impossible to pursue the matter.
Sheepishly, overwhelmed with confusion, I went out–a knight-errant with a shorn crest.
MY LORD GAMBARA CLEARS THE GROUND
I had angered her! Worse; I had exposed her to humiliation at the hands of that unworthy animal who soiled her in thought with the slime of his suspicions. Through me she had been put to the shameful need of listening at a door, and had been subjected to the ignominy of being so discovered. Through me she had been mocked and derided!
It was all anguish to me. For her there was no shame, no humiliation, no pain I would not suffer, and take joy in the suffering so that it be for her. But to have submitted that sweet, angelic woman to suffering–to have incurred her just anger! Woe me!
I came to the table that evening full of uneasiness, very unhappy, feeling it an effort to bring myself into her presence and endure be it her regard or her neglect. To my relief she sent word that she was not well and would keep her chamber; and Fifanti smiled oddly as he stroked his blue chin and gave me a sidelong glance. We ate in silence, and when the meal was done, I departed, still without a word to my preceptor, and went to shut myself up again in my room.
I slept ill that night, and very early next morning I was astir. I went down into the garden somewhere about the hour of sunrise, through the wet grass that was all scintillant with dew. On the marble bench by the pond, where the water-lilies were now rotting, I flung myself down, and there was I found a half-hour later by Giuliana herself.
She stole up gently behind me, and all absorbed and moody as I was, I had no knowledge of her presence until her crisp boyish voice startled me out of my musings.
“Of what do we brood here so early, sir saint?” quoth she.
I turned to meet her laughing eyes. “You…you can forgive me?” I faltered foolishly.
She pouted tenderly. “Should I not forgive one who has acted foolishly out of love for me?”
“It was, it was…” I cried; and there stopped, all confused, feeling myself growing red under her lazy glance.
“I know it was,” she answered. She set her elbows on the seat’s tall back until I could feel her sweet breath upon my brow. “And should I bear you a resentment, then? My poor Agostino, have I no heart to feel? Am I but a cold, reasoning intelligence like that thing my husband? 0 God! To have been mated to that withered pedant! To have been sacrificed, to have been sold into such bondage! Me miserable!”
“Giuliana!” I murmured soothingly, yet agonized myself.
“Could none have foretold me that you must come some day?”
“Hush!” I implored her. “What are you saying?”
But though I begged her to be silent, my soul was avid for more such words from her–from her, the most perfect and beautiful of women.
“Why should I not?” said she. “Is truth ever to be stifled? Ever?”
I was mad, I know–quite mad. Her words had made me so. And when, to ask me that insistent question, she brought her face still nearer, I flung down the reins of my unreason and let it ride amain upon its desperate, reckless course. In short, I too leaned forward, I leaned forward, and I kissed her full upon those scarlet, parted lips.
I kissed her, and fell back with a cry that was of anguish almost–so poignantly had the sweet, fierce pain of that kiss run through my every fibre. And as I cried out, so too did she, stepping back, her hands suddenly to her face. But the next moment she was peering up at the windows of the house–those inscrutable eyes that looked upon our deed; that looked and of which it was impossible to discern how much they might have seen.
“If he should have seen us!” was her cry; and it moved me unpleasantly that such should have been the first thought my kiss inspired in her. “If he should have seen us! Gesu! I have enough to bear already!”
“I care not,” said I. “Let him see. I am not Messer Gambara. No man shall put an insult upon you on my account, and live.”
I was become the very ranting, roaring, fire-breathing type of lover who will slaughter a whole world to do pleasure to his mistress or to spare her pain–I–I–I, Agostino d’Anguissola–who was to be ordained next month and walk in the ways of St. Augustine!
Laugh as you read–for very pity, laugh!
“Nay, nay,” she reassured herself. “He will be still abed. He was snoring when I left.” And she dismissed her fears, and looked at me again, and returned to the matter of that kiss.
“What have you done to me, Agostino?”
I dropped my glance before her languid eyes. “What I have done to no other woman yet,” I answered, a certain gloom creeping over the exultation that still thrilled me. “0 Giuliana, what have you done to me? You have bewitched me; You have made me mad!” And I set my elbows on my knees and took my head in my hands, and sat there, overwhelmed now by the full consciousness of the irrevocable thing that I had done, a thing that must brand my soul for ever, so it seemed.
To have kissed a maid would have been ill enough for one whose aims were mine. But to kiss a wife, to become a cicisbeo! The thing assumed in my mind proportions foolishly, extravagantly beyond its evil reality.
“You are cruel, Agostino,” she whispered behind me. She had come to lean again upon the back of the bench. “Am I alone to blame? Can the iron withstand the lodestone? Can the rain help falling upon the earth? Can the stream flow other than downhill?” She sighed. “Woe me! It is I who should be angered that you have made free of my lips. And yet I am here, wooing you to forgive me for the sin that is your own.”
I cried out at that and turned to her again, and I was very white, I know.
“You tempted me!” was my coward’s cry.
“So said Adam once. Yet God thought otherwise, for Adam was as fully punished as was Eve.” She smiled wistfully into my eyes, and my senses reeled again. And then old Busio, the servant, came suddenly forth from the house upon some domestic errand to Giuliana, and thus was that situation mercifully brought to an end.
For the rest of the day I lived upon the memory of that morning, reciting to myself each word that she had uttered, conjuring up in memory the vision of her every look. And my absent-mindedness was visible to Fifanti when I came to my studies with him later. He grew more peevish with me than was habitual, dubbed me dunce and wooden-head, and commended the wisdom of those who had determined upon a claustral life for me, admitting that I knew enough Latin to enable me to celebrate as well as another without too clear a knowledge of the meaning of what I pattered. All of which was grossly untrue, for, as none knew better than himself, the fluency of my Latin was above the common wont of students. When I told him so, he delivered himself of his opinion upon the common wont of students with all the sourness of his crabbed nature.
“I’ll write an ode for you upon any subject that you may set me,” I challenged him.
“Then write one upon impudence,” said he. “It is a subject you should understand.” And upon that he got up and flung out of the room in a pet before I could think of an answer.
Left alone, I began an ode which should prove to him his lack of justice. But I got no further than two lines of it. Then for a spell I sat biting my quill, my mind and the eyes of my soul full of Giuliana.
Presently I began to write again. It was not an ode, but a prayer, oddly profane–and it was in Italian, in the “dialettale” that provoked Fifanti’s sneers. How it ran I have forgotten these many years. But I recall that in it I likened myself to a sailor navigating shoals and besought the pharos of Giuliana’s eyes to bring me safely through, besought her to anoint me with her glance and so hearten me to brave the dangers of that procellous sea.
I read it first with satisfaction, then with dismay as I realized to the full its amorous meaning. Lastly I tore it up and went below to dine.
We were still at table when my Lord Gambara arrived. He came on horseback attended by two grooms whom he left to await him. He was all in black velvet, I remember, even to his thigh-boots which were laced up the sides with gold, and on his breast gleamed a fine medallion of diamonds. Of the prelate there was about him, as usual, nothing but the scarlet cloak and the sapphire ring.
Fifanti rose and set a chair for him, smiling a crooked smile that held more hostility than welcome. None the less did his excellency pay Madonna Giuliana a thousand compliments as he took his seat, supremely calm and easy in his manner. I watched him closely, and I watched Giuliana, a queer fresh uneasiness pervading me.
The talk was trivial and chiefly concerned with the progress of the barracks the legate was building and the fine new road from the middle of the city to the Church of Santa Chiara, which he intended should be called the Via Gambara, but which, despite his intentions, is known to-day as the Stradone Farnese.
Presently my cousin arrived, full-armed and very martial by contrast with the velvety Cardinal. He frowned to see Messer Gambara, then effaced the frown and smiled as, one by one, he greeted us. Last of all he turned to me.
“And how fares his saintliness?” quoth he.
“Indeed, none too saintly,” said I, speaking my thoughts aloud.
He laughed. “Why, then, the sooner we are in orders, the sooner shall we be on the road to mending that. Is it not so, Messer Fifanti?
“His ordination will profit you, I nothing doubt,” said Fifanti, with his habitual discourtesy and acidity. “So you do well to urge it.”
The answer put my cousin entirely out of countenance a moment. It was a blunt way of reminding me that in this Cosimo I saw one who followed after me in the heirship to Mondolfo, and in whose interests it was that I should don the conventual scapulary.
I looked at Cosimo’s haughty face and cruel mouth, and conjectured in that hour whether I should have found him so very civil and pleasant a cousin had things been other than they were.
0, a very serpent was Messer Fifanti; and I have since wondered whether of intent he sought to sow in my heart hatred of my guelphic cousin, that he might make of me a tool for his own service–as you shall come to understand.
Meanwhile, Cosimo, having recovered, waved aside the imputation, and smiled easily.
“Nay, there you wrong me. The Anguissola lose more than I shall gain by Agostino’s renunciation of the world. And I am sorry for it. You believe me, cousin?”
I answered his courteous speech as it deserved, in very courteous terms. This set a pleasanter humour upon all. Yet some restraint abode. Each sat, it seemed, as a man upon his guard. My cousin watched Gambara’s every look whenever the latter turned to speak to Giuliana; the Cardinal-legate did the like by him; and Messer Fifanti watched them both.
And, meantime, Giuliana sat there, listening now to one, now to the other, her lazy smile parting those scarlet lips–those lips that I had kissed that morning–I, whom no one thought of watching!
And soon came Messer Annibale Caro, with lines from the last pages of his translation oozing from him. And when presently Giuliana smote her hands together in ecstatic pleasure at one of those same lines and bade him repeat it to her, he swore roundly by all the gods that are mentioned in Virgil that he would dedicate the work to her upon its completion.
At this the surliness became general once more and my Lord Gambara ventured the opinion–and there was a note of promise, almost of threat, in his sleek tones– that the Duke would shortly be needing Messer Caro’s presence in Parma; whereupon Messer Caro cursed the Duke roundly and with all a poet’s volubility of invective.
