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The Shame of Motley by Raphael Sabatini

Part 5 out of 5

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"I might attempt it," answered I.

His eyes flashed with evil hope; his lips parted in a smile. He shot a
glance at Madonna, who had withdrawn her hands from her face and was
regarding me now with a strange expression of horror and incredulity--
marvelling, no doubt, to find me such a craven as I must have seemed.

Ramiro looked at the diminishing sunlight on the floor.

"In some five minutes the sun will have completely set," said he. "Those
five minutes you shall have to seek to enlist Madonna's aid on your
behalf. If you succeed--and she may tell you on what terms you are to
have your life--you shall depart from Cesena to-night a free man."

He paused a moment, and his eyes, lighted by an odious smile, rested once
more on Madonna Paula. Then he bade all withdraw, and went with them into
an adjoining chamber, fondly nurturing the hopes that were begotten of his
belief that Lazzaro Biancomonte was a villain.

When we were alone, she and I, I stood a moment where they had left me, my
hands pinioned behind me, and the cord which the executioner had held
trailing the ground like a lambent tail. Then I went slowly forward until
I stood close before her. Her eyes were on my face, still with that same
look of unbelief.

"Madonna mia," said I, "do not for an instant think that it is my purpose
to ask of you any sacrifice that might save my worthless life. Rather was
my purpose in seeking these few moments with you, to strengthen and
encourage you by such news as it is mine to bring."

She looked now as if she scarcely understood.

"If I will wed him to-night, he has promised that you shall go free," she
said in a whisper. "He says that he can bring a priest from the
neighbourhood at a moment's notice."

"Do not heed him," I cried sternly.

"I do not heed him," said she, more composedly. "If he seeks to force me,
I shall find a way of setting myself free. Dear Mother of Heaven! death
were a sweet and restful thing after all that I have suffered in these

Then she fell suddenly to weeping.

"Think me not an utter coward, Lazzaro. Willingly would I do this thing
to save so noble a life as yours, did I not think that you must hate me
for it. I was stout and firm in my refusal, confident that you would have
had me so. Was I not right, my poor, poor Lazzaro?"

"Madonna, you were right," I answered firmly and calmly.

"And you are to die, amor mio," she murmured passionately. "You are to
die when the promise of happiness seemed held out to us. And yet, were
you to live at the price at which life is offered you, would your life be
endurable? Tell me the truth, Lazzaro; swear it to me. For if life is
the dearer thing to you, why then, you shall have your life."

"Need you ask me, Paola?" questioned I. "Does not your heart tell you how
much easier is death than would be such life as I must lead hereafter,
even if we could trust Ramiro, which we cannot. Be brave, Madonna, and
help me to be brave and to bear thyself with a becoming fortitude. Now
listen to what I have to tell you. Ramiro del' Orca is a traitor who is
plotting the death of his overlord. Proofs of it are by now in the hands
of Cesare Borgia, and in some seven or eight hours the Duke himself should
be here to put this monster to the question touching these matters. I
will say a word in his ear ere I depart that will fill his mind with a
very wholesome fear, and you will find that during the few hours left him
he will have little leisure to think of you and afflict you with his
odious wooing. Be strong, then, for a little while, for Cesare is coming
to set you free."

She looked at me now with eyes that were wide open. Suddenly--

"Could we not gain time?" she cried, and in her eagerness she rose and set
her hands upon my shoulders. "Could I not pretend to acquiesce to his
wishes, and so delay your end?"

"I have thought of it," I answered gloomily, "but the thought has brought
me no hope. Ramiro is not to be trusted. He might tell you that he sets
me free, but he dare not do so; he fears that I may have knowledge of his
dealings with Vitelli, and assuredly he would break faith with us. Again
the coming of the Duke might be delayed. Alas!" I ended in despair,
"there is nothing to be done but to let things run their course."

There was even more in my mind than I expressed. My mistrust of Ramiro
went further than I had explained, and concerning Madonna more closely
than it did me.

"Nay, Lazzaro mine," she still protested, "I will attempt it. It is, at
least, well worth the risk.

"You forget," said I, "that even when Cesare comes we cannot say how he
will bear himself towards you. You were to have been betrothed to his
cousin, Ignacio. It is a matter upon which he may insist."

She looked at me for a moment with anguish in her eyes that turned my
misery into torture.

