The door opened suddenly, and a servant entered.
"A courier from the Lord Vitellozzo Vitelli, Tyrant of Cittą di Castello,"
he announced, unwittingly breaking in upon Ramiro's words, "with urgent
messages for the high and Mighty Governor of Cesena."
On the instant Ramiro rose, the expression of his face changing from
cynical amusement to sober concern, the task upon which he was engaged
"Admit him instantly," he commanded. And whilst he waited he paced the
chamber in long strides, his chin thrust slightly forward, suggestive of
deep thought. And during that pause, I, too, was thinking. Not indeed of
him, nor vainly speculating upon such matters as might be involved in the
message, the announcement of which seemed so deeply to engage his mind,
but chiefly of my own and Madonna Paola's concerns.
It was not fear of what I had seen that now sent my thoughts into a new
channel and inspired me with the wisdom of obeying Ramiro del' Orca's
behest that I should don the hateful motley and play the Fool for his
diversion. It was not that I feared death; it was that I feared what the
consequences of my death might be to Paola di Santafior.
However desperate a position may seem, unlooked-for loopholes often
present themselves, and so long as we live and have sound limbs to aid us
to seize such opportunities as may offer, it is a weak thing utterly to
Was it, then, not better to submit to the shame of the motley once again
for a little time, when by so doing I might perhaps live to work my own
salvation, and Madonna's should she suffer capture, rather than stubbornly
to invite him to put me to death out of a feeling of false pride?
The very resolve seemed to lend me strength and to revive the hope that
lay moribund in my breast. And then, scarce was it taken, when the door
again opened, and a man, who was splashed from head to foot with mud, in
earnest of how hard he had ridden, was ushered in.
He advanced to Meser Ramiro, bowed and presented a package. Ramiro broke
the seal, and standing with his back to the fire, immediately in the light
shed by one of the wax torches, he read the letter. Then his eyes
wandered to the man who had brought it, and to me it seemed that they
dwelt particularly upon the hat the courier was holding in his hand.
"Take this good fellow to the kitchen," he bade the servant that had
introduced him, "let him be fed and rested." Then, turning to the man,
himself, "I shall require you to set out at daybreak with my answer," he
said; and so, with a wave of the hand, he dismissed him. As the messenger
departed Ramiro returned to the table, filled himself a cup of wine and
"What says the Lord Vitelli?" Lampugnani ventured to ask him.
"If he knew you," answered Ramiro, with a scowl, "he would counsel me to
strangle some of the over-inquisitive rascals that surround me."
"Over-inquisitive?" echoed Lampugnani boldly. "Body of God! It were
enough to wake the curiosity of an ecstatic hermit to have a mud-splashed
courier from Citta di Castello at Cesena three times within one little
Ramiro looked at him, and by his glance it was plain to see that the words
had jarred his temper. Whatever it was that Vitelli wrote to Ramiro, this
gentleman was not minded to divulge it.
"If you have supped, Lampugnani," said the Governor slowly, his eyes upon
his offending officer, "perhaps you will find some duty to perform ere you
seek your bed."
Lampugnani turned crimson, and for a moment seemed to hesitate. Then he
rose. He was a man of choleric aspect, and that he served under Ramiro
del' Orca was as much a danger to the Governor as to himself. He had not
the air of one whom it was wise to threaten in however veiled a manner.
"Shall I fetch you this fellow's hat ere I sleep?" he inquired, with
Not a word did Ramiro answer him, but his glance fastened upon Lampugnani
with an expression before which that impudent ruffian lowered his own bold
eyes. Thus for a moment; then with an awkward laugh to cover the
intimidation that he felt, Lampugnani walked heavily from the room and
banged the door after him.
There was about it all a strangeness that set my wits to work in a mighty
busy fashion. That work suffered interruption by the harsh voice of
"Are you resolved, Boccadoro?" he growled at me. "Have you decided for
the motley or the cord?"
Instantly I fell into the part I was to play.
"Did I choose the latter," said I, with an assumption of sudden airiness
and such a grimace as was part and parcel of my old-time trade, "then were
I truly worthy of the former, for I should have proved myself, indeed, a
fool. Yet if I choose the former, I pray that you'll not follow the same
course of reasoning, and hold me worthy of the latter."
When he had understood its subtleties; for his wits were of a quality that
would have disgraced a calf, he roared at the conceit, and seemingly
thrown into a better humour by the promise of more such entertainment, he
bade my guards release me, and urged me to assume the motley without more
What time I was obeying him my mind was returning to that matter of
Lampugnani's words, and it is not difficult to understand how I should
arrive at the only possible conclusion they suggested. The hats of the
other messengers from Vitelli, that the officer had mentioned, had been
brought to Ramiro. The reason for this that at once arose in my mind was
that within the messenger's hat there was a second and more secret
communication for the Governor.
This secrecy and Ramiro's display of anger at seeing a hint of it betrayed
by Lampugnani struck me, not unnaturally, as suspicious. What were these
hidden communications that passed between Vitellozzo Vitelli and the
Governor of Cesena? It was a matter of which I could not pretend to offer
a solution, but, nevertheless, it was one, I thought, that promised to
Ramiro grew impatient, and my reflections suffered interruption by his
rough command that I should hasten. One of the men-at-arms helped me to
truss my points, and when that was done I stepped forward--Boccadoro the
Fool once more.
For an hour or so that night I played the Fool for Messer Ramiro's
entertainment in a manner which did high justice to the fame that at
Pesaro I had earned for the name of Boccadoro.
Beginning with quip and jest and paradox, aimed now at him, now at the
officer who had remained to keep him company in his cups, now at the
servants who ministered to him, now at the guards standing at attention, I
passed on later to play the part of narrator, and I delighted his foul and
prurient mind with the story of Andreuccio da Perugia and another of the
more licentious tales of Messer Giovanni Boccacci. I crimson now with
shame at the manner in which I set myself to pander to his mood that with
my wit I might defend my life and limbs, and preserve them for the service
of my Holy Flower of the Quince in the hour of her need.
One man alone of all those present did I spare my banter. This was the
old seneschal, Miriani. He stood at his post by the buffet, and ever and
anon he would come forward to replenish Messer Ramiro's cup in obedience
to the monsters imperious orders.
What fortitude was it, I wondered, that kept the old man outwardly so
calm? His face was as the face of one who is dead, its features set and
rigid, its colour ashen. But his step was tolerably firm, and his hand
seemed to have lost the trembling that had assailed it under the first
shock of the horror he had witnessed.
As I watched him furtively I thought that were I Ramiro I should beware of
him. That frozen calm argued to me some terrible labour of the mind
beneath that livid mask. But the Governor of Cesena appeared insensible,
or else he was contemptuous of danger from that quarter. It may even have
delighted his outrageous nature to behold a man whose son he had done to
death with such brutality continue obedient and submissive to his will,
for it may have flattered his vanity by the concession that bearing seemed
to make to his grim power.
An hour went by, my second tale was done, and I was now entrancing Messer
Ramiro with some impromptu verses upon the divorce of Giovanni Sforza, a
theme set me by himself, when I was interrupted by the arrival of a
soldier, who entered unannounced.
I paled and turned cold at the cry with which Ramiro rose to greet him,
and the words he dropped, which told me that here was one of the riders of
the party that, under Lucagnolo, had been ordered to search the country
about Cattolica. Had they found Madonna?
"Messer Lucagnolo," the fellow announced, "has sent me to report to you the
failure of his search to the west and north of Cattolica. He has beaten
the country thoroughly for three leagues of the town on those two sides,
as you desired him, but unfortunately without result. He is now spreading
his search to the south, and not a house is being left unvisited. By
morning he hopes to report again to your Excellency."
A wild wave of joy swept through my soul. They had ransacked the country
west and north of Cattolica without result. Why then, assuredly, they had
missed the peasant's hut that sheltered her, and where she waited yet for
my return. Their search to the south I knew would prove equally futile.