They stayed late, each intent, no doubt, upon outstaying the others. But since none would give way they were forced in the end to depart together.
And whilst Messer Fifanti, as became a host, was seeing them to their horses, I was left alone with Giuliana.
“Why do you suffer those men?” I asked her bluntly. Her delicate brows were raised in surprise. “Why, what now? They are very pleasant gentlemen, Agostino.”
“Too pleasant,” said I, and rising I crossed to the window whence I could watch them getting to horse, all save Caro, who had come afoot. “Too pleasant by much. That prelate out of Hell, now…”
“Sh!” she hissed at me, smiling, her hand raised. “Should he hear you, he might send you to the cage for sacrilege. 0 Agostino!” she cried, and the smiles all vanished from her face. “Will you grow cruel and suspicious, too?”
I was disarmed. I realized my meanness and unworthiness.
“Have patience with me,” I implored her. “I…I am not myself to-day.” I sighed ponderously, and fell silent as I watched them ride away. Yet I hated them all; and most of all I hated the dainty, perfumed, golden-headed Cardinal-legate.
He came again upon the morrow, and we learnt from the news of which he was the bearer that he had carried out his threat concerning Messer Caro. The poet was on his way to Parma, to Duke Pier Luigi, dispatched thither on a mission of importance by the Cardinal. He spoke, too, of sending my cousin to Perugia, where a strong hand was needed, as the town showed signs of mutiny against the authority of the Holy See.
When he had departed, Messer Fifanti permitted himself one of his bitter insinuations.
“He desires a clear field,” he said, smiling his cold smile upon Giuliana. “It but remains for him to discover that his Duke has need of me as well.”
He spoke of it as a possible contingency, but sarcastically, as men speak of things too remote to be seriously considered. He was to remember his words two days later when the very thing came to pass.
We were at breakfast when the blow fell.
There came a clatter of hooves under our windows, which stood open to the tepid September morning, and soon there was old Busio ushering in an officer of the Pontificals with a parchment tied in scarlet silk and sealed with the arms of Piacenza.
Messer Fifanti took the package and weighed it in his hand, frowning. Perhaps already some foreboding of the nature of its contents was in his mind. Meanwhile, Giuliana poured wine for the officer, and Busio bore him the cup upon a salver.
Fifanti ripped away silk and seals, and set himself to read. I can see him now, standing near the window to which he had moved to gain a better light, the parchment under his very nose, his short-sighted eyes screwed up as he acquainted himself with the letter’s contents. Then I saw him turn a sickly leaden hue. He stared at the officer a moment and then at Giuliana. But I do not think that he saw either of them. His look was the blank look of one whose thoughts are very distant.
He thrust his hands behind him, and with head forward, in that curious attitude so reminiscent of a bird of prey, he stepped slowly back to his place at the table-head. Slowly his cheeks resumed their normal tint.
“Very well, sir,” he said, addressing the officer. “Inform his excellency that I shall obey the summons of the Duke’s magnificence without delay.”
The officer bowed to Giuliana, took his leave, and went, old Busio escorting him.
“A summons from the Duke?” cried Giuliana, and then the storm broke
“Ay,” he answered, grimly quiet, “a summons from the Duke.” And he tossed it across the table to her.
I saw that fateful document float an instant in the air, and then, thrown out of poise by the blob of wax, swoop slanting to her lap.
“It will come no doubt as a surprise to you,” he growled; and upon that his hard-held passion burst all bonds that he could impose upon it. His great bony fist crashed down upon the board and swept a precious Venetian beaker to the ground, where it burst into a thousand atoms, spreading red wine like a bloodstain upon the floor.
“Said I not that this rascal Cardinal would make a clear field for himself? Said I not so?” He laughed shrill and fiercely. “He would send your husband packing as he has sent his other rivals. 0, there is a stipend waiting–a stipend of three hundred ducats yearly that shall be made into six hundred presently, and all for my complaisance, all that I may be a joyous and content cornuto!”
He strode to the window cursing horribly, whilst Giuliana sat white of face with lips compressed and heaving bosom, her eyes upon her plate.
“My Lord Cardinal and his Duke may take themselves together to Hell ere I obey the summons that the one has sent me at the desire of the other. Here I stay to guard what is my own.”
“You are a fool,” said Giuliana at length, “and a knave, too, for you insult me without cause.”
“Without cause? 0, without cause, eh? By the Host! Yet you would not have me stay?”
“I would not have you gaoled, which is what will happen if you disobey the Duke’s magnificence,” said she.
“Gaoled?” quoth he, of a sudden trembling in the increasing intensity of his passion. “Caged, perhaps–to die of hunger and thirst and exposure, like that poor wretch Domenico who perished yesterday, at last, because he dared to speak the truth. Gesu!” he groaned. “0, miserable me!” And he sank into a chair.
But the next instant he was up again, and his long arms were waving fiercely. “By the Eyes of God! They shall have cause to cage me. If I am to be horned like a bull, I’ll use those same horns. I’ll gore their vitals. O madam, since of your wantonness you inclined to harlotry, you should have wedded another than Astorre Fifanti.”
It was too much. I leapt to my feet.
“Messer Fifanti,” I blazed at him. “I’ll not remain to hear such words addressed to this sweet lady.”
“Ah, yes,” he snarled, wheeling suddenly upon me as if he would strike me. “I had forgot the champion, the preux-chevalier, the saint in embryo! You will not remain to hear the truth, sir, eh?” And he strode, mouthing, to the door, and flung it wide so that it crashed against the wall. “This is your remedy. Get you hence! Go! What passes here concerns you not. Go!” he roared like a mad beast, his rage a thing terrific.
I looked at him and from him to Giuliana, and my eyes most clearly invited her to tell me how she would have me act.
“Indeed, you had best go, Agostino,” she answered sadly. “I shall bear his insults easier if there be no witness. Yes, go.”
“Since it is your wish, Madonna,” I bowed to her, and very erect, very defiant of mien, I went slowly past the livid Fifanti, and so out. I heard the door slammed after me, and in the little hall I came upon Busio, who was wringing his hand and looking very white. He ran to me.
“He will murder her, Messer Agostino,” moaned the old man. “He can be a devil in his anger.”
“He is a devil always, in anger and out of it,” said I. “He needs an exorcist. It is a task that I should relish. I’d beat the devils out of him, Busio, and she would let me. Meanwhile, stay we here, and if she needs our help, it shall be hers.”
I dropped on to the carved settle that stood there, old Busio standing at my elbow, more tranquil now that there was help at hand for Madonna in case of need. And through the door came the sound of his storming, and presently the crash of more broken glassware, as once more he thumped the table. For well-high half an hour his fury lasted, and it was seldom that her voice was interposed. Once we heard her laugh, cold and cutting as a sword’s edge, and I shivered at the sound, for it was not good to hear.
At last the door was opened and he came forth. His face was inflamed, his eyes wild and blood-injected. He paused for a moment on the threshold, but I do not think that he noticed us at first. He looked back at her over his shoulder, still sitting at table, the outline of her white-gowned body sharply defined against the deep blue tapestry of the wall behind her.
“You are warned,” said he. “Do you heed the warning!” And he came forward.
Perceiving me at last where I sat, he bared his broken teeth in a snarling smile. But it was to Busio that he spoke. “Have my mule saddled for me in an hour,” he said, and passed on and up the stairs to make his preparations. It seemed, therefore, that she had conquered his suspicions.
I went in to offer her comfort, for she was weeping and all shaken by that cruel encounter. But she waved me away.
“Not now, Agostino. Not now,” she implored me. “Leave me to myself, my friend.”
I had not been her friend had I not obeyed her without question.
It was late that afternoon when Astorre Fifanti set out. He addressed a few brief words to me, informing me that he should return within four days, betide what might, setting me tasks upon which I was meanwhile to work, and bidding me keep the house and be circumspect during his absence.
From the window of my room I saw the doctor get astride his mule. He was girt with a big sword, but he still wore his long, absurd and shabby gown and his loose, ill-fitting shoes, so that it was very likely that the stirrup-leathers would engage his thoughts ere he had ridden far.
I saw him dig his heels into the beast’s sides and go ambling down the little avenue and out at the gate. In the road he drew rein, and stood in talk some moments with a lad who idled there, a lad whom he was wont to employ upon odd tasks about the garden and elsewhere.
This, Madonna also saw, for she was watching his departure from the window of a room below. That she attached more importance to that little circumstance than did I, I was to learn much later.
At last he pushed on, and I watched him as he dwindled down the long grey road that wound along the river-side until in the end he was lost to view– for all time, I hoped; and well had it been for me had my idle hope been realized.
I supped alone that night with no other company than Busio’s, who ministered to my needs.
Madonna sent word that she would keep her chamber. When I had supped and after night had fallen I went upstairs to the library, and, shutting myself in, I attempted to read, lighted by the three beaks of the tall brass lamp that stood upon the table. Being plagued by moths, I drew the curtains close across the open window, and settled down to wrestle with the opening lines of the [Title in Greek] of Aeschylus.
But my thoughts wandered from the doings of the son of Iapetus, until at last I flung down the book and sat back in my chair all lost in thought, in doubt, and in conjecture. I became seriously introspective. I made an examination not only of conscience, but of heart and mind, and I found that I had gone woefully astray from the path that had been prepared for me. Very late I sat there and sought to determine upon what I should do.
Suddenly, like a manna to my starving soul, came the memory of the last talk I had with Fra Gervasio and the solemn warning he had given me. That memory inspired me rightly. To-morrow–despite Messer Fifanti’s orders–I would take horse and ride to Mondolfo, there to confess myself to Fra Gervasio and to be guided by his counsel. My mother’s vows concerning me I saw in their true light. They were not binding upon me; indeed, I should be doing a hideous wrong were I to follow them against my inclinations. I must not damn my soul for anything that my mother had vowed or ever I was born, however much she might account that it would be no more than filial piety so to do.