"Lazzaro," she moaned, "was ever woman so beset! I think that Heaven must
have laid some curse upon me."

Her face was close to mine. I stooped forward and kissed her on her brow.

"May God have you in His keeping, Madonna mia," I murmured. "The sun is

"Lazzaro!" It was the cry of a breaking heart. Her arms went round my
neck, and in a passion of grief her kisses burned on my lips.

Then the door of the anteroom opened--and I thanked God for the mercy of
that interruption. I whispered a word to her, and in obedience she sprang
back, and sank limp and broken on the chair once again.

Ramiro entered, his men behind him, his face alit with eagerness. There
and then I swamped his hopes.

"The sun is gone, Magnificent," said I. "You had best get me hanged."

His brow darkened, for there was a note of mockery and triumph in my

"You have fooled me, animal," he cried. His jaw set, and his eyes
continued to regard me with an evil glow. Then he laughed terribly,
shrugged his shoulders, and spoke again. "After all, it shall avail you
little." He turned to the carnifex. "Federigo, do your work," said he,
whereupon the fellow stepped behind me, and the halberdiers ranged
themselves one on either side of me again.

"A word ere I go, Messer del' Orca," I demanded insolently.

He looked at me sharply, wondering, maybe, at the fresh tone I took.

"Say it and begone," he sullenly permitted me.

I paused a moment to choose fitting words for that portentous death-song
of mine. At length--

"You boasted to me a little while ago," said I, smiling grimly, "that the
man did not live who had thrice fooled you. That man does live, for that
man am I."

"Bah!" he returned contemptuously, thinking, no doubt, that I referred to
my interview with Madonna Paola. "You may take what pride you will from
such a thought. You are upon the threshold of death."

"True, but the thought is one that affords me more comfort and joy than
pride. As much comfort and joy as you shall take horror when I tell you
in what manner I have fooled you." I paused to heighten the sensation of
my words.

"To such good purpose have I used my wits that ere another sun shall rise
and set you will have followed me along the black road that I am now
treading--the road whose bourne is the gallows. Bethink you of the
charred paper that last night you brushed from this table when you awoke
to find a candle fallen on the treacherous letter Vitellozzo Vitelli sent
you in the lining of a hat."

His jaw fell, his face flamed redder than ever for a second, then it went
grey as ashes.

"Of what do you prate, fool?" he questioned huskily, seeking to bluster it
before the startled glances of his officers.

"I speak," said I, "of that charred paper. It was I who laid the candle
across it; but it was a virgin sheet I burned. Vitelli's letter I had
first abstracted."

"You lie!" he almost screamed.

"To prove that I do not, I will tell you what it contained. It held proof
that bribed by the Tyrant of Citta di Castello you had undertaken to pose
an arbalister to slay the Duke on the occasion of his coming visit to

He glared at me a moment in furious amazement. Then he turned to his

"Do not heed him," he bade them. "The dog lies to sow doubts in your
minds ere he goes out to hang. It is a puerile revenge."

I laughed with amused confidence. There was one among them had heard
Lampugnani's words touching the messenger's hat--words that had cost the
fellow his life. But my concern was little with the effect my words might
produce upon his followers.

"By to-morrow you will know whether I have lied or not. Nay, before then
shall you know it, for by midnight Cesare Borgia should be at Cesena.
Vitellozzo Vitelli's letter is in his hands by now."

At that Ramiro burst into a laugh. So convinced was he of the
impossibility of my having got the letter to the Duke, even if what I had
said of its abstraction were true, that he gathered assurance from what
seemed to him so monstrous an exaggeration.

"By your own words are you confounded," said he. "Out of your own mouth
have you proven your lies. Assuming that all you say were true, how could
you, who since last night have been a prisoner, have got a messenger to
bear anything from you to Cesare Borgia?"

I looked at him with a contemptuous amusement that daunted him.

"Where is Mariani?" I asked quietly. "Where is the father of the lad you
so brutally and wantonly slew yesternight? Seek him throughout Cesena,
and when you find him not, perhaps you will realise that one who had seen
his own son suffer such an outrageous and cruel death at your brigand's
hands would be a willing and ready instrument in an act that should avenge

Vergine santa! What a consternation was his. He must have missed Mariani
early in the day, for he took no measure, asked no questions that might
confirm or refute the thing I announced. His face grew livid, and his
knees loosened. He sank on to a chair and mopped the cold sweat from his
brow with his great brown hand. No thought had he now for the eyes of his
officers or their opinions. Fear, icy and horrid, such fear as in his
time he had inspired in a thousand hearts was now possessed of his. Sweet
indeed was the flavour of my vengeance.