I could have fallen on my knees in a prayer of thanksgiving had my
surroundings been other than they were.
Ramiro's eye wandered round to me and settled on me in a lowering glance.
By his face it was plain that the message disappointed him.
"I wonder," said he, "whether we could make you talk?" And from me his
eyes roamed on to the instrument of torture at the end of that long
chamber. I grew sick with fear, for if he were to do this thing, and maim
me by it, how should I avail myself or her hereafter?
"Excellency," I cried, "since you met me you have hinted at something that
I am hiding from you, at something touching which I could give you
information did I choose. What it may be passes all thought of mine. But
this I do assure you: no torture could make me tell you what I do not
know, nor is any torture needed to extract from me such information as I
may be possessed of. I do but beg that you wilt frankly question me upon
this matter, whatever it may be, and your Excellency shall be answered to
the best of my knowledge."
He looked at me as if taken aback a little by my assurance and the
seemingly transparent candour of my speech, and in his face I saw that he
believed me. A moment he hesitated yet; then--
"I am seeking knowledge concerning Madonna Paolo di Santafior," he said
presently, resuming, as he spoke, his seat at table. "As I told you, the
body, which was believed to be dead, was stolen in the night from San
Domenico. Know you aught of this?"
It may be an ignoble thing to lie, but with what other weapon was I to
fight this brigand? Surely if an exception can be made to the rule, and a
lie become a meritorious thing, such an occasion as this would surely
justify such an exception.
"I know nothing," I answered boldly, unhesitatingly, and even with a ring
of truth and sincerity that was calculated to convince, "nor can I even
believe this rumour. It is a wild story. That the body has been stolen
may be true enough. Such things occur; though he was a bold man who laid
hands upon the body of a person of such importance. But that she lives--
Gesu! that is an old wife's tale. I had, myself, the word of the Lord
Filippo's physician that she was dead."
"Nevertheless, this old wife's tale, as you dub it, is one of which I have
had confirmation. Lend me your wits, Boccadoro, and you shall not regret
it. Exercise them now, and conjecture me who could have abstracted the
body from the church. In seeking this information I am acting in the
interests of the noble House of Borgia which I serve and to which she was
to have been allied, as you well know."
I could have laughed to see how the apparent sincerity of my denial had
convinced him to such an extent that he even sought my help to discover
the true thief, and to account for his interest in the matter he lied to
me of his service to the House of Borgia.
"I will gladly lend you these wits," said I, "to disprove to you the
rumour of which you say that you have confirmation. Let us accept the
statement that the body has been stolen. That much, no doubt, is true,
for even rumours require some slight foundation. But who in all this
world could say that when the body was taken it was not dead? Clearly but
one man--he that administered the poison. And, I ask your Excellency,
would he be likely to tell the world what he had done?"
He might have answered me: "I am that man." But he did not. Instead, he
hung his head, as if pondering the words of wisdom I had uttered--words
meant to convince him of my own innocence in the matter; and this they
achieved, at least in part. He flashed me a look of sudden suspicion, it
is true; but it faded almost as soon as it shone from his brooding eye.
"Maybe I am a fool that I do not string you up and test the truth of what
you say," he grumbled. "But I incline to believe you, and you are a merry
rogue. You shall remain and have peace and comfort so long as you amuse
me. But tremble if I discover that you have sought to deceive me. You
shall have the cord first and other things after, and your death shall be
the thing you'll pray for long before it takes you from my vengeance. If
you know aught, speak now and you shall find me merciful. Your life and
liberty shall be the recompense of your honesty towards me."
"I repeat, Excellency," I answered, without changing colour, "that all
that I know have I already told you."
He was convinced, I think, for the time being.
"Get you gone, then," he bade me. "I have other business to deal with ere
I sleep. Mariani, see that Boccadoro is well lodged."
The old man bowed, and lifting a torch from its socket, he silently
motioned me to go with him. I made Messer Ramiro a profound obeisance,
and withdrew in the wake of the seneschal.
He led me up a flight of stairs that rose from the hall and along a
gallery that ran half round it, then plunging down a corridor he halted
presently, and, opening a door, ushered me into a tolerably furnished
A servant followed hanging the clothes that I had worn when I arrived.
The old man lingered a moment after the servant had withdrawn, and his
hollow eyes rested on me for a second. I thought that he was on the point
of saying something, and I waited returning his glance with one that
quailed before the anguish of his own. I feared to speak, to offer an
expression of the sympathy that filled my heart; for in that strange place
I could not tell how far a man was to be trusted--even a man so wronged as
this one. On his own part it may be that a like doubt beset him
concerning me, for in the end he departed as he had come, no word having
passed his ashen lips.
Left alone, I surveyed my surroundings by the light of the taper he had
left in the iron sconce on the wall. The single window overlooked the
courtyard, so that even had I been disposed and able to cut through the
iron that barred it, I should but succeed in falling into the hands of the
guards who abounded in that nest of infamy.
So that, for the night at least, the notion of flight must be abandoned.
What the morrow would bring forth we must wait and see. Perhaps some way
of escape would offer itself. Then my thoughts returned to Paola, and I
was tortured by surmises as to her fate, and chiefly as to how she could
have eluded the search that must have been made for her in the hut where I
had left her. Had the peasant befriended her, I wondered; and what did
she think of my protracted absence? I sat on the edge of the bed and gave
rein to my conjectures. The noises in the castle had all ceased, and
still I sat on, unconscious of time, my taper burning low.
It may have been midnight when I was startled by the sound of a stealthy
step in the corridor near my door. A heavy footfall I should have left
unheeded, but this soft tread aroused me on the instant, and I sat
It halted at my door, and was succeeded by a soft, scratching sound.
Noiselessly I rose, and with ready hands I waited, prepared, in the
instinct of self-preservation, to fall upon the intruder, however futile
the act might be. But the door did not open as I expected. Instead, the
scratching sound continued, growing slightly louder. Then it occurred to
me, at last, that whoever came might be a friend craving admittance, and
proceeding stealthily that others in the castle might not overhear him.
Swiftly I crossed to the door, and opened. On the threshold a dark figure
straightened itself from a stooping posture, and the light of the taper
behind me fell on a face of a pallor that seemed to glisten in its
intensity. It was the face of Mariani, the seneschal of the Castle of
One glance we exchanged, and intuitively I seemed to apprehend the motive
of this midnight visit. He came either to bring me aid or to seek mine,
with vengeance for his guerdon. I stood aside, and silently he entered my
room and closed the door.
"Quench your taper," he bade me in a husky whisper.
Without hesitation I obeyed him, a strange excitement thrilling me. For a
second we stood in the dark, then another light gleamed as he plucked away
the cloak that masked a lanthorn which he had brought with him. He set
the lanthorn on the floor, and held the cloak in his hand, ready at a
moment's notice to conceal the light in its folds. Then pulling me down
beside him on the bed, where he had perched himself:
"My friend," said he, "it may be that I bring you assistance."
"Speak, then," I bade him. "You shall not find me slow to act if there is
the need or the way."
"So I had surmised," he said. "Are you not that same Boccadoro, Fool of
the Court of Pesaro, who donned the Lord Giovanni's armour and rode out to
do battle in his stead?"
I answered him that I was that man.
"I have heard the tale," said he. "Indeed, all Italy has heard it, and
knows you for a man of steel, as strong and audacious as you are cunning
and resourceful. I know against what desperate odds you fought that day,
and how you overcame this terrible Ramiro. This it is that leads me to
hope that in the service of your own ends you may become the instrument of
"Unfold your project, man," I muttered, fiercely almost, in my burning
eagerness. "Let me hear what you would have me do."
He did not answer me until a sob had shaken his old frame.