I was easier in mind after my resolve was taken, and I allowed that mind of mine to stray thereafter as it listed. It took to thoughts of Giuliana– Giuliana for whom I ached in every nerve, although I still sought to conceal from myself the true cause of my suffering. Better a thousand times had I envisaged that sinful fact and wrestled with it boldly. Thus should I have had a chance of conquering myself and winning clear of all the horror that lay before me.
That I was weak and irresolute at such a time, when I most needed strength, I still think to-day–when I can take a calm survey of all–was the fault of the outrageous rearing that was mine. At Mondolfo they had so nurtured me and so sheltered me from the stinging blasts of the world that I was grown into a very ripe and succulent fruit for the Devil’s mouth. The things to whose temptation usage would have rendered me in some degree immune were irresistible to one who had been tutored as had I.
Let youth know wickedness, lest when wickedness seeks a man out in his riper years he shall be fooled and conquered by the beauteous garb in which the Devil has the cunning to array it.
And yet to pretend that I was entirely innocent of where I stood and in what perils were to play the hypocrite. Largely I knew; just as I knew that lacking strength to resist, I must seek safety in flight. And tomorrow I would go. That point was settled, and the page, meanwhile, turned down. And for to-night I delivered myself up to the savouring of this hunger that was upon me.
And then, towards the third hour of night, as I still sat there, the door was very gently opened, and I beheld Giuliana standing before me. She detached from the black background of the passage, and the light of my three-beaked lamp set her ruddy hair aglow so that it seemed there was a luminous nimbus all about her head. For a moment this gave colour to my fancy that I beheld a vision evoked by the too great intentness of my thoughts. The pale face seemed so transparent, the white robe was almost diaphanous, and the great dark eyes looked so sad and wistful. Only in the vivid scarlet of her lips was there life and blood.
I stared at her. “Giuliana!” I murmured.
“Why do you sit so late?” she asked me, and closed the door as she spoke.
“I have been thinking, Giuliana,” I answered wearily, and I passed a hand over my brow to find it moist and clammy. “To-morrow I go hence.”
She started round and her eyes grew distended, her hand clutched her breast. “You go hence?” she cried, a note as of fear in her deep voice. “Hence? Whither?”
“Back to Mondolfo, to tell my mother that her dream is at an end.”
She came slowly towards me. “And…and then?” she asked.
“And then? I do not know. What God wills. But the scapulary is not for me. I am unworthy. I have no call. This I now know. And sooner than be such a priest as Messer Gambara–of whom there are too many in the Church to-day–I will find some other way of serving God.”
“Since…since when have you thought thus?”
“Since this morning, when I kissed you,” I answered fiercely.
She sank into a chair beyond the table and stretched a hand across it to me, inviting the clasp of mine. “But if this is so, why leave us?”
“Because I am afraid,” I answered. “Because…O God! Giuliana, do you not see?” And I sank my head into my hands.
Steps shuffled along the corridor. I looked up sharply. She set a finger to her lips. There fell a knock, and old Busio stood before us.
“Madonna,” he announced, “my Lord the Cardinal-legate is below and asks for you.”
I started up as if I had been stung. So! At this hour! Then Messer Fifanti’s suspicions did not entirely lack for grounds.
Giuliana flashed me a glance ere she made answer.
“You will tell my Lord Gambara that I have retired for the night and that…But stay!” She caught up a quill and dipped it in the ink-horn, drew paper to herself, and swiftly wrote three lines; then dusted it with sand, and proffered that brief epistle to the servant.
“Give this to my lord.”
Busio took the note, bowed, and departed.
After the door had closed a silence followed, in which I paced the room in long strides, aflame now with the all-consuming fire of jealousy. I do believe that Satan had set all the legions of hell to achieve my overthrow that night. Naught more had been needed to undo me than this spur of jealousy. It brought me now to her side. I stood over her, looking down at her between tenderness and fierceness, she returning my glance with such a look as may haunt the eyes of sacrificial victims.
“Why dared he come?” I asked.
“Perhaps…perhaps some affair connected with Astorre…” she faltered.
I sneered. “That would be natural seeing that he has sent Astorre to Parma.”
“If there was aught else, I am no party to it,” she assured me.
How could I do other than believe her? How could I gauge the turpitude of that beauty’s mind–I, all unversed in the wiles that Satan teaches women? How could I have guessed that when she saw Fifanti speak to that lad at the gate that afternoon she had feared that he had set a spy upon the house, and that fearing this she had bidden the Cardinal begone? I knew it later. But not then.
“Will you swear that it is as you say?” I asked her, white with passion.
As I have said, I was standing over her and very close. Her answer now was suddenly to rise. Like a snake came she gliding upwards into my arms until she lay against my breast, her face upturned, her eyes languidly veiled, her lips a-pout.
“Can you do me so great a wrong, thinking you love me, knowing that I love you?” she asked me.
For an instant we swayed together in that sweetly hideous embrace. I was as a man sapped of all strength by some portentous struggle. I trembled from head to foot. I cried out once–a despairing prayer for help, I think it was–and then I seemed to plunge headlong down through an immensity of space until my lips found hers. The ecstasy, the living fire, the anguish, and the torture of it have left their indelible scars upon my memory. Even as I write the cruelly sweet poignancy of that moment is with me again– though very hateful now.
Thus I, blindly and recklessly, under the sway and thrall of that terrific and overpowering temptation. And then there leapt in my mind a glimmer of returning consciousness: a glimmer that grew rapidly to be a blazing light in which I saw revealed the hideousness of the thing I did. I tore myself away from her in that second of revulsion and hurled her from me, fiercely and violently, so that, staggering to the seat from which she had risen, she fell into it rather than sat down.
And whilst, breathless with parted lips and galloping bosom, she observed me, something near akin to terror in her eyes, I stamped about that room and raved and heaped abuse and recriminations upon myself, ending by going down upon my knees to her, imploring her forgiveness for the thing I had done–believing like a fatuous fool that it was all my doing–and imploring her still more passionately to leave me and to go.
She set a trembling hand upon my head; she took my chin in the other, and raised my face until she could look into it.
“If it be your will–if it will bring you peace and happiness, I will leave you now and never see you more. But are you not deluded, my Agostino?”
And then, as if her self-control gave way, she fell to weeping.
“And what of me if you go? What of me wedded to that monster, to that cruel and inhuman pedant who tortures and insults me as you have seen?”
“Beloved, will another wrong cure the wrong of that?” I pleaded. “0, if you love me, go–go, leave me. It is too late–too late!”
I drew away from her touch, and crossed the room to fling myself upon the window-seat. For a space we sat apart thus, panting like wrestlers who have flung away from each other. At length–“Listen, Giuliana,” I said more calmly. “Were I to heed you, were I to obey my own desires, I should bid you come away with me from this to-morrow.”
“If you but would!” she sighed. “You would be taking me out of hell.”
“Into another worse,” I countered swiftly. “I should do you such a wrong as naught could ever right again.”
She looked at me for a spell in silence. Her back was to the light and her face in shadow, so that I could not read what passed there. Then, very slowly, like one utterly weary, she got to her feet.
“I will do your will, beloved; but I do it not for the wrong that I should suffer–for that I should count no wrong–but for the wrong that I should be doing you.”
She paused as if for an answer. I had none for her. I raised my arms, then let them fall again, and bowed my head. I heard the gentle rustle of her robe, and I looked up to see her staggering towards the door, her arms in front of her like one who is blind. She reached it, pulled it open, and from the threshold gave me one last ineffable look of her great eyes, heavy now with tears. Then the door closed again, and I was alone.
From my heart there rose a great surge of thankfulness. I fell upon my knees and prayed. For an hour at least I must have knelt there, seeking grace and strength; and comforted at last, my calm restored, I rose, and went to the window. I drew back the curtains, and leaned out to breathe the physical calm of that tepid September night.
And presently out of the gloom a great grey shape came winging towards the window, the heavy pinions moving ponderously with their uncanny sough. It was an owl attracted by the light. Before that bird of evil omen, that harbinger of death, I drew back and crossed myself. I had a sight of its sphinx-like face and round, impassive eyes ere it circled to melt again into the darkness, startled by any sudden movement. I closed the window and left the room.
Very softly I crept down the passage towards my chamber, leaving the light burning in the library, for it was not my habit to extinguish it, and I gave no thought to the lateness of the hour.
Midway down the passage I halted. I was level with Giuliana’s door, and from under it there came a slender blade of light. But it was not this that checked me. She was singing, Such a pitiful little heartbroken song it was:
“Amor mi muojo; mi muojo amore mio!”
ran its last line.
I leaned against the wall, and a sob broke from me. Then, in an instant, the passage was flooded with light, and in the open doorway Giuliana stood all white before me, her arms held out.
THE IRON GIRDLE
From the distance, drawing rapidly nearer and ringing sharply in the stillness of the night, came the clatter of a mule’s hooves.
But, though heard, it was scarcely heard consciously, and it certainly went unheeded until it was beneath the window and ceasing at the door.
Giuliana’s fingers locked themselves upon my arm in a grip of fear.
“Who comes?” she asked, below her breath, fearfully. I sprang from the bed and crouched, listening, by the window, and so lost precious time.
Out of the darkness Giuliana’s voice spoke again, hoarsely now and trembling.
“It will be Astorre,” she said, with conviction. “At this hour it can be none else. I suspected when I saw him talking to that boy at the gate this afternoon that he was setting a spy upon me, to warn him wherever he was lurking, did the need arise.”
“But how should the boy know…?” I began, when she interrupted me almost impatiently.
“The boy saw Messer Gambara ride up. He waited for no more, but went at once to warn Astorre. He has been long in coming,” she added in the tone of one who is still searching for the exact explanation of the thing that is happening. And then, suddenly and very urgently, “Go, go–go quickly!” she bade me.