His officers instinctively drew away from him before the guilt so clearly
written on his face, and their eyes were full of doubt as to how they
should proceed and of some fear--for it must have been passing through
their minds that they stood, themselves, in danger of being involved with
him in the Duke's punishment of his disloyalty.

This was more than had ever entered into my calculations or found room in
my hopes. By a brisk appeal to them, it almost seemed that I might work
my salvation in this eleventh hour.

Madonna watched the scene with eyes that suggested to me that the same
hope had arisen in her own mind. My halberdiers and the carnifex alone
stood stolidly indifferent. Ramiro was to them the man that hired them;
with his intriguing they had no concern.

For a moment or two there was a silence, and Ramiro sat staring before
him, his white face glistening with the sweat of fear. A very coward at
heart was this overbearing ogre of Cesena, who for years had been the
terror and scourge of the countryside. At last he mastered his emotion
and sprang to his feet.

"You have had the laugh of me," he snarled, fury now ringing in his voice.
"But ere you die you may regret it that you mocked me."

He turned to the executioner.

"Strip him," he commanded fiercely. "He shall not hang as I intended--at
least not before we have torn every bone of his body from its socket. To
the cord with him!" And he pointed to the torture at the end of the hall.

The executioner made shift to obey him when suddenly Madonna Paola leapt
to her feet, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright with a new excitement.

"Is there none here," he cried, appealing to Ramiro's officers, "that will
draw his sword in the service of his overlord, the Duca Valentino? There
stands a traitor, and there one who has proven his loyalty to Cesare
Borgia. The Duke is likely to demand a heavy price for the life of that
faithful one to whose warning he owes his escape of assassination. Will
none of you side now with the right that anon you may stand well with
Cesare Borgia when he comes? Or, by idly allowing this traitor to have
his way, will you participate in the punishment that must be his?"

It was the very spur they needed. And scarce was that final question of
hers flung at those knaves, when the answer came from one of them. It was
that same sturdy Lupone.

"I, for one, am for the Duke," said he, and his sword leapt from its
scabbard. "I draw my iron for Valentino. Let every loyal man do likewise
and seize this traitor." And with his sword he pointed at Ramiro.

In an instant three others bared their weapons and ranged themselves
beside him. The remaining two--of whom was Lucagnolo--folded their hands,
manifesting by that impassivity that they were minded to take neither one
side nor the other.

The carnifex paused in his labours of undressing me, and the affair
promised to grow interesting. But Ramiro did not stand his ground. Fury
swelling his veins and crimsoning his huge face, he sprang to the door and
bellowed to his guards. Six men trooped in almost at once, and reinforced
by the halberdiers that had been guarding me, they made short work of the
resistance of those four officers. In as little time as it takes me to
record it, they were disarmed and ranged against the wall behind those
guards and others that had come to their support--to be dealt with by
Ramiro after he had dealt with me.

His fear of Cesare's coming was put by for the moment in his fierce lust
to be avenged upon me who had betrayed him and the officers who had turned
against him. Madonna sank back once more in her despair. The little
spark that she had so bravely fanned to life had been quenched almost as
soon as it had shown itself.

"Now, Federigo," said Ramiro grimly, "I am waiting."

The executioner resumed his work, and in an instant I stood stripped of my
brigandine. As the fellow led me, unresisting, to the torture--for what
resistance could have availed me now?--I tried to pray for strength to
endure what was to come. I was done with life; for some portion of an
hour I must go through the cruellest of agonies; and then, when it pleased
God in His mercy that I should swoon, it would be to wake no more in this
world. For they would bear out my unconscious body, and hang it by the
neck from that black beam they called Ramiro del' Orca's flagstaff.

I cast a last glance at Madonna. She had fallen on her knees, and with
folded hands was praying intently, none heeding her.

Federigo halted me beneath the pulleys, and his horrid hands grew busy
adjusting the ropes to my wrists.