"That boy," he muttered brokenly, "that golden-haired angel sent me for
the consolation of my decaying years, that lad whom Ramiro destroyed so
foully and wantonly, was my son. Futile though the attempt had proved, I
had certainly set my hands at the tyrants neck, but that I founded hopes
on you of a surer and more terrible revenge. That thought has manned me
and upheld me when anguish was near to slaying me outright. To see the
boy burn so under my very eyes! God of mercy and pity! That I should
have lived so long!"
"Your child burned but a moment, suffered but an instant; for the deed,
Ramiro will burn in Hell through countless generations, through
It was a paltry consolation, perhaps, but it was the best that then
occurred to me.
"Meanwhile," I begged him, "do you tell me what you would have me do."
I urged him to it that he might, thereby, suffer his mind to rest a moment
from pondering that ghastly thing that he had witnessed, that scene that
would live before his eyes until they closed in their last sleep.
"You heard Lampugnani quip Ramiro with the fact that three messengers have
ridden desperately within the week from Citta di Castello to Cesena, and
you heard, perhaps, his obscure reference to the hat?"
"I heard both, and both I weighed," said I. The old man looked at me as
"And what," he asked, "was the conclusion you arrived at?"
"Why, simply this: that whilst the messenger bore some letter from Vitelli
to Ramiro that should serve to lull the suspicions of any who, wondering
at so much traffic between these two, should be moved to take a peep into
those missives, the true letter with which the courier rides is concealed
within the lining of his hat--probably unknown even to himself."
He stared at me as though I had been a wizard.
"Messer Boccadoro--" he began.
"My name," I corrected him, "is Biancomonte--Lazzaro Biancomonte."
"Whatever be your name," he returned, "of the quality of your wits there
can be no question. You have guessed for yourself the half of what I was
come to tell you. Has your shrewdness borne you any further? Have you
concluded aught concerning the nature of those letters?"
"I have concluded that it might repay some trouble to discover what is
contained in letters that are sent with so much secrecy. I can conceive
nothing that might lie between the Lord of Citta di Castello and this
ruffian of Cesena, and yet--treason lurks often where least it is
expected, and treason makes stranger bed-fellows than misfortune."
"Lampugnani was no fool, and yet a great fool," the old man murmured. He
surmised what you have surmised. With each of the messengers Ramiro has
dealt in the same manner. He has sent each to be fed and refreshed whilst
waiting to return with the answer he was penning. For their refreshment
he has ordered a very full, stout wine--not drugged, for that they might
discover upon awaking; but a wine that of itself would do the work of
setting them to sleep very soundly. Then, when all slept, and only he
remained at table, like the drunkard that he is, it has been his habit to
descend himself to the kitchen and possess himself of the messenger's hat.
With this he has returned to the hall, opened the lining and withdrawn a
"Then, as I suppose, he has penned his answer, thrust it into the lining,
where the other one had been, and secured it, as it was before, with his
own hands. He has returned the hat to the place from whence he took it,
and when the courier awakens in the morning there is another letter put
into his hand, and he is bidden to bear it to Vitelli."
He paused a moment; then continued: "Lampugnani must have suspected
something and watched Ramiro to make sure that his suspicions were well
founded. In that he was wise, but he was a fool to allow Ramiro to see
what lie he had discovered. Already he has paid the penalty. He is lying
with a dagger in his throat, for an hour ago Ramiro stabbed him while he
I shuddered. What a place of blood was this! Could it be that Cesare
Borgia had no knowledge of what things were being performed by his
Governor of Cesena?
"Poor Lampugnani!" I sighed. "God rest his soul."
"I doubt but he is in Hell," answered Mariani, without emotion. "He was
as great a villain as his master, and he has gone to answer for his
villainy even as this ugly monster of a Ramiro shall. But let Lampugnani
be. I am not come to talk of him.
"Returning from his bloody act, Ramiro ordered me to bed. I went, and as
I passed Lampugnani's room I saw the door standing wide. It was thus that
I learnt what had befallen. I remembered his words concerning the hat and
I remembered old suspicions of my own aroused by the thought of the potent
wine which Ramiro had ordered me to see given to the couriers. I sped
back to the gallery that overlooks the hall. Ramiro was absent, and I
surmised at once that he was gone to the kitchen. Then was it that I
thought of you and of what service you might render if things were indeed
as I now more than suspected. Like an inspiration it came to me how I
might prepare your way. I ran down to the hall, sweating in my terror
that he should return ere I had performed the task I went on. From the
buffet I drew a flagon of that same stout wine that Ramiro used upon his
messengers. I ripped away the seal and crimson cord by which it is
distinguished, and placing it on the table I removed the flagon I had set
for him before I had first departed.
"Then I fled back to the gallery, and from the shadows I watched for his
return. Soon he came, bearing a hat in his hand; and from that hat he
took a letter, all as you have surmised. He read it, and I saw his face
lighten with a fierce excitement. Then he helped himself freely to wine,
and drank thirstily, for all that he was overladen with it. One of the
qualities of this wine is that in quenching thirst it produces yet a
greater. Ramiro drank again, then sat with the letter before him in the
light of the single taper I had left burning. Presently he grew sleepy.
He shook himself and drank again. Then again he sat conning his epistle,
and thus I left him and came hither in quest of you."
There followed a pause.
"Well?" I asked at length. "What is it you would have me do? Stab him as
He shook his head. "That were too sweet and sudden a death for him. If
it had been no more than a matter of that, my old arms would have lent me
strength enough. But think you it would repay me for having seen my boy
pinned by that monster's pike to the burning logs?"
"What is it, then, you ask of me?"
"If that letter were indeed the treasonable document we account it; if its
treason should be aimed at Cesare Borgia--it could scarce be aimed at
another--would it not be a sweet thing to obtain possession of it?"
"Aye, but when he wakes to-morrow and finds it gone--what then? You know
this Governor of Cesena well enough to be assured that he would ransack
the castle, torture, rack, burn and flay us all until the missive were
"That," he groaned, "is what deterred me. If I had the means of getting
the letter sent to Cesare Borgia, or of escaping with it myself from
Cesena, I should not have hesitated. Cesare Borgia is lying at Faenza,
and I could ride there in a day. But it would be impossible for me to
leave the place before morning. I have duties to perform in the town, and
I might get away whilst I am about them, but before then the letter will
have been missed, and no one will be allowed to leave the citadel."
"Why then," said I, "the only hope lies in abstracting that letter in such
a manner that he shall not suspect the loss; and that seems a very
We sat in silence for some moments, during which I thought intently to
"Does he sleep yet, think you?" I asked presently.
"Assuredly he must."
"And if I were to go to the gallery, is there any fear that I should be
discovered by others?"
"None. All at Cesena are asleep by now."
"Then," said I, rising, "let us take a look at him. Who knows what may
suggest itself? Come." I moved towards the door, and he took up his
lanthorn and followed me, enjoining me to tread lightly.
On tiptoe I crept down that corridor to the gallery above the banqueting-
hall, secure from sight in the enveloping darkness, and intent upon
allowing no sound to betray my presence, lest Ramiro should have awakened.
Behind me, treading as lightly, came Messer Mariani.
Thus we gained the gallery. I leaned against the stout oaken balustrade,
and looked down into the black pit of the hall, broken in the centre by
the circle of light from the two tapers that burnt upon the table. The
other torches had all been quenched.
At the table sat Messer Ramiro, his head fallen forward and sideways upon
his right arm which was outstretched and limp along the board. Before him
lay a paper which I inferred to be the letter whose possession might mean
I could hear the old man breathing heavily beside me as I leaned there in
the dark, and sought to devise a means by which that paper might be
obtained. No doubt it would be the easiest thing in the world to snatch
it away without disturbing him. But there was always to be considered
that when he waked and missed the letter we should have to reckon with his
measures to regain possession of it.
It became necessary, therefore, to go about it in a manner that should
leave him unsuspicious of the theft. A little while I pondered this,
deeming the thing desperate at first. Then an idea came to me on a
sudden, and turning to Mariani I asked him could he find me a sheet of
paper of about the size of that letter held by Ramiro. He answered me
that he could, and bade me wait there until he should return.