As in the dark I was groping my way towards the door she spoke again:
“Why does he not knock? For what does he wait?” Immediately, from the stairs, came a terrific answer to her question–the unmistakable, slip- slopping footstep of the doctor.
I halted, and for an instant stood powerless to move. How he had entered I could not guess, nor did I ever discover. Sufficient was the awful fact that he was in.
I was ice-cold from head to foot. Then I was all on fire and groping forward once more whilst those footsteps, sinister and menacing as the very steps of Doom, came higher and nearer.
At last I found the door and wrenched it open. I stayed to close it after me, and already at the end of the passage beat the reflection of the light Fifanti carried. A second I stood there hesitating which way to turn. My first thought was to gain my own chamber. But to attempt it were assuredly to run into his arms. So I turned, and went as swiftly and stealthily as possible towards the library.
I was all but in when he turned the corner of the passage, and so caught sight of me before I had closed the door.
I stood in the library, where the lamp still burned, sweating, panting, and trembling. For even as he had had a glimpse of me, so had I had a glimpse of him, and the sight was terrifying to one in my situation.
I had seen, his tall, gaunt figure bending forward in his eager, angry haste. In one hand he carried a lanthorn; a naked sword in the other. His face was malign and ghastly, and his bald, egg-like head shone yellow. The fleeting glimpse he had of me drew from him a sound between a roar and a snarl, and with quickened feet he came slip-slopping down the passage.
I had meant, I think, to play the fox: to seat myself at the table, a book before me, and feigning slumber, present the appearance of one who had been overcome by weariness at his labours. But now all thought of that was at an end. I had been seen, and that I fled was all too apparent. So that in every way I was betrayed.
The thing I did, I did upon instinct rather than reason; and this again was not well done. I slammed the door, and turned the key, placing at least that poor barrier between myself and the man I had so deeply wronged, the man whom I had given the right to slay me. A second later the door shook as if a hurricane had smitten it. He had seized the handle, and he was pulling at it frenziedly with a maniacal strength.
“Open!” he thundered, and fell to snarling and whimpering horribly. “Open!”
Then, quite abruptly he became oddly calm. It was as if his rage grew coldly purposeful; and the next words he uttered acted upon me as a dagger- prod, and reawakened my mind from its momentary stupefaction.
“Do you think these poor laths can save you from my vengeance, my Lord Gambara?” quoth he, with a chuckle horrible to hear.
My Lord Gambara! He mistook me for the Legate! In an instant I saw the reason of this. It was as Giuliana had conceived. The boy had run to warn him wherever he was–at Roncaglia, perhaps, a league away upon the road to Parma. And the boy’s news was that my Lord the Governor had gone to Fifanti’s house. The boy had never waited to see the Legate come forth again; but had obeyed his instructions to the letter, and it was Gambara whom Fifanti came to take red-handed and to kill as he had the right to do.
When he had espied my flying shape, the length of the corridor had lain between us, Fifanti was short-sighted, and since it was Gambara whom he expected to find, Gambara at once he concluded it to be who fled before him.
There was no villainy for which I was not ripe that night, it seemed. For no sooner did I perceive this error than I set myself to scheme how I might profit by it. Let Gambara by all means suffer in my place if the thing could be contrived. If not in fact, at least in intent, the Cardinal- legate had certainly sinned. If he was not in my place now, it was through the too great good fortune that attended him. Besides, Gambara would be in better case to protect himself from the consequences and from Fifanti’s anger.
Thus cravenly I reasoned; and reasoning thus, I reached the window. If I could climb down to the garden, and then perhaps up again to my own chamber, I might get me to bed, what time Fifanti still hammered at that door. Meanwhile his voice came rasping through those slender timbers, as he mocked the Lord Cardinal he supposed me.
“You would not be warned, my lord, and yet I warned you enough. You would plant horns upon my head. Well, well! Do not complain if you are gored by them.”
Then he laughed hideously. “This poor Astorre Fifanti is blind and a fool. He is to be sent packing on a journey to the Duke, devised to suit my Lord Cardinal’s convenience. But you should have bethought you that suspicious husbands have a trick of pretending to depart whilst they remain.”
Next his voice swelled up again in passion, and again the door was shaken.
“Will you open, then, or must I break down the door! There is no barrier in the world shall keep me from you, there is no power can save you. I have the right to kill you by every law of God and man. Shall I forgo that right?” He laughed snarlingly.
“Three hundred ducats yearly to recompense the hospitality I have given you–and six hundred later upon the coming of the Duke!” he mocked. “That was the price, my lord, of my hospitality–which was to include my wife’s harlotry. Three hundred ducats! Ha! ha! Three hundred thousand million years in Hell! That is the price, my lord–the price that you shall pay, for I present the reckoning and enforce it. You shall be shriven in iron– you and your wanton after you.
“Shall I be caged for having shed a prelate’s sacred blood? for having sent a prelate’s soul to Hell with all its filth of sin upon it? Shall I? Speak, magnificent; out of the fullness of your theological knowledge inform me.”
I had listened in a sort of fascination to that tirade of venomous mockery. But now I stirred, and pulled the casement open. I peered down into the darkness and hesitated. The wall was creeper-clad to the window’s height; but I feared the frail tendrils of the clematis would never bear me. I hesitated. Then I resolved to jump. It was but little more than some twelve feet to the ground, and that was nothing to daunt an active lad of my own build, with the soft turf to land upon below. It should have been done without hesitation; for that moment’s hesitation was my ruin.
Fifanti had heard the opening of the casement, and fearing that, after all, his prey might yet escape him, he suddenly charged the door like an infuriated bull, and borrowing from his rage a strength far greater than his usual he burst away the fastenings of that crazy door.
Into the room hurtled the doctor, to check and stand there blinking at me, too much surprised for a moment to grasp the situation.
When, at last, he understood, the returning flow of rage was overwhelming.
“You!” he gasped, and then his voice mounting–“You dog!” he screamed. “So it was you! You!”
He crouched and his little eyes, all blood-injected, peered at me with horrid malice. He grew cold again as he mastered his surprise. “You!” he repeated. “Blind fool that I have been! You! The walker in the ways of St. Augustine–in his early ways, I think. You saint in embryo, you postulant for holy orders! You shall be ordained this night–with this!” And he raised his sword so that little yellow runnels of light sped down the livid blade.
“I will ordain you into Hell, you hound!” And thereupon he leapt at me.
I sprang away from the window, urged by fear of him into a very sudden activity. As I crossed the room I had a glimpse of the white figure of Giuliana in the gloom of the passage, watching.
He came after me, snarling. I seized a stool and hurled it at him. He avoided it nimbly, and it went crashing through the half of the casement that was still closed.
And as he avoided it, grown suddenly cunning, he turned back towards the door to bar my exit should I attempt to lead him round the table.
We stood at gaze, the length of the little low-ceilinged chamber between us, both of us breathing hard.
Then I looked round for something with which to defend myself; for it was plain that he meant to have my life. By a great ill-chance it happened that the sword which I had worn upon that day when I went as Giuliana’s escort into Piacenza was still standing in the very corner where I had set it down. Instinctively I sprang for it, and Fifanti, never suspecting my quest until he saw me with a naked iron in my hand, did nothing to prevent my reaching it.
Seeing me armed, he laughed. “Ho, ho! The saint-at-arms!” he mocked. “You’ll be as skilled with weapons as with holiness!” And he advanced upon me in long stealthy strides. The width of the table was between us, and he smote at me across it. I parried, and cut back at him, for being armed now, I no more feared him than I should have feared a child. Little he knew of the swordcraft I had learnt from old Falcone, a thing which once learnt is never forgotten though lack of exercise may make us slow.
He cut at me again, and narrowly missed the lamp in his stroke. And now, I can most solemnly make oath that in the thing that followed there was no intent. It was over and done before I was conscious of the happening. I had acted purely upon instinct as men will in performing what they have been taught.
To ward his blow, I came almost unconsciously into that guard of Marozzo’s which is known as the iron girdle. I parried and on the stroke I lunged, and so, taking the poor wretch entirely unawares, I sank the half of my iron into his vitals ere he or I had any thought that the thing was possible.
I saw his little eyes grow very wide, and the whole expression of his face become one of intense astonishment.
He moved his lips as if to speak, and then the sword clattered from his one hand, the lanthorn from his other; he sank forward quietly, still looking at me with the same surprised glance, and so came further on to my rigidly held blade, until his breast brought up against the quillons. For a moment he remained supported thus, by just that rigid arm of mine and the table against which his weight was leaning. Then I withdrew the blade, and in the same movement flung the weapon from me. Before the sword had rattled to the floor, his body had sunk down into a heap beyond the table, so that I could see no more than the yellow, egg-like top of his bald head.
Awhile I stood watching it, filled with an extraordinary curiosity and a queer awe. Very slowly was it that I began to realize the thing I had done. It might be that I had killed Fifanti. It might be. And slowly, gradually I grew cold with the thought and the apprehension of its horrid meaning.
Then from the passage came a stifled scream, and Giuliana staggered forward, one hand holding flimsy draperies to her heaving bosom, the other at her mouth, which had grown hideously loose and uncontrolled. Her glowing copper hair, all unbound, fell about her shoulders like a mantle.
Behind her with ashen face and trembling limbs came old Busio. He was groaning and ringing his hands. Thus I saw the pair of them creep forward to approach Fifanti, who had made no sound since my sword had gone through him.
But Fifanti was no longer there to heed them–the faithful servant and the unfaithful wife. All that remained, huddled there at the foot of the table, was a heap of bleeding flesh and shabby garments.
It was Giuliana who gave me the information. With a courage that was almost stupendous she looked down into his face, then up into mine, which I doubt not was as livid.
“You have killed him,” she whispered. “He is dead.”
He was dead and I had killed him! My lips moved.