And then, when the last ray of hope had faded, but before the executioner
had completed his hideous task, a trumpet-blast, winding a challenge to
the gates of the Castle of Cesena, suddenly rang out upon the evening air,
and startled us all by its sudden and imperious note.



For just an instant I allowed myself to be tortured by the hope that a
miracle had happened, and here was Cesare Borgia come a good eight hours
before it was possible for Mariani to have fetched him from Faenza. The
same doubt may have crossed Ramiro's mind, for he changed colour and
sprang to the door to bawl an order forbidding his men to lower the

But he was too late. Before he was answered by his followers, we heard
the creaking of the hinges and the rattle of the running chains, ending in
a thud that told us the drawbridge had dropped across the moat. Then came
the loud continuous thunder of many hoofs upon its timbers. Paralysed by
fear Ramiro stood where he had halted, turning his eyes wildly in this
direction and in that, but never moving one way or the other.

It must be Cesare, I swore to myself. Who else could ride to Cessna with
such numbers? But then, if it was Cesare, it could not be that he had
seen Mariani, for he could not have ridden from Faenza. Madonna had risen
too, and with a white face and straining eyes she was looking towards the

And then our doubts were at last ended. There was a jangle of spurs and
the fall of feet, and through the open door stepped a straight, martial
figure in a doublet of deep crimson velvet, trimmed with costly lynx furs
and slashed with satin in the sleeves and shoulder-puffs; jewels gleamed
in the massive chain across his breast and at the marroquin girdle that
carried his bronze-hilted sword; his hose was of red silk, and his great
black boots were armed with golden spurs. But to crown all this very
regal splendour was the beautiful, pale, cold face of Cesare Borgia, from
out of which two black eyes flashed and played like sword-points on the

Behind him surged a press of mercenaries, in steel, their weapons naked in
their hands, so that no doubt was left of the character of this visit.

Collecting himself, and bethinking him that after all, he had best
dissemble a good countenance; Ramiro advanced respectfully to meet his
overlord. But ere he had taken three steps the Duke stayed him.

"Stand where you are, traitor," was the imperious command. "I'll trust
you no nearer to my person." And to emphasise his words he raised his
gloved left hand, which had been resting on his sword-hilt, and in which I
now observed that he held a paper.

Whether Ramiro recognised it, or whether it was that the mere sight of a
paper reminded him of the letter which on my testimony should be in
Cesare's keeping, or whether again the word "traitor" with which Cesare
branded him drove the iron deeper into his soul, I cannot say; but to this
I can testify: that he turned a livid green, and stood there before his
formidable master in an attitude so stricken as to have aroused pity for
any man less a villain than was he.

And now Cesare's eye, travelling round, alighted on Madonna Paola,
standing back in the shadows to which she had instinctively withdrawn at
his coming. At sight of her he recoiled a pace, deeming, no doubt, that
it was an apparition stood before him. Then he looked again, and being a
man whose mind was above puerile superstitions, he assured himself that by
what miracle the thing was wrought, the figure before him was the living
body of Madonna Paola Sforza di Santafior. He swept the velvet cap with
its jewelled plume from off his auburn locks, and bowed low before her.

"In God's name, Madonna, how are you come to life again, and how do I find
you here of all places?"

She made no ado about enlightening him.

"That villain," said she, and her finger pointed straight and firmly at
Ramiro, "put a sleeping-potion in my wine on the last night he dined with
us at Pesaro, and when all thought me dead he came to the Church of San
Domenico with his men to carry off my sleeping body. He would have
succeeded in his fell design but that Lazzaro Biancomonte there, whom you
have stayed him in the act of torturing to death, was beforehand and saved
me from his clutches for a time. This morning at Cattolica his searching
sbirri discovered me and brought me hither, where I have been for the past
three hours, and where, but for your Excellency's timely arrival, I
shudder to think of the indignities I might have suffered."

"I thank you, Madonna, for this clear succinctness," answered Cesare
coldly, as was his habit. They say he was a passionate man, and such
indeed I do believe him to have been; but even in the hottest frenzy of
rage, outwardly he was ever the same--icily cold and tranquil. And this,
no doubt, was the thing that made him terrible.

"Presently, Madonna," he pursued, "I shall ask you to tell me how it
chanced that, having saved you, Messer Biancomonte did not bear you to
your brother's house. But first I have business with my Governor of
Cesena--a score which is rendered, if possible, heavier than it already
stood by this thing that you have told me."