I waited, watching the sleeper below, my excitement waxing with every
second of the delay. Ramiro was snoring now--a loud, sonorous snore that
rang like a trumpet-blast through that vast empty hall.
At last Mariani returned, bringing the sheet of paper I had asked for, and
he was full of questions of what I intended. But neither the place nor
the time was one in which to stand unfolding plans. Every moment wasted
increased the uncertainty of the success of my design. Someone might
come, or Ramiro might awaken despite the potency of the wine he had been
given--for on so well-seasoned a toper the most potent of wines could have
but a transient effect.
So I left Mariani, and moved swiftly and silently to the head of the
I had gone down two steps, when, in the dark, I missed the third, the
bells in my cap jangling at the shock. I brought my teeth together and
stood breathless in apprehension, fearing that the noise might awaken him,
and cursing myself for a careless fool to have forgotten those infernal
bells. Above me I heard a warning hiss from old Mariani, which, if
anything, increased my dread. But Ramiro snored on, and I was reassured.
A moment I stood debating whether I should go on, or first return to
divest myself of that cap of mine. In the end I decided to pursue the
latter course. The need for swift and sudden movement might come ere I was
done with this adventure, and those bells might easily be the undoing of
me. So back I went to the surprise and infinite dismay of Mariani until I
had whispered in his ear the reason. We retreated together to the
corridor, and there, with his help, I removed my jangling headgear, which
I left him to restore to my chamber.
Whilst he went upon that errand I returned once more on mine, and this
time I gained the foot of the stairs without mishap, and stood in the
hall. Ramiro's back was towards me. On my right stood the tall buffet
from which the boy had fetched him wine that evening; this I marked out as
the cover to which I must fly in case of need.
A second I stood hesitating, still considering my course; then I went
softly forward, my feet making no sound in the rushes of the floor. I had
covered half the distance, and, growing bolder, I was advancing more
swiftly and with less caution, when suddenly my knee came in contact with
a three-legged stool that had been carelessly left where none would have
suspected it. The blow may have hurt afterwards, indeed, I was conscious
of a soreness at the knee; but at the moment I had no thought or care for
physical pain. The bench went over with a crash, and for all that the
rushes may have deadened in part the sound of its fall, to my nervous ear
it boomed like the report of a cannon through the stillness of the place.
I turned cold as ice, and the sweat of fear sprang out to moisten me from
head to foot. Instantly I dropped on all fours, lest Ramiro, awaking
suddenly, should turn; and I waited for the least sign that should render
advisable my seeking the cover of the buffet. In the gallery above I
could picture old Mariani clenching his teeth at the noise, his knees
knocking together, and his face white with horror; for Ramiro's snoring
had abruptly ceased. It came to an end with a choking catch of the
breath, and I looked to see him raise his head and start up to ascertain
what it was that had aroused him. But he never stirred, and for all that
he no longer snored, his breathing continued heavy and regular, so that I
was cheered by the assurance that I had but disturbed his slumber, not
Yet, since I had disturbed and lightened it, a greater precaution was now
necessary, and I waited there for some ten minutes maybe, a period that
must have proved a very eternity to the old man upstairs. At last I had
the reward of hearing the snoring recommence; lightly at first, but soon
with all its former fullness.
I rose and proceeded now with a caution that must guard me from any more
unlooked-for obstacles. Moreover, as I approached, the darkness was
dispelled more and more at every stride in the direction of the light. At
last I reached the table, and stood silent as a spectre at Ramiro's side,
looking down upon the features of the sleeping man.
His face was flushed, and his tawny hair tumbled about his damp brow; his
lips quivered as he breathed. For a moment, as I stood gazing on him,
there was murder in my mind. His dagger hung temptingly in his girdle.
To have drawn it and rid the world of this monster might have been a
worthy deed, acceptable in the eyes of Heaven. But how should it profit
me? Rather must it prove my destruction at the hands of his followers,
and to be destroyed just then, with Paola depending upon me, and life full
of promise once I regained my liberty, was something I had no mind to
My eyes wandered to the letter lying on the table. If this were of the
nature we suspected, it should prove a safer tool for his destruction.
To read it as it lay was an easy matter, and it came to me then that ere I
decided upon my course it might be well that I should do so. If by chance
it were innocent of treason, why, then, I might resort to the risk of that
other and more desperate weapon--his own dagger.
At the foot of the short flight of steps that led from the hall to the
courtyard I could hear the slow pacing of the sentry placed there by
Ramiro. But unless he were summoned, it was extremely unlikely that the
fellow would leave his post, so that, I concluded, I had little to fear
from that quarter. I drew back and taking up a position behind Ramiro's
chair--a position more favourable to escape in the untoward event of his
awaking--I craned forward to read the letter over his shoulder. I thanked
God in that hour for two things: that my sight was keen, and that
Vitellozzo Vitelli wrote a large, bold hand.
Scarcely breathing, and distracted the while by the mad racing of my
pulses, I read; and this, as nearly as I can remember, is what the letter
"ILLUSTRIOUS RAMIRO--Your answer to my last letter reached me safely, and
it rejoiced me to learn that you had found a man for our undertaking. See
that you have him in readiness, for the hour of action is at hand. Cesare
goes south on the second or third day of the New Year, and he has
announced to me his intention of passing through Cesena on his way, there
to investigate certain charges of maladministration which have been
preferred against you. These concern, in particular, certain
misappropriation of grain and stores, and an excessive severity of rule,
of which complaints have reached him. From this you will gather that out
of a spirit of self-defence, if not to earn the reward which we have bound
ourselves to pay you, it is expedient that you should not fail us. The
occasion of the Duke's visit to Cesena will be, of all, the most
propitious for our purpose. Have your arbalister posed, and may God
strengthen his arm and render true his aim to the end that Italy may be
rid of a tyrant. I commend myself to your Excellency, and I shall
anxiously await your news.
Here indeed were my hopes realised. A plot there was, and it aimed at
nothing less than the Duca Valentino's life. Let that letter be borne to
Cesare Borgia at Faenza, and I would warrant that within a dozen hours of
his receipt of it he would so dispose that all who had suffered by the
cruel tyranny of Ramiro del' Orca would be avenged, and those who were
still suffering would be relieved. In this letter lay my own freedom and
the salvation of Madonna Paula, and this letter it behoved me at once to
become possessed. It was a safer far alternative than that dagger of his.
A moment I stood pondering the matter for the last time, then stepping
sideways and forward, so that I was again beside him, I put out my hand
and swiftly whipped the letter from the table. Then standing very still,
to prevent the slightest rustle, I remained a second or two observing him.
He snored on, undisturbed by my light-fingered action.
I drew away a pace or two, as lightly as I might, and folding the letter I
thrust it into my girdle. Then from my open doublet I drew the sheet that
Mariani had supplied me, and, advancing again, I placed it on the table in
a position almost identical with that which the original had occupied,
saving that it was removed a half-finger's breadth from his hand, for I
feared to allow it actually to touch him lest it should arouse him.
Holding my breath, for now was I come to the most desperate part of my
undertaking, I caught up one of the tapers and set fire to a corner of the
sheet. That done, I left the candle lying on its side against the paper,
so as to convey the impression to him, when presently he awakened, that it
had fallen from it sconce. Then, without waiting for more, I backed
swiftly away, watching the progress of the flames as they devoured the
paper and presently reached his hand and scorched it.
At that I dropped again on all fours, and having gained the corner of the
buffet, I crouched there, even as with a sudden scream of pain he woke and
sprang upright, shaking his blistered hand. As a matter of instinct he
looked about to see what it was had hurt him. Then his eyes fell upon the
charred paper on the table, and the fallen candle, which was still burning
across one end of it, and even to the dull wits of Ramiro del' Orca the
only possible conclusion was suggested. He stared at it a moment, then
swept that flimsy sheet of ashes from the table with an oath, and sank
back once more into his great leathern chair.