“He would have killed me,” I answered in a strangled voice, and knew that what I said was a sort of lie to cloak the foulness of my deed.
Old Busio uttered a long, croaking wail, and went down on his knees beside the master he had served so long–the master who would never more need servant in this world.
It was upon the wings of that pitiful cry that the full understanding of the thing I had done was borne in upon my soul. I bowed my head, and took my face in my hands. I saw myself in that moment for what I was. I accounted myself wholly and irrevocably damned, Be God never so clement, surely here was something for which even His illimitable clemency could find no pardon.
I had come to Fifanti’s house as a student of humanities and divinities; all that I had learnt there had been devilries culminating in this hour’s work. And all through no fault of that poor, mean, ugly pedant, who indeed had been my victim–whom I had robbed of honour and of life.
Never man felt self-horror as I felt it then, self-loathing and self- contempt. And then, whilst the burden of it all, the horror of it all was full upon me, a soft hand touched my shoulder, and a soft, quivering voice murmured urgently in my ear:
“Agostino, we must go; we must go.”
I plucked away my hands, and showed her a countenance before which she shrank in fear.
“We?” I snarled at her. “We?” I repeated still more fiercely, and drove her back before me as if I had done her a bodily hurt.
0, I should have imagined–had I had time in which to imagine anything– that already I had descended to the very bottom of the pit of infamy. But it seems that one more downward step remained me; and that step I took. Not by act, nor yet by speech, but just by thought.
For without the manliness to take the whole blame of this great crime upon myself, I must in my soul and mind fling the burden of it upon her. Like Adam of old, I blamed the woman, and charged her in my thoughts with having tempted me. Charging her thus, I loathed her as the cause of all this sin that had engulfed me; loathed her in that moment as a thing unclean and hideous; loathed her with a completeness of loathing such as I had never experienced before for any fellowcreature.
Instead of beholding in her one whom I had dragged with me into my pit of sin and whom it was incumbent upon my manhood thenceforth to shelter and protect from the consequences of my own iniquity, I attributed to her the blame of all that had befallen.
To-day I know that in so doing I did no more than justice. But it was not justly done. I had then no such knowledge as I have to-day by which to correct my judgment. The worst I had the right to think of her in that hour was that her guilt was something less than mine. In thinking otherwise was it that I took that last step to the very bottom of the hell that I had myself created for myself that night.
The rest was as nothing by comparison. I have said that it was not by act or speech that I added to the sum of my iniquities; and yet it was by both. First, in that fiercely echoed “We?” that I hurled at her to strike her from me; then in my precipitate flight alone.
How I stumbled from that room I scarcely know. The events of the time that followed immediately upon Fifanti’s death are all blurred as the impressions of a sick man’s dream.
I dimly remember that as she backed away from me until her shoulders touched the wall, that as she stood so, all white and lovely as any snare that Satan ever devised for man’s ruin, staring at me with mutely pleading eyes, I staggered forward, avoiding the sight of that dreadful huddle on the floor, over which Busio was weeping foolishly.
As I stepped a sudden moisture struck my stockinged feet. Its nature I knew by instinct upon the instant, and filled by it with a sudden unreasoning terror, I dashed with a loud cry from the room.
Along the passage and down the dark stairs I plunged until I reached the door of the house. It stood open and I went heedlessly forth. From overhead I heard Giuliana calling me in a voice that held a note of despair. But I never checked in my headlong career.
Fifanti’s mule, I have since reflected, was tethered near the steps. I saw the beast, but it conveyed no meaning to my mind, which I think was numbed. I sped past it and on, through the gate, round the road by the Po, under the walls of the city, and so away into the open country.
Without cap, without doublet, without shoes, just in my trunks and shirt and hose, as I was, I ran, heading by instinct for home as heads the animal that has been overtaken by danger whilst abroad. Never since Phidippides, the Athenian courier, do I believe that any man had run as desperately and doggedly as I ran that night.
By dawn, having in some three hours put twenty miles or so between myself and Piacenza, I staggered exhausted and with cut and bleeding feet through the open door of a peasant’s house.
The family, sat at breakfast in the stone-flagged room into which I stumbled. I halted under their astonished eyes.
“I am the Lord of Mondolfo,” I panted hoarsely, “and I need a beast to carry me home.”
The head of that considerable family, a grizzled, suntanned peasant, rose from his seat and pondered my condition with a glance that was laden with mistrust.
“The Lord of Mondolfo–you, thus?” quoth he. “Now, by Bacchus, I am the Pope of Rome!”
But his wife, more tender-hearted, saw in my disorder cause for pity rather than irony.
“Poor lad!” she murmured, as I staggered and fell into a chair, unable longer to retain my feet. She rose immediately, and came hurrying towards me with a basin of goat’s milk. The draught refreshed my body as her gentle words of comfort soothed my troubled soul. Seated there, her stout arm about my shoulders, my head pillowed upon her ample, motherly breast, I was very near to tears, loosened in my overwrought state by the sweet touch of sympathy, for which may God reward her.
I rested in that place awhile. Three hours I slept upon a litter of straw in an outhouse; whereupon, strengthened by my repose, I renewed my claim to be the Lord of Mondolfo and my demand for a horse to carry me to my fortress.
Still doubting me too much to trust me alone with any beast of his, the peasant nevertheless fetched out a couple of mules and set out with me for Mondolfo.
It was still early morning when we came into the town of Mondolfo, my peasant escort and I.
The day being Sunday there was little stir in the town at such an hour, and it presented a very different appearance from that which it had worn when last I had seen it. But the difference lay not only in the absence of bustle and the few folk abroad now as compared with that market-day on which, departing, I had ridden through it. I viewed the place to-day with eyes that were able to draw comparisons, and after the wide streets and imposing buildings of Piacenza, I found my little township mean and rustic.
We passed the Duomo, consecrated to Our Lady of Mondolfo. Its portals stood wide, and in the opening swung a heavy crimson curtain, embroidered with a huge golden cross which was bellying outward like an enormous gonfalon. On the steps a few crippled beggars whined, and a few faithful took their way to early Mass.
On, up the steep, ill-paved street we climbed to the mighty grey citadel looming on the hill’s crest, like a gigantic guardian brooding over the city of his trust. We crossed the drawbridge unchallenged, passed under the tunnel of the gateway, and so came into the vast, untenanted bailey of the fortress.
I looked about me, beat my hands together, and raised my voice to shout
In answer to my call the door of the guardhouse opened presently, and a man looked out. He frowned at first; then his brows went up and his mouth fell open.
“It is the Madonnino!” he shouted over his shoulder, and hurried forward to take my reins, uttering words of respectful welcome, which seemed to relieve the fears of my peasant, who had never quite believed me what I proclaimed myself.
There was a stir in the guardhouse, and two or three men of the absurd garrison my mother kept there shuffled in the doorway, whilst a burly fellow in leather with a sword girt on him thrust his way through and hurried forward, limping slightly. In the dark, lowering face I recognized my old friend Rinolfo, and I marvelled to see him thus accoutred.
He halted before me, and gave me a stiff and unfriendly salute; then he bade the man-at-arms to hold my stirrup.
“What is your authority here, Rinolfo?” I asked him shortly.
I am the castellan,” he informed me.
“The castellan? But what of Messer Giorgio?”
“He died a month ago.”
“And who gave you this authority?”
“Madonna the Countess, in some recompense for the hurt you did me,” he replied, thrusting forward his lame leg.
His tone was surly and hostile; but it provoked no resentment in me now. I deserved his unfriendliness. I had crippled him. At the moment I forgot the provocation I had received–forgot that since he had raised his hand to his lord, it would have been no great harshness to have hanged him. I saw in him but another instance of my wickedness, another sufferer at my hands; and I hung my head under the rebuke implicit in his surly tone and glance.
“I had not thought, Rinolfo, to do you an abiding hurt,” said I, and here checked, bethinking me that I lied; for had I not expressed regret that I had not broken his neck?
I got down slowly and painfully, for my limbs were stiff and my feet very sore. He smiled darkly at my words and my sudden faltering; but I affected not to see.
“Where is Madonna?” I asked.
“She will have returned by now from chapel,” he answered.
I turned to the man-at-arms. “You will announce me,” I bade him. “And you, Rinolfo, see to these beasts and to this good fellow here. Let him have wine and food and what he needs. I will see him again ere he sets forth.”
Rinolfo muttered that all should be done as I ordered, and I signed to the man-at-arms to lead the way.
We went up the steps and into the cool of the great hall. There the soldier, whose every feeling had been outraged no doubt by Rinolfo’s attitude towards his lord, ventured to express his sympathy and indignation.
“Rinolfo is a black beast, Madonnino,” he muttered.
“We are all black beasts, Eugenio,” I answered heavily, and so startled him by words and tone that he ventured upon no further speech, but led me straight to my mother’s private dining-room, opened the door and calmly announced me.
“Madonna, here is my Lord Agostino.”
I heard the gasp she uttered before I caught sight of her. She was seated at the table’s head in her great wooden chair, and Fra Gervasio was pacing the rush-strewn floor in talk with her, his hands behind his back, his head thrust forward.
At the announcement he straightened suddenly and wheeled round to face me, inquiry in his glance. My mother, too, half rose, and remained so, staring at me, her amazement at seeing me increased by the strange appearance I presented.
Eugenio closed the door and departed, leaving me standing there, just within it; and for a moment no word was spoken.
The cheerless, familiar room, looking more cheerless than it had done of old, with its high-set windows and ghastly Crucifix, affected me in a singular manner. In this room I had known a sort of peace–the peace that is peculiarly childhood’s own, whatever the troubles that may haunt it. I came into it now with hell in my soul, sin-blackened before God and man, a fugitive in quest of sanctuary.
