the Devil delude men, using even suggested holiness for his purpose! That, boy–that is no more than the dripping of water into little wells of different depths, producing different notes. It is in there, in some cave in the mountain where the Bagnanza springs from the earth.”
I listened, half disillusioned by his explanation, yet fearing that my senses were too slavishly obeying his suggestion. “The proof of that? The proof!” I cried.
“The proof is that you have never heard it after heavy rain, or while the river was swollen.”
That answer shattered my last illusion. I looked back upon the time I had spent there, upon the despair that had beset me when the music ceased, upon the joy that had been mine when again I heard it, accepting it always as a sign of grace. And it was as he said. Not my unworthiness, but the rain, had ever silenced it. In memory I ran over the occasions, and so clearly did I perceive the truth of this, that I marvelled the coincidence should not earlier have discovered it to me.
Moreover, now that my illusions concerning it were gone, the sound was clearly no more than he had said. I recognized its nature. It might have intrigued a sane man for a day or a night. But it could never longer have deceived any but one whose mind was become fevered with fanatic ecstasy.
Then I looked again at the image in the niche, and the pendulum of my faith was suddenly checked in its counter-swing. About that image there could be no delusions. The whole country-side had witnessed the miracle of the bleeding, and it had wrought cures, wondrous cures, among the faithful. They could not all have been deceived. Besides, from the wounds in the breast there were still the brown signs of the last manifestation.
But when I had given some utterance to these thoughts Gervasio for only answer stooped and picked up a wood-man’s axe that stood against the wall. With this he went straight towards the image.
“Fra Gervasio!” I cried, leaping to my feet, a premonition of what he was about turning me cold with horror. “Stay!” I almost screamed.
But too late. My answer was a crashing blow. The next instant, as I sank back to my seat and covered my face, the two halves of the image fell at my feet, flung there by the friar.
“Look!” he bade me in a roar.
Fearfully I looked. I saw. And yet I could not believe.
He came quickly back, and picked up the two halves. “The oracle of Delphi was not more impudently worked,” he said. “Observe this sponge, these plates of metal that close down upon it and exert the pressure necessary to send the liquid with which it is laden oozing forth.” As he spoke he tore out the fiendish mechanism. “And see now how ingeniously it was made to work–by pressure upon this arrow in the flank.”
There was a burst of laughter from the door. I looked up, startled, to find Galeotto standing at my elbow. So engrossed had I been that I had never heard his soft approach over the turf.
“Body of Bacchus!” said he. “Here is Gervasio become an image breaker to some purpose. What now of your miraculous saint, Agostino?”
My answer was first a groan over my shattered illusion, and then a deep- throated curse at the folly that had made a mock of me.
The friar set a hand upon my shoulder. “You see, Agostino, that your excursions into holy things do not promise well. Away with you, boy! Off with this hypocrite robe, and get you out into the world to do useful work for God and man. Had your heart truly called you to the priesthood, I had been the first to have guided your steps thither. But your mind upon such matters has been warped, and your views are all false; you confound mysticism with true religion, and mouldering in a hermitage with the service of God. How can you serve God here? Is not the world God’s world that you must shun it as if the Devil had fashioned it? Go, I say–and I say it with the authority of the orders that I bear–go and serve man, and thus shall you best serve God. All else are but snares to such a nature as yours.”
I looked at him helplessly, and from him to Galeotto who stood there, his black brows knit; watching me with intentness as if great issues hung upon my answer. And Gervasio’s words touched in my mind some chord of memory. They were words that I had heard before–or something very like them, something whose import was the same.
Then I groaned miserably and took my head in my hands. “Whither am I to go?” I cried. “What place is there in all the world for me? I am an outcast. My very home is held against me. Whither, then, shall I go?”
“If that is all that troubles you,” said Galeotto, his tone unctuously humorous, “why we will ride to Pagliano.”
I leapt at the word–literally leapt to my feet, and stared at him with blazing eyes.
“Why, what ails him now?” quoth he.
Well might he ask. That name–Pagliano–had stirred my memory so violently, that of a sudden as in a flash I had seen again the strange vision that visited my delirium; I had seen again the inviting eyes, the beckoning hands, and heard again the gentle voice saying, “Come to Pagliano! Come soon!”
And now I knew, too, where I had heard words urging my return to the world that were of the same import as those which Gervasio used.
What magic was there here? What wizardry was at play? I knew–for they had told me–that it had been that cavalier who had visited me, that man whose name was Ettore de’ Cavalcanti, who had borne news to them of one who was strangely like what Giovanni d’Anguissola had been. But Pagliano had never yet been mentioned.
“Where is Pagliano?” I asked.
In Lombardy–in the Milanes,” replied Galeotto.
“It is the home of Cavalcanti.”
“You are faint, Agostino,” cried Gervasio, with a sudden solicitude, and put an arm about my shoulders as I staggered.
“No, no,” said I. “It is nothing. Tell me–” And I paused almost afraid to put the question, lest the answer should dash my sudden hope. For it seemed to me that in this place of false miracles, one true miracle at least had been wrought; if it should be proved so indeed, then would I accept it as a sign that my salvation lay indeed in the world. If not…”
“Tell me,” I began again; “this Cavalcanti has a daughter. She was with him upon that day when he came here. What is her name?”
Galeotto looked at me out of narrowing eyes.
“Why, what has that to do with anything?” quoth Gervasio.
“More than you think. Answer me, then. What is her name?”