"Body of God!" he swore aloud, "it is well that I had read it a dozen
times. Better that it should have been burnt than that someone should
have read it whilst I slept."
The idea of such a possibility seemed to rouse him to fresh action, for
seizing the fallen candle and replacing it in its socket, he rose once
more, and holding it high above his head he looked about the hall.
The light it shed may have been feeble, and the shadows about my buffet
thick; but, as I have said, my doublet was open, and some ray of that weak
candlelight must have found out the white shirt that was showing at my
breast, for with a sudden cry he pushed back his chair and took a step
towards me, no doubt intent upon investigating that white something that
he saw gleaming there.
I waited for no more. I had no fancy to be caught in that corner, utterly
at his mercy. I stood up suddenly.
"Magnificent, it is I," I announced, with a calm and boundless effrontery.
The boldness of it may have staggered him a little, for he paused,
although his eyes were glowing horribly with the frenzy that possessed
him, the half of which was drunkenness, the other fear and wrath lest I
should have seen his treacherous communication from Vitelli.
"What make you here?" he questioned threateningly.
"I thirsted, Excellency," I answered glibly. "I thirsted, and I bethought
me of this buffet where you keep your wine."
He continued to eye me, some six paces off, his half-drunken wits no doubt
weighing the plausibility of my answer. At last--
"If that be all, what cause had you to hide?" he asked me shrewdly.
"One of your candles fell over and awakened you," said I. "I feared you
might resent my presence, and so I hid."
"You came not near the table?" he inquired. "You saw nothing of the paper
that I held? Nay, by the Host! I'll take no risks. You were born 'neath
an unlucky star, fool; for be your reason for your presence here no more
than you assert, you have come in a season that must be fatal to you."
He set the candle on the table, then carrying his hand to his girdle he
withdrew it sharply, and I caught the gleam of a dagger.
In that instant I thought of Mariani waiting above, and like a flash it
came to me that if I could outpace this drunken brigand, and, gaining the
gallery well ahead of him, transfer that letter to the old man's hands, I
should not die in vain. Cesare Borgia would avenge me, and Madonna Paola,
at least, would be safe from this villain. If Mariani could reach
Valentino at Faenza, I would answer for it that within four-and-twenty
hours Messer Ramiro del' Orca would be the banner on that ghastly beam
that he facetiously dubbed his flagstaff; and he would be the blackest,
dirtiest banner that ever yet had fluttered there.
The thought conceived in the twinkling of an eye, I acted upon without a
second's hesitation. Ere Ramiro had taken his first step towards me, I
had sprung to the stairs and I was leaping up them with the frantic speed
of one upon whose heels death is treading closely.
A singular, fierce joy was blent with my measure of fear; a joy at the
thought that even now, in this extremity, I was outwitting him, for never
a doubt had he that the burnt paper he had found on the table was all that
was left of Vitelli's letter. His fears were that I might have read it,
but never a suspicion crossed his mind of such a trick as I had played
So I sped on, the gigantic Ramiro blundering after me, panting and
blaspheming, for although powerful, his bulk and the wine he had taken
left him no nimbleness. The distance between us widened, and if only
Mariani would have the presence of mind to wait for me at the mouth of the
passage, all would be as I could wish it before his dagger found my heart.
I was assuring myself of this when in the dark I stumbled, and striking my
legs against a stair I hurtled forward. I recovered almost immediately,
but, in my frenzy of haste to make up for the instant lost, I stumbled a
second time ere I was well upon my feet.
With a roar Ramiro must have hurled himself forward, for I felt my ankle
caught in a grip from which there was no escaping, and I was roughly and
brutally dragged back and down those stairs; now my head, now my breast
beating against the steps as I descended them one by one.
But even in that hour the letter was my first thought, and I found a way
to thrust it farther under my girdle so that it should not be seen.
At last I reached the hall, half-stunned, and with all the misery of
defeat and the certainty of the futility of my death to further torture my
last moments. Over me stood Ramiro, his dagger upheld, ready to strike.
"Dog!" he taunted me, "your sands are run."
"Mercy, Magnificent," I gasped. "I have done nothing to deserve your
He laughed brutally, delaying his stroke that he might prolong my agony
for his drunken entertainment.
"Address your prayers to Heaven," he mocked me, "and let them concern your
And then, like a flash of inspiration came the words that should delay his
"Spare me," I cried "for I am in mortal sin."
Impious, abandoned villain, though he was, he said too much when he
boasted that he feared neither God nor Devil. He was prone to forget his
God, and the lessons that as a babe he had learnt at his mother's knee--
for I take it that even Ramiro del' Orca had once been a babe--but deep
down in his soul there had remained the fear of Hell and an almost
instinctive obedience to the laws of Mother Church. He could perform such
ruthless cruelties as that of hurling a page into the fire to punish his
clumsiness; he could rack and stab and hang men with the least shadow of
compunction or twinge of conscience, but to slay a man who professed
himself to be in mortal sin was a deed too appalling even for this
He hesitated a second, then he lowered his hand, his face telling me
clearly how deeply he grudged me the respite which, yet, he dared not do
other than accord me.
"Where shall I find me a priest?" he grumbled. "Think you the Citadel of
Cesena is a monastery? I will wait while you make an act of contrition
for your sins. It is all the shrift I can afford you. And get it done,
for it is time I was abed. You shall have five minutes in which to clear
By this it seemed to me--as it may well seem to you--that matters were but
little mended, and instead of employing the respite he accorded me in the
pious collecting of thoughts which he enjoined, I sat up--very sore from
my descent of the stairs--and employed those precious moments in putting
forward arguments to turn him from, his murderous purpose.
"I have lived too ungodly a life," I protested, "to be able to squeeze
into Paradise through so narrow a tate. As you would hope for your own
ultimate salvation, Excellency, I do beseech you not to imperil mine."
This disposed him, at least, to listen to me, and proceeded to assure him
of the harmless nature of my visit to the hall in quest of wine to quench
my thirst. I was running the grave risk of dying with lies on my lips,
but I was too desperate to give the matter thought just then. His mood
seemed to relent; the delay, perhaps, had calmed his first access of
passion, and he was grown more reasonable. But when Ramiro cooled he was,
perhaps, more malignant than ever, for it meant a return to natural
condition, and Ramiro's natural condition was one of cruelty unsurpassed.
"It may be as you say," he answered me at last, sheathing his dagger, "and
at least you have my word that I will not slay you without first assuring
myself that you have lied. For to-night you shall remain in durance.
To-morrow we will apply the question to you."
The hope that had been reviving in my breast fell dead once more, and I
turned cold at that threat. And yet, between now and to-morrow, much
might betide, and I had cause for thankfulness, perhaps, for this respite.
Thus I sought to cheer myself. But I fear I failed. To-morrow he would
torture me, not so much to ascertain whether I had spoken truly, but
because to his diseased mind it afforded diversion to witness a man's
anguish. No doubt it was that had urged him now to spare my life and
accord me this merciless piece of mercy.
In a loud voice he called the sentry who was pacing below; and in a moment
the man appeared in answer to that summons.
"You will take this knave to the chamber set apart for him up there, and
you will leave him secure under lock and bar, bringing me the key of his
The fellow informed himself which was the chamber, then turning to me he
curtly bade me go with him. Thus was I haled back to my room, with the
promise of horrors on the morrow, but with the night before me in which to
scheme and pray for some miracle that might yet save me. But the days of
miracles were long past. I lay on my bed and deplored with many a sigh
that bitter fact. And if aught had been wanting to increase the weight of
fear and anguish on my already over-burdened mind, and to aid in what
almost seemed an infernal plot to utterly distract me, I had it in fresh,
wild conjectures touching Madonna Paola. Where indeed could she be that
Ramiro's men had failed to find her for all that they had scoured that
part of the country in which I had left her to wait for my return? What
if, by now, worse had befallen her than the capture with which Ramiro's
lieutenant was charged?