A knot rose in my throat and paralysed awhile my speech. Then with a sudden sob, I sprang forward and hobbled to her upon my wounded feet. I flung myself down upon my knees, buried my head in her lap, and all that I could cry was:
Whether perceiving my disorder, my distraught and suffering condition, what remained of the woman in her was moved to pity; whether my cry acting like a rod of Moses upon that rock of her heart which excess of piety had long since sterilized, touched into fresh life the springs that had long since been dry, and reminded her of the actual bond between us, her tone was more kindly and gentle than I had ever known it.
“Agostino, my child! Why are you here?” And her wax-like fingers very gently touched my head. “Why are you here–and thus? What has happened to you?”
“Me miserable!” I groaned.
“What is it?” she pressed me, an increasing anxiety in her voice.
At last I found courage to tell her sufficient to prepare her mind.
“Mother, I am a sinner,” I faltered miserably.
I felt her recoiling from me as from the touch of something unclean and contagious, her mind conceiving already by some subtle premonition some shadow of the thing that I had done. And then Gervasio spoke, and his voice was soothing as oil upon troubled waters.
“Sinners are we all, Agostino. But repentance purges sin. Do not abandon yourself to despair, my son.”
But the mother who bore me took no such charitable and Christian view.
“What is it? Wretched boy, what have you done?” And the cold repugnance in her voice froze anew the courage I was forming.
“0 God help me! God help me!” I groaned miserably.
Gervasio, seeing my condition, with that quick and saintly sympathy that was his, came softly towards me and set a hand upon my shoulder.
“Dear Agostino,” he murmured, “would you find it easier to tell me first? Will you confess to me, my son? Will you let me lift this burden from your soul?”
Still on my knees I turned and looked up into that pale, kindly face. I caught his thin hand, and kissed it ere he could snatch it away. “If there were more priests like you,” I cried, “there would be fewer sinners like me.”
A shadow crossed his face; he smiled very wanly, a smile that was like a gleam of pale sunshine from an overclouded sky, and he spoke in gentle, soothing words of the Divine Mercy.
I staggered to my bruised feet. “I will confess to you, Fra Gervasio,” I said, “and afterwards we will tell my mother.”
She looked as she would make demur. But Fra Gervasio checked any such intent.
“It is best so, Madonna,” he said gravely. “His most urgent need is the consolation that the Church alone can give.”
He took me by the arm very gently, and led me forth. We went to his modest chamber, with its waxed floor, the hard, narrow pallet upon which he slept, the blue and gold image of the Virgin, and the little writing-pulpit upon which lay open a manuscript he was illuminating, for he was very skilled in that art which already was falling into desuetude.
At this pulpit, by the window, he took his seat, and signed to me to kneel. I recited the Confiteor. Thereafter, with my face buried in my hands, my soul writhing in an agony of penitence and shame, I poured out the hideous tale of the evil I had wrought.
Rarely did he speak while I was at that recitation. Save when I halted or hesitated he would interject a word of pity and of comfort that fell like a blessed balsam upon my spiritual wounds and gave me strength to pursue my awful story.
When I had done and he knew me to the full for the murderer and adulterer that I was, there fell a long pause, during which I waited as a felon awaits sentence. But it did not come. Instead, he set himself to examine more closely the thing I had told him. He probed it with a question here and a question there, and all of a shrewdness that revealed the extent of his knowledge of humanity, and the infinite compassion and gentleness that must be the inevitable fruits of such sad knowledge.
He caused me to go back to the very day of my arrival at Fifanti’s; and thence, step by step, he led me again over the road that in the past four months I had trodden, until he had traced the evil to its very source, and could see the tiny spring that had formed the brook which, gathering volume as it went, had swollen at last into a raging torrent that had laid waste its narrow confines.
“Who that knows all that goes to the making of a sin shall dare to condemn a sinner?” he cried at last, so that I looked up at him, startled, and penetrated by a ray of hope and comfort. He returned my glance with one of infinite pity.
“It is the woman here upon whom must fall the greater blame,” said he.
But at that I cried out in hot remonstrance, adding that I had yet another vileness to confess–for it was now that for the first time I realized it. And I related to him how last night I had repudiated her, cast her off and fled, leaving her to bear the punishment alone.
Of my conduct in that he withheld his criticism. “The sin is hers,” he repeated. “She was a wife, and the adultery is hers. More, she was the seducer. It was she who debauched your mind with lascivious readings, and tore away the foundations of virtue from your soul. If in the cataclysm that followed she was crushed and smothered, it is no more than she had incurred.”
I still protested that this view was all too lenient to me, that it sprang of his love for me, that it was not just. Thereupon he began to make clear to me many things that may have been clear to you worldly ones who have read my scrupulous and exact confessions, but which at the time were still all wrapped in obscurity for me.
It was as if he held up a mirror–an intelligent and informing mirror–in which my deeds were reflected by the light of his own deep knowledge. He showed me the gradual seduction to which I had been subjected; he showed me Giuliana as she really was, as she must be from what I had told him; he reminded me that she was older by ten years than I, and greatly skilled in men and worldliness; that where I had gone blindly, never seeing what was the inevitable goal and end of the road I trod, she had consciously been leading me thither, knowing full well what the end must be, and desiring it.
As for the murder of Fifanti, the thing was grievous; but it had been done in the heat of combat, and he could not think that I had meant the poor man’s death. And Fifanti himself was not entirely without blame. Largely had he contributed to the tragedy. There had been evil in his heart. A good man would have withdrawn his wife from surroundings which he knew to be perilous and foul, not used her as a decoy to enable him to trap and slay his enemy.
And the greatest blame of all he attached to that Messer Arcolano who had recommended Fifanti to my mother as a tutor for me, knowing full well–as he must have known–what manner of house the doctor kept and what manner of wanton was Giuliana. Arcolano had sought to serve Fifanti’s interests in pretending to serve mine and my mother’s; and my mother should be enlightened that at last she might know that evil man for what he really was.
“But all this,” he concluded, “does not mean, Agostino, that you are to regard yourself as other than a great sinner. You have sinned monstrously, even when all these extenuations are considered.”
“I know, I know!” I groaned.
“But beyond forgiveness no man has ever sinned, nor have you now. So that your repentance is deep and real, and when by some penance that I shall impose you shall have cleansed yourself of all this mire that clings to your poor soul, you shall have absolution from me.”
“Impose your penance,” I cried eagerly. “There is none I will not undertake, to purchase pardon and some little peace of mind.
“I will consider it,” he answered gravely. “And now let us seek your mother. She must be told, for a great deals hangs upon this, Agostino. The career to which you were destined is no longer for you, my son.”
My spirit quailed under those last words; and yet I felt an immense relief at the same time, as if some overwhelming burden had been lifted from me.
“I am indeed unworthy,” I said.
“It is not your unworthiness that I am considering, my son, but your nature. The world calls you over-strongly. It is not for nothing that you are the child of Giovanni d’Anguissola. His blood runs thick in your veins, and it is very human blood. For such as you there is no hope in the cloister. Your mother must be made to realize it, and she must abandon her dreams concerning you. It will wound her very sorely. But better that than…” He shrugged and rose. “Come, Agostino.”
And I rose, too, immensely comforted and soothed already, for all that I was yet very far from ease or peace of mind. Outside his room he set a hand upon my arm.
“Wait,” he said, “we have ministered in some degree to your poor spirit. Let us take thought for the body, too. You need garments and other things. Come with me.”
He led me up to my own little chamber, took fresh raiment for me from a press, called Lorenza and bade her bring bread and wine, vinegar and warm water.
In a very weak dilution of the latter he bade me bathe my lacerated feet, and then he found fine strips of linen in which to bind them ere I drew fresh hose and shoes. And meanwhile munching my bread and salt and taking great draughts of the pure if somewhat sour wine, my mental peace was increased by the refreshment of my body.
At last I stood up more myself than I had been in these last twelve awful hours–for it was just noon, and into twelve hours had been packed the events that well might have filled a lifetime.
He put an arm about my shoulder, fondly as a father might have done, and so led me below again and into my mother’s presence.
We found her kneeling before the Crucifix, telling her beads; and we stood waiting a few moments in silence until with a sigh and a rustle of her stiff black dress she rose gently and turned to face us.
My heart thudded violently in that moment, as I looked into that pale face of sorrow. Then Fra Gervasio began to speak very gently and softly.
“Your son, Madonna, has been lured into sin by a wanton woman,” he began, and there she interrupted him with a sudden and very piteous cry.
“Not that! Ah, not that!” she exclaimed, putting out hands gropingly before her.
“That and more, Madonna,” he answered gravely. “Be brave to hear the rest. It is a very piteous story. But the founts of Divine Mercy are inexhaustible, and Agostino shall drink therefrom when by penitence he shall have cleansed his lips.”
Very erect she stood there, silent and ghostly, her face looking diaphanous by contrast with the black draperies that enshrouded her, whilst her eyes were great pools of sorrow. Poor, poor mother! It is the last recollection I have of her; for after that day we never met again, and I would give ten years to purgatory if I might recall the last words that passed between us.
As briefly as possible and ever thrusting into the foreground the immensity of the snare that had been spread for me and the temptation that had enmeshed me, Gervasio told her the story of my sin.
She heard him through in that immovable attitude, one hand pressed to her heart, her poor pale lips moving now and again, but no sound coming from them, her face a white mask of pain and horror.
When he had done, so wrought upon was I by the sorrow of that countenance that I went forward again to fling myself upon my knees before her.
“Mother, forgive!” I pleaded. And getting no answer I put up my hands to take hers. “Mother!” I cried, and the tears were streaming down my face.
But she recoiled before me.
“Are you my child?” she asked in a voice of horror. “Are you the thing that has grown out of that little child I vowed to chastity and to God? Then has my sin overtaken me–the sin of bearing a son to Giovanni d’Anguissola, that enemy of God!”
“Ah, mother, mother!” I cried again, thinking perhaps by that all-powerful word to move her yet to pity and to gentleness.
“Madonna,” cried Gervasio, “be merciful if you would look for mercy.”