"My lord," cried out Ramiro, finding his tongue at last, "Madonna has
misinformed you. I know nothing of who administered the sleeping-potion.
Certainly it was not I. I heard a rumour that her body had been stolen,

"Silence!" Cesare commanded sternly. "Did I question you, dog?"

His beautiful, terrible eyes fastened upon Ramiro in a glance that defied
the man to answer him. Cowed, like a hound at sight of the whip, Ramiro
whimpered into silence.

Cesare waved his hand in his direction, half-turning to the men-at-arms
behind him.

"Take and disarm him," was his passionless command. And while they were
doing his bidding, he turned to me and ordered the executioner beside me
to unbind my hands and set me at liberty.

"I owe you a heavy debt, Messer Biancomonte," he said, without any warmth,
even now that his voice was laden with a message of gratitude. "It shall
be discharged. It is thanks to your daring and resource that the
seneschal Mariani was able to bring me this letter, this piece of
culminating proof against Ramiro del' Orca. It is fortunate for you that
Mariani was not put to it to ride to Faenza to find me, or else I am
afraid we had not reached Cesena in time to save your life. I met him
some leagues this side of Faenza, as I was on my way to Sinigaglia."

He turned abruptly to Ramiro.

"In this letter which Vitelli wrote you," said he, "it is suggested that
there are others in the conspiracy. Tell me now, who are those others?
See that you answer me with truth, for I shall compel proofs from you of
such accusations as you may make."

Ramiro looked at him with eyes rendered dull by agony. He moistened his
lips with his tongue, and turning his head towards his men--

"Wine," he gasped, from very force of habit. "A cup of wine!"

"Let it be supplied him," said Cesare coldly, and we all stood waiting
while a servant filled him a cup. Ramiro gulped the wine avidly, never
pausing until the goblet was empty.

"Now," said Cesare, who had been watching him, "will it please you to
answer my question?"

"My lord," said Ramiro, revived and strengthened in spirit by the draught,
"I must ask your Excellency to be a little plainer with me. To what
conspiracy is it that you refer? I know of none. What is this letter
which you say Vitelli wrote me? I take it you refer to the Lord of Citta
di Castello. But I can recall no letters passing between us. My
acquaintance with him is of the slightest."

Cesare looked at him a second.

"Approach," he curtly bade him, and Ramiro came forward, one of the Borgia
halberdiers on either side of him, each holding him by an arm. The Duke
thrust the letter under his eyes. "Have you never seen that before?"

Ramiro looked at it a moment, and his attempt at dissembling bewilderment
was a ludicrous thing to witness.

"Never," he said brazenly at last.

Cesare folded the letter and slipped it into the breast of his doublet.
From his girdle he took a second paper. He turned from Ramiro.

"Don Miguel," he called.

From behind his men-at-arms a tall man, all dressed in black, stood
forward. It was Cesare's Spanish captain, one whose name was as well
known and as well-dreaded in Italy as Cesare's own. The Duke held out to
him the paper that he had produced.

"You heard the question that I asked Messer del' Orca?" he inquired.

"I heard, Illustrious" answered Miguel, with a bow.

"See that you obtain me an answer to it, as well as an account of the
other matters that I have noted on this list--concerning the
misappropriation of stores, the retention of taxes illicitly levied, and
the wanton cruelty towards my good citizens of Cesena. Put him to the
question without delay, and record me his replies. The implements are

And with the same calm indifference which characterised his every word and
action Cesare pointed to the torture, and turned to Madonna Paola, as
though he gave the matter of Ramiro del' Orca and his misdeeds not another

"Mercy, my lord," rang now the voice of Ramiro, laden with horrid fear.
"I will speak."

"Then do so--to Don Miguel. He will question you in my name." Again he
turned to Madonna. "Madonna Paola, may I conduct you hence? Things may
perhaps occur which it is not seemly your gentle eyes should witness.
Messer Biancomonte, attend us."

Now, in spite of all that Ramiro had made me suffer, I should have been
loath to have remained and witnessed his examination. That they would
torture him was now inevitable. His chance of answering freely was gone.
Even if he returned meek replies to Don Miguel's questions, that gentleman
would, no doubt, still submit him to the cord by way of assuring himself
that such replies were true ones.