With such doubts as these to haunt me, fretted as I was by my utter
inability to take a step in her service, I lay. There for an hour or so
in such agony of mind as is begotten only of suspense. In my girdle still
reposed the treasonable letter from Vitelli to Ramiro, a mighty weapon
with which to accomplish the butcher's overthrow. But how was I to wield
it imprisoned here?
I wondered why Mariani had not returned, only to remember that the soldier
who had locked me in had carried the key of my prison-chamber to Ramiro.
Suddenly the stillness was disturbed by a faint tap at my door. My
instincts and my reason told me it must be Mariani at last. In an instant
I had leapt from the bed and whispered through the keyhole:
"Who is there?"
"It is I--Mariani--the seneschal," came the old man's voice, very softly,
but nevertheless distinctly. "They have taken the key."
I groaned, then in a gust of passion I fell to cursing Ramiro for that
"You have the letter?" came Mariani's voice again.
"Aye, I have it still," I answered.
"Have you seen what it contains?"
"A plot to assassinate the Duke--no less. Enough to get this bloody
Ramiro broken on the wheel."
I was answered by a sound that was as a gasp of malicious joy. Then the
old man's voice added:
"Can you pass it under the door? There is a sufficient gap."
I felt, and found that he was right; I could pass the half of my hand
underneath. I took the letter and thrust it through. His hands fastened
on it instantly, almost snatching it from my fingers before they were
ready to release it.
"Have courage," he bade me. "Listen. I shall endeavour to leave Cesena
in the morning, and I shall ride straight for Faenza. If I find the Duke
there when I arrive, he should be here within some twelve or fourteen
hours of my departure. Fence with Ramiro, temporise if you can till then,
and all will be well with you."
"I will do what I can," I answered him. "But if he slays me in the
meantime, at least I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that he will
not be long in following me."
"May God shield you," he said fervently.
"May God speed you," I answered him, with a still greater fervour.
That night, as you may well conceive, I slept but little, and that little
ill. The morning, instead of relieving the fears that in the darkness had
been with me, seemed to increase them. For now was the time for Mariani
to act, and I was fearful as to how he might succeed. I was full of
doubts lest some obstacle should have arisen to prevent his departure from
Cesena, and I spent my morning in wearisome speculation.
I took an almost childish satisfaction in the thought that since, being a
prisoner, I could no longer count myself the Fool of the Court of Cesena,
I was free to strip the motley and assume the more sober garments in which
I had been taken, and which--as you may recall--had been placed in my
chamber on the previous evening. It was the very plainest raiment. For
doublet I wore a buff brigandine, quilted and dagger-proof, and caught at
the waist by a girdle of hammered steel; my wine-coloured hose was stout
and serviceable, as were my long boots of untanned leather. Yet prouder
was I of this sober apparel than ever king of his ermine.
It may have been an hour or so past noon when, at last, my solitude was
invaded by a soldier who came to order me into the presence of the
Governor. I had been sitting at the window, leaning against the bars and
looking out at the desolate white landscape, for there had been a heavy
fall of snow in the night, which reminded me--as snow ever did--of my
first meeting with Madonna Paola.
I rose upon the instant, and my fears rose with me. But I kept a bold
front as I went down into the hall, where Ramiro and the blackguards of
his Court were sitting, with three or four men-at-arms at attention by the
door. Close to the pulleys appertaining to the torture of the cord stood
two leather-clad ruffians--Ramiro's executioners.
At the head of the board, which was still strewn with fragments of food-
for they had but dined--sat Ramiro del' Orca. With him were half a dozen
of his officers, whose villainous appearance pronounced them worthy of
their brutal leader. The air was heavy with the pungent odour of viands.
I looked round for Mariani, and I took some comfort from the fact that he
was absent. Might heaven please that he was even then on his way to
Ramiro watched my advance with a smile in which mockery was blent with
satisfaction, for all that of the resumption of my proper raiment he
seemed to take no heed. No doubt he had dined well, and he was now
disposing himself to be amused.
"Messer Bocadaro," said he, when I had come to a standstill, "there was
last night a matter that was not cleared up between us and concerning
which I expressed an intention of questioning you to-day. I should
proceed to do so at once, were it not that there is yet another matter on
which I am, if possible, still more desirous you should tell us all you
know. Once already have you evaded my questions with answers which at the
time I half believed. Even now I do not say that I utterly disbelieve
them, but I wish to assure myself that you told the truth; for if you
lied, why then we may still be assisted by such information the cord shall
squeeze from you. I am referring to the mysterious disappearance of
Madonna Paola di Santafior--a disappearance of which you have assured me
that you knew nothing, being even in ignorance of the fact that the lady
was not really dead. I had confidently expected that the party searching
for Madonna Paola would have succeeded ere this in finding her. But this
morning my hopes suffered disappointment. My men have returned empty-
handed once more."
"For which mercy may Heaven be praised!" I burst out.
He scowled at me; then he laughed evilly.
"My men have returned--all save three. Captain Lucagnolo with two of his
followers, has undertaken to go beyond the area I appointed for the
search, and to proceed to the village of Cattolica. While he is pursuing
his inquiries there, I have resolved to pursue my own here. I now call
upon you, Boccadoro, to tell us what you know of Madonna Paola's
"I know nothing," I answered stoutly. "I am prepared to take oath that I
know nothing of her whereabouts."
"Tell me, then, at least," said he, "where you bestowed her."
I shook my head, pressing my lips tight.
"Do you think that I would tell you if I had the knowledge?" was the
scornful question with which I answered him. "You may pursue your
inquiries as you will and where you will, but I pray God they may all
prove as futile as must those that you would pursue here and upon my own
This was how I fenced with him, this was the manner in which I followed
Mariani's sound advice that I should temporise! Oh! I know that my words
were the words of a fool, yet no fear that Ramiro would inspire me could
have restrained them.
There was a murmur at the table, and his fellows turned their eyes on
Ramiro to see how he would receive this bearding. He smiled quietly, and
raising his hand he made a sign to the executioners.
Rude hands seized me from behind, and the doublet was torn from my back by
fingers that never paused to untruss my points.
They turned me about, and hurried me along until I stood under the pulleys
of the torture, and one of the men held me securely whilst the other
passed the cords about my wrists. Then both the executioners stepped
back, to be ready to hoist me at the Governor's signal.
He delayed it, much as an epicure delays the consumption of a delectable
morsel, heightening by suspense the keen desire of his palate. He watched
me closely, and had my lips quivered or my eyelids fluttered, he would
have hailed with joy such signs of weakness. But I take pride in
truthfully writing that I stood bold and impassively before him, and if I
was pale I thank Heaven that pallor was the habit of my countenance, so
that from that he could gather no satisfaction. And standing there, I
gave him back look for look, and waited.
"For the last time, Boccadoro," he said slowly, attempting by words to
shake a demeanour that was proof against the impending facts of the cord,
"I ask you to remember what must be the consequences of this stubbornness.
If not at the first hoist, why then at the second or the third, the
torture will compel you to disclose what you may know. Would you not be
better advised to speak at once, while your limbs are soundly planted in
their sockets, rather than let yourself be maimed, perhaps for life, ere
you will do so?"
There was a stir of hoofs without. They thundered on the planks of the
drawbridge and clattered on the stones of the courtyard. The thought of
Cesare Borgia rose to my mind. But never did drowning man clutch at a
more illusory straw. Cold reason quenched my hope at once. If the
greatest imaginable success attended Mariani's journey, the Duke could not
reach Cesena before midnight, and to that it wanted some ten hours at
least. Moreover, the company that came was small to judge by the sound--a
half-dozen horses at the most.