“He has falsified my vows,” she answered stonily. “He was my votive offering for the life of his impious father. I am punished for the unworthiness of my offering and the unworthiness of the cause in which I offered it. Accursed is the fruit of my womb!” She moaned, and sank her head upon her breast.
“I will atone!” I cried, overwhelmed to see her so distraught.
She wrung her pale hands.
“Atone!” she cried, and her voice trembled. “Go then, and atone. But never let me see you more; never let me be reminded of the sinner to whom I have given life. Go! Begone!” And she raised a hand in tragical dismissal.
I shrank back, and came slowly to my feet. And then Gervasio spoke, and his voice boomed and thundered with righteous indignation.
“Madonna, this is inhuman!” he denounced. “Shall you dare to hope for mercy being yourself unmerciful?”
“I shall pray for strength to forgive him; but the sight of him might tempt me back with the memory of the thing that he has done,” she answered, and she had returned to that cold and terrible reserve of hers.
And then things that Fra Gervasio had repressed for years welled up in a mighty flood. “He is your son, and he is as you have made him.”
“As I have made him?” quoth she, and her glance challenged the friar.
“By what right did you make of him a votive offering? By what right did you seek to consecrate a child unborn to a claustral life without thought of his character, without reck of the desires that should be his? By what right did you make yourself the arbiter of the future of a man unborn?”
“By what right?” quoth she. “Are you a priest, and do you ask me by what right I vowed him to the service of God?”
“And is there, think you, no way of serving God but in the sterility of the cloister?” he demanded. “Why, since no man is born to damnation, and since by your reasoning the world must mean damnation, then all men should be encloistered, and soon, thus, there would be an end to man. You are too arrogant, Madonna, when you presume to judge what pleases God. Beware lest you fall into the sin of the Pharisee, for often have I seen you stand in danger of it.”
She swayed as if her strength were failing her, and again her pale lips moved.
“Enough, Fra Gervasio! I will go,” I cried.
“Nay, it is not yet enough,” he answered, and strode down the room until he stood between her and me. “He is what you have made him,” he repeated in denunciation. “Had you studied his nature and his inclinations, had you left them free to develop along the way that God intended, you would have seen whether or not the cloister called him; and then would have been the time to have taken a resolve. But you thought to change his nature by repressing it; and you never saw that if he was not such as you would have him be, then most surely would you doom him to damnation by making an evil priest of him.
“In your Pharisaic arrogance, Madonna, you sought to superimpose your will to God’s will concerning him–you confounded God’s will with your own. And so his sins recoil upon you as much as upon any. Therefore, Madonna, do I bid you beware. Take a humbler view if you would be acceptable in the Divine sight. Learn to forgive, for I say to you to-day that you stand as greatly in need of forgiveness for the thing that Agostino has done, as does Agostino himself.”
He paused at last, and stood trembling before her, his eyes aflame, his high cheek-bones faintly tinted. And she measured him very calmly and coldly with her sombre eyes.
“Are you a priest?” she asked with steady scorn. “Are you indeed a priest?” And then her invective was loosened, and her voice shrilled and mounted as her anger swayed her. “What a snake have I harboured here!” she cried. “Blasphemer! You show me clearly whence came the impiety and ungodliness of Giovanni d’Anguissola. It had the same source as your own. It was suckled at your mother’s breast.”
A sob shook him. “My mother is dead, Madonna!” he rebuked her.
“She is more blessed, then, than I; since she has not lived to see what a power for sin she has brought forth. Go, pitiful friar. Go, both of you. You are very choicely mated. Begone from Mondolfo, and never let me see either of you more.”
She staggered to her great chair and sank into it, whilst we stood there, mute, regarding her. For myself, it was with difficulty that I repressed the burning things that rose to my lips. Had I given free rein to my tongue, I had made of it a whip of scorpions. And my anger sprang not from the things she said to me, but from what she said to that saintly man who held out a hand to help me out of the morass of sin in which I was being sunk. That he, that sweet and charitable follower of his Master, should be abused by her, should be dubbed blasphemer and have the cherished memory of his mother defiled by her pietistic utterances, was something that inflamed me horribly.
But he set a hand upon my shoulder.
“Come, Agostino,” he said very gently. He was calm once more. “We will go, as we are bidden, you and I.”
And then, out of the sweetness of his nature, he forged all unwittingly the very iron that should penetrate most surely into her soul.
“Forgive her, my son. Forgive her as you need forgiveness. She does not understand the thing she does. Come, we will pray for her, that God in His infinite mercy may teach her humility and true knowledge of Him.”
I saw her start as if she had been stung.
“Blasphemer, begone!” she cried again; and her voice was hoarse with suppressed anger.
And then the door was suddenly flung open, and Rinolfo clanked in, very martial and important, his hand thrusting up his sword behind him.
“Madonna,” he announced, “the Captain of Justice from Piacenza is here.”
THE CAPTAIN OF JUSTICE
There was a moment’s silence after Rinolfo had flung that announcement.
“The Captain of Justice?” quoth my mother at length, her voice startled. “What does he seek?”
“The person of my Lord Agostino d’Anguissola,” said Rinolfo steadily.
She sighed very heavily. “A felon’s end!” she murmured, and turned to me. “If thus you may expiate your sins,” she said, speaking more gently, “let the will of Heaven be done. Admit the captain, Ser Rinolfo.”
He bowed, and turned sharply to depart.
“Stay!” I cried, and rooted him there by the imperative note of my command.
Fra Gervasio was more than right when he said that mine was not a nature for the cloister. In that moment I might have realized it to the full by the readiness with which the thought of battle occurred to me, and more by the anticipatory glow that warmed me at the very thought of it. I was the very son of Giovanni d’Anguissola.
“What force attends the captain?” I inquired.
“He has six mounted men with him,” replied Rinolfo. “In that case,” I answered, “you will bid him begone in my name.”
“And if he should not go?” was Rinolfo’s impudent question.
“You will tell him that I will drive him hence–him and his braves. We keep a garrison of a score of men at least–sufficient to compel him to depart.”
“He will return again with more,” said Rinolfo.
“Does that concern you?” I snapped. “Let him return with what he pleases. To-day I enrol more forces from the countryside, take up the bridge and mount our cannon. This is my lair and fortress, and I’ll defend it and myself as becomes my name and blood. For I am the lord and master here, and the Lord of Mondolfo is not to be dragged away thus at the heels of a Captain of Justice. You have my orders, obey them. About it, sir.”
Circumstances had shown me the way that I must take, and the folly of going forth a fugitive outcast at my mother’s bidding. I was Lord of Mondolfo, as I had said, and they should know and feel it from this hour–all of them, not excepting my mother.
But I reckoned without the hatred Rinolfo bore me. Instead of the prompt obedience that I had looked for, he had turned again to my mother.
“Is it your wish, Madonna?” he inquired.
“It is my wish that counts, you knave,” I thundered and advanced upon him.
But he fronted me intrepidly. “I hold my office from my Lady the Countess. I obey none other here.”
“Body of God! Do you defy me?” I cried. “Am I Lord of Mondolfo, or am I a lackey in my own house? You’ld best obey me ere I break you, Ser Rinolfo. We shall see whether the men will take my orders,” I added confidently.
The faintest smile illumined his dark face. “The men will not stir a finger at the bidding of any but Madonna the Countess and myself,” he answered hardily.
It was by an effort that I refrained from striking him. And then my mother spoke again.
“It is as Ser Rinolfo says,” she informed me. “So cease this futile resistance, sir son, and accept the expiation that is offered you.”
I looked at her, she avoiding my glance.
“Madonna, I cannot think that it is so,” said I. “These men have known me since I was a little lad. Many of them have followed the fortunes of my father. They’ll never turn their backs upon his son in the hour of his need. They are not all so inhuman as my mother.”
“You mistake, sir,” said Rinolfo. “Of the men you knew but one or two remain. Most of our present force has been enrolled by me in the past month.”
This was defeat, utter and pitiful. His tone was too confident, he was too sure of his ground to leave me a doubt as to what would befall if I made appeal to his knavish followers. My arms fell to my sides, and I looked at Gervasio. His face was haggard, and his eyes were very full of sorrow as they rested on me.
“It is true, Agostino,” he said.
And as he spoke, Rinolfo limped out of the room to fetch the Captain of Justice, as my mother had bidden him; and his lips smiled cruelly.
“Madam mother,” I said bitterly, “you do a monstrous thing. You usurp the power that is mine, and you deliver me–me, your son–to the gallows. I hope that, hereafter, when you come to realize to the full your deed, you will be able to give your conscience peace.”
“My first duty is to God,” she answered; and to that pitiable answer there was nothing to be rejoined.
So I turned my shoulder to her and stood waiting, Fra Gervasio beside me, clenching his hands in his impotence and mute despair. And then an approaching clank of mail heralded the coming of the captain.
Rinolfo held the door, and Cosimo d’Anguissola entered with a firm, proud tread, two of his men, following at his heels.
He wore a buff-coat, under which no doubt there would be a shirt of mail; his gorget and wristlets were of polished steel, and his headgear was a steel cap under a cover of peach-coloured velvet. Thigh-boots encased his legs; sword and dagger hung in the silver carriages at his belt; his handsome, aquiline face was very solemn.
He bowed profoundly to my mother, who rose to respond, and then he flashed me one swift glance of his piercing eyes.
“I deplore my business here,” he announced shortly. “No doubt it will be known to you already.” And he looked at me again, allowing his eyes to linger on my face.
“I am ready, sir,” I said.
“Then we had best be going, for I understand that none could be less welcome here than I. Yet in this, Madonna, let me assure you that there is nothing personal to myself. I am the slave of my office. I do but perform it.”
“So much protesting where no doubt has been expressed,” said Fra Gervasio, “in itself casts a doubt upon your good faith. Are you not Cosimo d’Anguissola–my lord’s cousin and heir?”