Gladly, then, did I turn to follow the Duke and Madonna Paola into the
adjoining chamber to which Cesare led the way, even as Don Miguel's voice
was raised to command his men to clear the hall, to the end that he might
conduct his examination in private.

The three of us stood in the anteroom. A servant had lighted the tapers
and closed the doors, and the Duke turned to me.

"First, Messer Biancomonte, to discharge my debt. You are, if I am not
misinformed, the lord by right of birth of certain lands that bear your
name, which suffered sequestration during the reign of the late Costanzo,
Tyrant of Pesaro, whose son Giovanni upheld that confiscation. Am I

"Your Excellency is very well informed. The Lord of Pesaro did make me
tardy restitution--so tardy, indeed, that the lands which he restored to
me had already virtually passed from his possession."

Cesare smiled.

"In recompense for the service you have rendered me this day," said he,
and my heart thrilled at the words and at the thought of the joy which I
was about to bear to my old mother, "I reinvest you in your lands of
Biancomonte for so long as you are content to recognise in me your
overlord, and to be loyal, true and faithful to my rule."

I bowed, murmuring something of the joy I felt and the devotion I should

"Then that is done with. You shall have the deed from my hand by morning.
And now, Madonna, will you grant me some explanation of your conduct in
leaving Pesaro in this man's company, instead of repairing to your
brother's house, when you awakened from the effects of the potion Ramiro
gave you, or must I seek the explanation from Messer Biancomonte?"

Her eyes fell before the scrutiny of his, and when they were raised again
it was to meet my glance, and if Cesare could not, for himself, read the
message of those eyes, why then, his penetration was by no means what the
world accounted it.

"My lord," I cried, "let me explain. I love Madonna Paola. It was love
of her that led me to the church and kept me there that night. It was
love of her and the overmastering passion of my grief at her so sudden
death that led me, in a madness, to desire once more to look upon her face
ere they delivered it to earth's keeping. Thus was it that I came to
discover that she lived; thus was it that I anticipated Ramiro del' Orca.
He came upon us almost before I had raised her from the coffin, yet love
lent me strength and craft to delude him. We hid awhile in the sacristy,
and it was there, after Madonna had revived, that the pent-up passion of
years burst the bond with which reason had bidden me restrain it."

"By the Host!" cried Cesare, his brows drawn down in a frown. "You are a
bold man to tell me this. And you, Madonna," he cried, turning suddenly
to her, "what have you to say?"

"Only, my lord, that I have suffered more I think in these past few days
than has ever fallen to the life-time's share of another woman. I think,
my lord, that I have suffered enough to have earned me a little peace and
a little happiness for the remainder of my days. All my life have men
plagued me with marriages that were hateful to me, and this has culminated
in the brutal act of Ramiro del' Orca. Do you not think that I have
endured enough?"

He stared at her for a moment.

"Then you love this fellow?" he gasped. "You, Madonna Paola Sforza di
Santafior, one of the noblest ladies in all Italy, confess to love this
lordling of a few barren acres?"

"I loved him, Illustrious, when he was less, much less, than that. I
loved him when he was little better than the Fool of the Court of Pesaro,
and not even the shame of the motley that disgraced him could stay the
impulse of my affections."

He laughed curiously.

"By my faith," said he, "I have gone through life complaining of the want
of frankness in the men and women I have met. But you two seem to deal in
it liberally enough to satisfy the most ardent seeker after truth. I
would that Pontius Pilate could have known you." Then he grew sterner.
"But what account of this evening's adventure am I to bear to my cousin

She hung her head in silence, whilst my own spirit trembled. Then
suddenly I spoke.

"My lord," said I, "if you take her back to Pesaro, you may keep the deed
of Biancomonte. For unless Madonna Paola goes thither with me, your gift
is a barren one, your reward of no account or value to me."

"I would not have it so," said he, his head on one side and his fingers
toying with his auburn beard. "You saved my life, and you must be
rewarded fittingly."

"Then, Illustrious, in payment for my preservation of your life, do you
render happy mine, and we shall thus be quits."

"My lord," cried Paola, putting forth her hands in supplication, "if you
have ever loved, befriend us now."

A shadow darkened his face for an instant, then it was gone, and his
expression was as inscrutable as ever. Yet he took her hands in his and
looked down into her eyes.