But Ramiro's attention had been diverted from me by the noise. Half-
turning in his chair, he called to one of the men-at-arms to ascertain who
came. Before the fellow could do his bidding, the door was thrust open
and Lucagnolo appeared on the threshold, jaded and worn with hard riding.
A certain excitement arose in me at sight of him, despite my confidence
that he must be returning empty-handed.
Ramiro rose, pushed back his chair and advanced towards the new-comer.
"Well?" he demanded. "What news?"
"Excellency, the girl is here."
That answer seemed to turn me into stone, so great was the shock of this
sudden shattering of the confidence that had sustained me.
"My search in the country failing," pursued the captain, as he came
forward, "I made bold to exceed your orders by pushing my inquiries as far
as the village of Cattolica. There I found her after some little labour."
Surely I dreamt. Surely, I told myself, this was not possible. There was
some mistake. Lucagnolo had drought some wench whom he believed to be
But even as I was assuring myself of this, the door opened again, and
between two men-at-arms, white as death, her garments stained with mud and
all but reduced to rags, and her eyes wild with a great fear, came my
With a sound that was as a grunt of satisfaction, Ramiro strode forward to
meet her. But her eyes travelled past him and rested upon me, standing
there between the leather-clad executioners with the cords of the torture
pinioning my wrists, and I saw the anguish deepen in their blue depths.
Across the length of that hall our eyes met--hers and mine--and held each
other's glances. To me the room and all within it formed an indistinct
and misty picture, from out of which there clearly gleamed my Paola's
sweet, white face.
All at the table had risen with Ramiro, and now, copying their leader,
they bared their heads in outward token of such respect as certainly would
have been felt by any men less abandoned than were they before so much
saintly beauty and distress.
Lucagnolo had stepped aside, and Ramiro was now bowing low and
ceremoniously before Madonna. His face I could not see, since his back
was towards me, but his tones, as they floated across the hall to where I
stood, came laden with subservience.
"Madonna, I give praise and thanks to Heaven for this," said he. "I was
afflicted by the gravest misgivings for your safety, and I am more than
thankful to behold you safe and sound."
There was a hypocritical flavour of courtliness about his words, and a
mincing of his tones that suggested the efforts of a bull-calf to imitate
the warbling of a throstle.
Madonna paid him no heed; indeed, she appeared not to have heard him, for
her eyes continued to look past him and at me. At last her lips parted,
and although she scarcely seemed to raise her voice above a whisper, the
word uttered reached my ears across the stillness of the great room, and
the word was "Lazzaro!"
At mention of my name, and at the tone in which it was uttered--a tone
that betrayed same measure of what was in her heart--Ramiro wheeled
sharply in my direction, his brows wrinkling. A certain craftiness he
had, for all that I ever accounted him the dullest-witted clod that ever
rose to his degree of honour. He must have realised how expedient it was
that in all he did he should present himself to Madonna in a favourite
"Release him," he bade the executioners that held me, and in an instant I
was set free. The order given, he turned again to Madonna.
"You have been torturing him," she cried, and her words were hard and
fierce, her eyes blazing. "You shall repent it, Ser Ramiro. The Lord
Cesare Borgia shall hear of it."
Her anger betrayed her more and more, and however hidden it may have been
to her, to me it was exceeding clear that she was encompassing my
destruction. Ramiro laughed easily.
"Madonna, you are at fault. We have not been torturing him, though I
confess that we were on the point of putting him to the question. But
your timely arrival has saved his limbs, for the question we were asking
him concerned your whereabouts!"
I would have shouted to her to be wary how she answered him, for some
premonition how he was about to trick her entered my mind. But realising
the futility of such a course, I held my peace and waited agonisedly.
"You had tortured him in vain then," she answered scornfully. "For
Lazzaro Biancomonte would never have betrayed me. Nor could he have
betrayed me if he would, for after your men had searched the hut in which
I was hidden, I walked to Cattolica thinking foolishly that I should be
Lackaday! She had told him the very thing he had sought to know. Yet to
make doubly sure he pursued the scent a little farther.
"Indeed it seems to me that had I tortured him I had given him no more
than he deserved for having abandoned you in that hut. Madonna, I tremble
to think of the harm that might have come to you through that knave's
desertion." And he scowled across at me, much as the Pharisee might have
scowled upon the publican.
"He is no knave," she answered, and I could have groaned to hear her
working my undoing, though not by so much as a sign might I inspire her
with caution, for that sign must have been seen by others. "Nor did he
abandon me. He left me only to go in quest of the necessaries for our
journey. If harm has come to me the blame of it must not rest on him."
"Of what harm do you speak, Madonna?" he cried, in a voice laden with
"Of what harm," she echoed, eyeing him with a scorn that would have slain
him had he any manhood left. "Of what harm? Mother of Mercy, defend me!
Do you ask the question? What greater harm could have come to me than to
have fallen into the hands of Ramiro del' Orca and his brigands?"
He stood looking at her, and I doubt not that his face was a very picture
of simulated consternation.
"Surely, Madonna, you do not understand that we are your friends, that you
can so abuse us. But you will be faint, Madonna," he cried, with a fresh
and deep solicitude. "A cup of wine." And he waved his hand towards the
"It would poison me, I think," she answered coldly.
"You are cruel, and--alas!--mistrustful," said he. "Can you guess nothing
of the anxiety that has been mine these two days, of the fears that have
haunted me as I thought of you and your wanderings?"
Her lip curled, and her face took on some slight vestige of colour. Her
spirit was a thing for which I might then have come to love her had it not
been that already I loved her to distraction.
"Yes," said she, "I can guess something of your dismay when you found your
schemes frustrated; when you found that you had come too late to San
"Will you not forgive me that shift to which my adoration drove me?" he
implored, in a honeyed voice--and a more fearful thing than Ramiro the
butcher was Ramiro the lover.
At that scarcely covert avowal of his passion she recoiled a step as she
might before a thing unclean. The little colour faded from her cheek, the
scorn departed from her lip, and a sickly, deadly fear overspread her
lovely face. God! that I should stand there and witness this insult to
the woman I adored and worshipped with a fervour that the Church seeks to
instil into us for those about the throne of Heaven. It might not be. A
blind access of fury took me. Of the consequences I thought nothing.
Reason left me utterly, and the slight hope that might lie in temporising
Before those about me could guess my purpose, or those others, too
engrossed in the scene at the far end of the hall, could intervene, I had
sprung from between the executioners and dashed across the space that
separated me from the Governor of Cesena. One well-aimed blow, and there
should be an end to Messer Ramiro. That was the only thought that found
room in my disordered mind.
One or two there were who cried out as I sped past them, swift as the
hound when it speeds after the fleeing hare. But I was upon Ramiro ere
any could have sufficiently mastered his surprise to interfere.
By the nape of his great neck I caught him from behind, and setting my
knee at his spine I wrenched him backward, and so flung him over on the
floor. Down I went with him, my hand reaching for the dagger at his
jewelled girdle, and I had found and drawn it in that swift action of mine
ere he had bethought him of his hands. Up it flashed and down. I sank it
through the crimson velvet of his rich doublets straight at the spot where
his heart should be--if he were so human as to have a heart. The next
instant I turned cold and sick. My desperate effort had been all for
nothing. In my hand I was left with the bronze hilt of his great poniard;
the blade had broken off against the mesh of steel the coward wore beneath
There was a rush of feet about us, a piercing scream from Madonna Paola,
and it was to her that I owed my life in that grim moment. A dozen blades
were naked and would have transfixed me as I lay, but that she covered my
body with her own and bade them strike at me through her.
A moment later and the powerful hands of the Governor of Cesena were at my
throat. I was lifted and tossed aside, as though I had been a hound and
he the bull I had beset. And as he swung me over and crushed me to the
ground, he knelt above me and grinned horribly into my purpling face.
A second we stayed so, and I thought indeed that my hour was come, when
suddenly I felt the blood in my head released once more. He had taken his
hands from my throat. He seized me now by the collar and dragged me
rudely to my feet.