“I am,” said he, “yet that has no part in this, sir friar.”
“Then let it have part. Let it have the part it should have. Will you bear one of your own name and blood to the gallows? What will men say of that when they perceive your profit in the deed?”
Cosimo looked him boldly between the eyes, his hawk-face very white.
“Sir priest, I know not by what right you address me so. But you do me wrong. I am the Podesta of Piacenza bound by an oath that it would dishonour me to break; and break it I must or else fulfil my duty here. Enough!” he added, in his haughty, peremptory fashion. “Ser Agostino, I await your pleasure.”
“I will appeal to Rome,” cried Fra Gervasio, now beside himself with grief.
Cosimo smiled darkly, pityingly. “It is to be feared that Rome will turn a deaf ear to appeals on behalf of the son of Giovanni d’Anguissola.”
And with that he motioned me to precede him. Silently I pressed Fra Gervasio’s hand, and on that departed without so much as another look at my mother, who sat there a silent witness of a scene which she approved.
The men-at-arms fell into step, one on either side of me, and so we passed out into the courtyard, where Cosimo’s other men were waiting, and where was gathered the entire family of the castle–a gaping, rather frightened little crowd.
They brought forth a mule for me, and I mounted. Then suddenly there was Fra Gervasio at my side again.
“I, too, am going hence,” he said. “Be of good courage, Agostino. There is no effort I will not make on your behalf.” In a broken voice he added his farewells ere he stood back at the captain’s peremptory bidding. The little troop closed round me, and thus, within a couple of hours of my coming, I departed again from Mondolfo, surrendered to the hangman by the pious hands of my mother, who on her knees, no doubt, would be thanking God for having afforded her the grace to act in so righteous a manner.
Once only did my cousin address me, and that was soon after we had left the town behind us. He motioned the men away, and rode to my side. Then he looked at me with mocking, hating eyes.
“You had done better to have continued in your saint’s trade than have become so very magnificent a sinner,” said he.
I did not answer him, and he rode on beside me in silence some little way.
“Ah, well,” he sighed at last. “Your course has been a brief one, but very eventful. And who would have suspected so very fierce a wolf under so sheepish an outside? Body of God! You fooled us all, you and that white- faced trull.”
He said it through his teeth with such a concentration of rage in his tones that it was easy to guess where the sore rankled.
I looked at him gravely. “Does it become you, sir, do you think, to gird at one who is your prisoner?”
“And did you not gird at me when it was your turn?” he flashed back fiercely. “Did not you and she laugh together over that poor, fond fool Cosimo whose money she took so very freely, and yet who seems to have been the only one excluded from her favours?”
“You lie, you dog!” I blazed at him, so fiercely that the men turned in their saddles. He paled, and half raised the gauntleted hand in which he carried his whip. But he controlled himself, and barked an order to his followers:
“Ride on, there!”
When they had drawn off a little, and we were alone again, “I do not lie, sir,” he said. “It is a practice which I leave to shavelings of all degrees.”
“If you say that she took aught from you, then you lie,” I repeated.
He considered me steadily. “Fool!” he said at last. “Whence else came her jewels and fine clothes? From Fifanti, do you think–that impecunious pedant? Or perhaps you imagine that it was from Gambara? In time that grasping prelate might have made the Duke pay. But pay, himself? By the Blood of God! he was never known to pay for anything.
“Or, yet again, do you suppose her finery was afforded her by Caro?–Messer Annibale Caro–who is so much in debt that he is never like to return to Piacenza, unless some dolt of a patron rewards him for his poetaster’s labours.
“No, no, my shaveling. It was I who paid–I who was the fool. God! I more than suspected the others. But you. You saint…You!”
He flung up his head, and laughed bitterly and unpleasantly. “Ah, well!” he ended, “You are to pay, though in different kind. It is in the family, you see.” And abruptly raising his voice he shouted to the men to wait.
Thereafter he rode ahead, alone and gloomy, whilst no less alone and gloomy rode I amid my guards. The thing he had revealed to me had torn away a veil from my silly eyes. It had made me understand a hundred little matters that hitherto had been puzzling me. And I saw how utterly and fatuously blind I had been to things which even Fra Gervasio had apprehended from just the relation he had drawn from me.
It was as we were entering Piacenza by the Gate of San Lazzaro that I again drew my cousin to my side.
“Sir Captain!” I called to him, for I could not bring myself to address him as cousin now. He came, inquiry in his eyes.
“Where is she now?” I asked.
He stared at me a moment, as if my effrontery astonished him. Then he shrugged and sneered. “I would I knew for certain,” was his fierce answer. “I would I knew. Then should I have the pair of you.” And I saw it in his face how unforgivingly he hated me out of his savage jealousy. “My Lord Gambara might tell you. I scarcely doubt it. Were I but certain, what a reckoning should I not present! He may be Governor of Piacenza, but were he Governor of Hell he should not escape me.” And with that he rode ahead again, and left me.
The rumour of our coming sped through the streets ahead of us, and out of the houses poured the townsfolk to watch our passage and to point me out one to another with many whisperings and solemn head-waggings. And the farther we advanced, the greater was the concourse, until by the time we reached the square before the Communal Palace we found there what amounted to a mob awaiting us.
My guards closed round me as if to protect me from that crowd. But I was strangely without fear, and presently I was to see how little cause there was for any, and to realize that the action of my guards was sprung from a very different motive.
The people stood silent, and on every upturned face of which I caught a glimpse I saw something that was akin to pity. Presently, however, as we drew nearer to the Palace, a murmur began to rise. It swelled and grew fierce. Suddenly a cry rose vehement and clear.
“He is the Lord of Mondolfo,” shouted one tall fellow, “and the Cardinal- legate makes a cat’s-paw of him! He is to suffer for Messer Gambara’s villainy!”
Again he was answered by the cry–“Rescue! Rescue!” whilst some added an angry–“Death to the Legate!”
Whilst I was deeply marvelling at all this, Cosimo looked at me over his shoulder, and though his lips were steady, his eyes seemed to smile, charged with a message of derision–and something more, something that I could not read. Then I heard his hard, metallic voice.
“Back there, you curs! To your kennels! Out of the way, or we ride you down.”
He had drawn his sword, and his white hawk-face was so cruel and determined that they fell away before him and their cries died down.
We passed into the courtyard of the Communal Palace, and the great studded gates were slammed in the faces of the mob, and barred.
I got down from my mule, and was conducted at Cosimo’s bidding to one of the dungeons under the Palace, where I was left with the announcement that I must present myself to-morrow before the Tribunal of the Ruota.
I flung myself down upon the dried rushes that had been heaped in a corner to do duty for a bed, and I abandoned myself to my bitter thoughts. In particular I pondered the meaning of the crowd’s strange attitude. Nor was it a riddle difficult to resolve. It was evident that believing Gambara, as they did, to be Giuliana’s lover, and informed perhaps–invention swelling rumour as it will–that the Cardinal-legate had ridden late last night to Fifanti’s house, it had been put about that the foul murder done there was Messer Gambara’s work.
Thus was the Legate reaping the harvest of all the hatred he had sown, of all the tyranny and extortion of his iron rule in Piacenza. And willing to believe any evil of the man they hated, they not only laid Fifanti’s death at his door, but they went to further lengths and accounted that I was the cat’s-paw; that I was to be sacrificed to save the Legate’s face and reputation. They remembered perhaps the ill-odour in which we Anguissola of Mondolfo had been at Rome, for the ghibelline leanings that ever had been ours and for the rebellion of my father against the Pontifical sway; and their conclusions gathered a sort of confirmation from that circumstance.
Long upon the very edge of mutiny and revolt against Gambara’s injustice, it had needed but what seemed a crowning one such as this to quicken their hatred into expression.
It was all very clear and obvious, and it seemed to me that to-morrow’s trial should be very interesting. I had but to deny; I had but to make myself the mouthpiece of the rumour that was abroad, and Heaven alone could foretell what the consequences might be.
Then I smiled bitterly to myself. Deny? 0, no! That was a last vileness I could not perpetrate. The Ruota should hear the truth, and Gambara should be left to shelter Giuliana, who–Cosimo was assured–had fled to him in her need as to a natural protector.
It was a bitter thought. The intensity of that bitterness made me realize with alarm how it still was with me. And pondering this, I fell asleep, utterly worn out in body and in mind by the awful turmoil of that day.
I awakened to find a man standing beside me. He was muffled in a black cloak and carried a lanthorn. Behind him the door gaped as he had left it.
Instantly I sat up, conscious of my circumstance and surroundings, and at my movement this visitor spoke.
“You sleep very soundly for a man in your case.” said he, and the voice was that of my Lord Gambara, its tone quite coldly critical.
He set down the lanthorn on a stool, whence it shed a wheel of yellow light intersected with black beams. His cloak fell apart, and I saw that he was dressed for riding, very plainly, in sombre garments, and that he was armed.
He stood slightly to one side that the light might fall upon my face, leaving his own in shadow; thus he considered me for some moments in silence. At last, very slowly, very bitterly, shaking his head as he spoke.
“You fool, you clumsy fool!” he said.
Having drawn, as you have seen, my own conclusions from the attitude of the mob, I was in little doubt as to the precise bearing of his words.
I answered him sincerely. “If folly were all my guilt,” said I, “it would be well.”
He sniffed impatiently. “Still sanctimonious!” he sneered. “Tcha! Up now, and play the man, at least. You have shed your robe of sanctity, Messer Agostino; have done with pretence!”
“I do not pretend,” I answered him. “And as for playing the man, I shall accept what punishment the law may have for me with fortitude at least. If I can but expiate…”
“Expiate a fig!” he snapped, interrupting me. “Why do you suppose that I am here?”
“I wait to learn.”
“I am here because through your folly you have undone us all. What need,” he cried, the anger of expostulation quivering in his voice, “what need was there to kill that oaf Fifanti?”