"They say that I am hard, bloodthirsty and unfeeling," he said in tones
that were almost of complaint. "But I am not proof against so much
appeal. Ignacio must find him a bride in Spain; and if he is wise and
would taste the sweets of life, he will see to it that he finds him a
willing one."

"As for you two, Cesare Borgia shalt stand your friend. He owes you no
less. I will be godfather to your nuptials. Thus shall the blame and
consequences rest on me. Paola Sforza di Santafior is dead, men think.
We will leave them thinking it. Filippo must know the truth. But you can
trust me to make your brother take a reasonable view of what has come to
pass. After all, there may be a disparity in your ranks. But it is
purely adventitious, for noble though you may be, Madonna Paola, you are
wedding one who seems no less noble at heart, whatever the parts he may
have played in life." He smiled inscrutably, as he added: "I have in
mind that you once sought service with me Messer Biancomonte, and if a
martial life allures you still, I'll make you lord of something better far
than Biancomonte."

I thanked him, and Madonna joined me in that expression of gratitude--an
expression that fell very short of all that was in our hearts. But
touching that offer of his that I should follow his fortunes, I begged him
not to insist.

"The possession of Biancomonte has from my cradle been the goal of all my
hopes. It is patrimony enough for me, and there, with Madonna Paola, I'll
take a long farewell of ambition, which is but the seed of discontent."

"Why, as you will," he sighed. And then, before more could be said, there
came from the adjoining room a piercing scream.

Cesare raised his head, and his lips parted in the faintest vestige of a

"They are exacting the truth from the Governor of Cesena," said he. "I
think, Madonna, that we had better move a little farther off. Ramiro's
voice makes indifferent music for a lady's ear."

She was white as death at the horrid noise and all the things of which it
may have reminded her, and so we passed from the antechamber and sought
the more distant places of the castle.

Here let me pause. We were married on the morrow which was Christmas eve,
and in the grey dawn of the Christmas morning we set out for Biancomonte
with the escort which Cesare Borgia placed at our disposal.

As we rode out from the Citadel of Cesena, we saw the last of Ramiro del'
Orca. Beyond the gates, in the centre of the public square, a block stood
planted in the snow. On the side nearer the castle there was a dark mass
over which a rich mantle had been thrown; it was of purple colour, and in
the uncertain light it was not easy to tell where the cloak ended, and the
stain that embrued the snow began. On the other side of the block a
decapitated head stood mounted on an upright pike, and the sightless eyes
of Ramiro del' Orca looked from his grinning face upon the town of Cesena,
which he had so wantonly misruled.

Madonna shuddered and turned her head aside as we rode past that dread
emblem of the Borgia justice.

To efface from her mind the memory of such a thing on such a day, I talked
to her, as we cantered out into the country, of the life to come, of the
mother that waited to welcome us, and of the glad tidings with which we
were to rejoice her on that Christmas day.

There is no moral to my story. I may not end with one of those graceful
admonitions beloved of Messer Boccacci to whom in my jester's days I owed
so much. Not mine is it to say with him "Wherefore, gentle ladies"--or
"noble sirs--beware of this, avoid that other thing."

Mine is a plain tale, written in the belief that some account of those old
happenings that befell me may offer you some measure of entertainment, and
written, too, in the support of certain truths which my contemporaries
have been shamefully inclined and simoniacally induced to suppress. Many
chroniclers set forth how the Lord Vitellozzo Vitelli and his associates
were barbarously strangled by Cesare's orders at Sinigaglia, and
wilfully--for I cannot believe that it results from ignorance--are they
silent touching the reason, leaving you to imagine that it was done in
obedience to a ruthlessness of character beyond parallel, so that you may
come to consider Cesare Borgia as black as they were paid to paint him.

To confute them do I set down these facts of which my knowledge cannot be
called in question, and also that you may know the true story of Paola di
Santafior--and more particularly that part of it which lies beyond the
death she did not die.

The sun of that Christmas day was setting as we drew near to Biancomonte
and the humble dwelling of my old mother. We fell into talk of her once
more. Suddenly Paola turned in her saddle to confront me.

"Tell me, Lord of Biancomonte, will she love me a little, think you?" she
asked, to plague me.

"Who would not love you, Lady of Biancomonte?" counter-questioned I.

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