"Take this knave and lock him in his chamber," he bade a couple of his
bravi. "I may have need of him ere he dies."
"Messer Ramiro," came the interceding voice of Madonna Paola, "what he
did, he did for me. You will not let him die for it?"
There was a pause during which he looked at her, whilst the men were
roughly dragging me across the hall.
"Who knows, Madonna?" he said, with a bow and an infernal smile. "If you
were to beg his life, it might even come to pass that I might spare it."
He did not wait for her answer, but stepping after me he called to the men
that led me. In obedience they halted, and he came forward. We were now
at the foot of the staircase.
"Boccadoro," said he, planting himself before me, and eyeing me with eyes
that were very full of malice, "you will recall the punishment I promised
you if I came to discover it was you had thwarted me in Pesaro. It is the
second time you have fooled Ramiro del' Orca. There does not live the man
who can boast that he did it thrice, nor will I risk it that you be that
man. Make your peace with Heaven, for at sunset--in an hour's time--you
hang. There is one little thing that might save you even yet, and if you
find life sweet, you would do well to pray that that little thing may come
I answered him nothing, but I bowed my head in token that I had heard and
he signed to the men to proceed with me, whilst turning on his heel he
stepped down the hall again to where Madonna Paola, overcome with
weakness, had sunk upon a stool.
As I was leaving the gallery I had a last glimpse of her, sitting there
with drawn face and haggard eyes that followed me as I passed from her
sight, whilst Ramiro del' Orca stood beside her murmuring words that did
not reach me. His so-called courtiers and his men-at-arms were trooping
out of the room, no doubt in obedience to his dismissal.
I have heard tell of the calm that comes upon brave men when hope is dead
and their doom has been pronounced. Uncertainty may have tortured and
made cowards of them; but once that uncertainty is dissolved and suspense
is at an end, resignation enters their soul, and, possessing it, gives to
their bearing a noble and dignified peace. By the mercy of Heaven they
are made, maybe, to see how poor and evanescent a thing is life; and they
come to realise that since to die is a necessity there is no avoiding, as
well might it betide to-day as ten years hence.
Such a mood, however, came not to soothe that last hour of mine, and yet I
account myself no coward. It was an hour of such torture and anguish as
never before I had experienced--much though I had undergone--and the
source of all my suffering lay in the fact that Madonna Paola was in the
hands of the ogre of Cesena. Had it not been for that most untoward
circumstance I almost believe that while I waited for the sun to set on
that December afternoon, my mood had not only been calm but even in some
measure joyous, for it must have comforted my last moments to reflect that
for all that Messer Ramiro was about to hang me, yet had I sown the seeds
of his own destruction ere he had brought me to this pass.
I did, indeed, reflect upon it, and it may even be that, in spite of all,
I culled some grain of comfort from the reflection. But let that be. My
narrative would drag wearily were I to digress that I might tell you at
length the ugly course of my thoughts whilst the sands of my last hour
were running swiftly out. For, after all, my concern and yours is with
the story of Lazzaro Biancomonte, sometime known as Boccadoro the Fool,
and not with his philosophies--philosophies so unprofitable that it can
benefit no man that I should set them down.
My windows faced west, and so I was able to watch the fall of the sun, and
measure by its shortening distance from the horizon the ebbing of my poor
life. At last the nether rim of that round, fiery orb was on the point of
touching the line of distant hills, and it was casting a crimson glow
along the white, snow-sheeted landscape that was singularly suggestive of
a tide of blood--a very fitting tide to flow and ebb about the walls of
the Castle of Cesena.
One little thing there was might save me, Ramiro had said. But I had shut
the thought out of my mind to keep me from utter distraction. The only
little thing in which I held that my salvation could lie would be in the
miraculous arrival of Cesare Borgia, and of that not the faintest hope
existed. If the greatest luck attended Mariani's errand and the greatest
speed were made by the Duke once he received the letter, he could not
reach Cesena in less than another eight hours. And another eight minutes,
to reckon by the swift sinking of the sun would see the time appointed for
my hanging. I thought of Joshua in that grim hour, and in a mood that
approached the whimsical I envied him his gift. If I could have stayed
the setting of the sun, and held it where it was till midnight, all might
yet be well if Mariani had been diligent and Cesare swift.
The key grating in the lock put an end to my vague musings, and reminded
me of the fact that I had neglected to employ that last hour as would have
become a good son of Mother Church. For an instant I believe that my
heart turned me to thoughts of God, and sent up a prayer for mercy for my
poor sinful soul. Then the door swung wide. Two halberdiers and a
carnifex in his odious leathern apron stood before me. Clearly Ramiro
sought to be exact, and to have me hanging the instant the sun should
"It is time," said one of the soldiers, whilst the executioner, stepping
into my chamber, pinioned my wrists behind me, and retaining hold of the
cord bade me march. He followed, holding that slender cord, and so, like
a beast to the shambles, went I.
Once more they led me into the hall, where the shadows were lengthening in
dark contrast to the splashes of sunlight that lingered on the floor, and
whose blood-red hue was deepened by the gules of the windows through which
it was filtered.
Ramiro was waiting for me, and six of his officers were in attendance.
But, for once, there were no men-at-arms at hand. On a chair, the one
usually occupied by Ramiro, himself, sat Madonna Paola, still in her torn
and bedraggled raiment, her face white, her eyes wild as they had been
when first she had been haled into Ramiro's presence, some two hours ago,
and her features so rigidly composed that it told the tale of the awful
self-control she must be exerting--a self-control that might end with a
sudden snap that would plunge her into madness.
A wild rage possessed me at sight of her. Let Ramiro be ruthless and
cruel where men were concerned; that was a thing for which forgiveness
might be found him. But that he should submit a lady, delicately nurtured
as was Madonna, to such horrors as she had undergone since she had
awakened from his sleeping-potion in the Church of San Domenico, was
something for which no Hell could punish him condignly.
Ramiro met me with a countenance through the assumed gravity of which I
could espy his wicked, infernal mockery peeping forth.
"I deplore your end, Lazzaro Biancomonte," said he slowly, "for you are a
brave man, and brave men are rare. You were worthy of better things, but
you chose to cross swords with Ramiro del' Orca, and you have got your
death-blow. May God have mercy on your soul."
"I am praying," said I, "for just so much mercy as you shall have justice.
If my prayer is heard, I should be well-content."
He changed countenance a little. So, too, I thought, did Madonna Paola.
My firmness may have yielded her some grain of comfort. Ramiro set his
hands on his hips, and eyed me squarely.
"You are a dauntless rogue," he confessed.
I laughed for answer, and in that moment it entered my mind that I might
yet enjoy some measure of revenge in this life. More than that, I might
benefit Madonna. For were the seed I was about to sow to take root in the
craven heart of Ramiro del' Orca, it would so fully occupy his mind that
he would have little time to bestow on Paola in the few hours that were
left him. But before I could bethink me of words, he was speaking again.
"I held out to you a slender hope," said he. "I told you that there was
one little thing might save you. That hope has borne no fruit; the little
thing, I spoke of has not come to pass. It rested with Madonna Paola,
here. She had it in her hands to effect your salvation, but she has
refused. Your blood rests on her head."
She shuddered at the words, and a low moan escaped her. She covered her
face with her hands. A moment I stood looking at her; then I shifted my
glance to Ramiro.
"Will it please you, Illustrious, to allow me a few moments' conversation
with Madonna Paola di Santafior?"
I invested my tones with a weight of meaning that did not escape him. His
face suddenly lightened; whilst one of his officers--a fellow very fitly
named Lupone--laughed outright.
"Your hero seems none so heroic after all," he said derisively to the
Governor. "The imminence of death makes him amenable."
Ramiro scowled on him for answer. Then, turning to me--"Do you think you
could bend her stubbornness?" quoth he.