“Her name is Bianca,” said Caleotto.
Something within me seemed to give way, so that I fell to laughing foolishly as women laugh who are on the verge of tears. By an effort I regained my self-control.
“It is very well,” I said. “I will ride with you to Pagliano.”
Both stared at me in utter amazement at the suddenness of my consent following upon information that, in their minds, could have no possible bearing upon the matter at issue.
“Is he quite sane, do you think?” cried Galeotto gruffly.
“I think he has just become so,” said Fra Gervasio after a pause.
“God give me patience, then,” grumbled the soldier, and left me puzzled by the words.
The lilac was in bloom when we came to the grey walls of Pagliano in that May of ’45, and its scent, arousing the memory of my return to the world, has ever since been to me symbolical of the world itself.
Mine was no half-hearted, backward-glancing return. Having determined upon the step, I took it resolutely and completely at a single stride. Since Galeotto placed his resources at my disposal, to be repaid him later when I should have entered upon the enjoyment of my heritage of Mondolfo, I did not scruple to draw upon them for my needs.
I accepted the fine linen and noble raiment that he offered, and I took pleasure in the brave appearance that I made in them, my face shorn now of its beard and my hair trimmed to a proper length. Similarly I accepted weapons, money, and a horse; and thus equipped, looking for the first time in my life like a patrician of my own lofty station, I rode forth from Monte Orsaro with Galeotto and Gervasio, attended by the former’s troop of twenty lances.
And from the moment of our setting out there came upon me a curious peace, a happiness and a great sense of expectancy. No longer was I oppressed by the fear of proving unworthy of the life which I had chosen–as had been the case when that life had been monastic.
Galeotto was in high spirits to see me so blithe, and he surveyed with pride the figure that I made, vowing that I should prove a worthy son of my father ere all was done.
The first act of my new life was performed as we were passing through the village of Pojetta.
I called a halt before the doors of that mean hostelry, over which hung what no doubt would still be the same withered bunch of rosemary that had been there in autumn when last I went that way.
To the sloe-eyed, deep-bosomed girl who lounged against the door-post to see so fine a company ride by, I gave an order to fetch the taverner. He came with a slouch, a bent back, and humble, timid eyes–a very different attitude from that which he had last adopted towards me.
“Where is my mule, you rogue?” quoth I.
He looked at me askance. “Your mule, magnificent? said he.
“You have forgotten me, I think–forgotten the lad in rusty black who rode this way last autumn and whom you robbed.”
At the words be turned a sickly yellow, and fell to trembling and babbling protestations and excuses.
“Have done,” I broke in. “You would not buy the mule then. You shall buy it now, and pay for it with interest.”
“What is this, Agostino?” quoth Galeotto at my elbow. “An act of justice, sir,” I answered shortly, whereupon he questioned me no further, but looked on with a grim smile. Then to the taverner, “Your manners to-day are not quite the same as on the last occasion when we met. I spare you the gallows that you may live to profit by the lesson of your present near escape. And now, rogue, ten ducats for that mule.” And I held out my hand.
“Ten ducats!” he cried, and gathering courage perhaps since he was not to hang. “It is twice the value of the beast,” he protested.
“I know,” I said. “It will be five ducats for the mule, and five for your life. I am merciful to rate the latter as cheaply as it deserves. Come, thief, the ten ducats without more ado, or I’ll burn your nest of infamy and hang you above the ruins.”
He cowered and shrivelled. Then he scuttled within doors to fetch the money, whilst Galeotto laughed deep in his throat.
“You are well-advised,” said I, when the rogue returned and handed me the ducats. “I told you I should come back to present my reckoning. Be warned by this.”
As we rode on Galeotto laughed again. “Body of Satan! There is a thoroughness about you, Agustino. As a hermit you did not spare yourself; and now as a tyrant you do not seem likely to spare others.”
“It is the Anguissola way,” said Gervasio quietly.
“You mistake,” said I. “I conceive myself in the world for some good purpose, and the act you have witnessed is a part of it. It was not a revengeful deed. Vengeance would have taken a harsher course. It was justice, and justice is righteous.”
“Particularly a justice that puts ten ducats in your pocket,” laughed Galeotto.
“There, again, you mistake me,” said I. “My aim is that thieves be mulcted to the end that the poor shall profit.” And I drew rein again.
A little crowd had gathered about us, mostly of very ragged, half-clad people, for this village of Pojetta was a very poverty-stricken place. Into that little crowd I flung the ten ducats–with the consequence that on the instant it became a seething, howling, snarling, quarrelling mass. In the twinkling of an eye a couple of heads were cracked and blood was flowing, so that to quell the riot my charity had provoked, I was forced to spur my horse forward and bid them with threats disperse.
And I think now,” said Galeotto when it was done, “that you are just as reckless in the manner of doing charity. For the future, Agostino, you would do well to appoint an almoner.”
I bit my lip in vexation; but soon I smiled again. Were such little things to fret me? Did we not ride to Pagliano and to Bianca de’ Cavalcanti? At the very thought my pulses would quicken, and a sweetness of anticipation would invade my soul, to be clouded at moments by an indefinable dread.
And thus we came to Pagliano in that month of May, when the lilac was in bloom, as I have said, and after Fra Gervasio had left us, to return to his convent at Piacenza.
We were received in the courtyard of that mighty fortress by that sturdy, hawk-faced man who had recognized me in the hermitage on Monte Orsaro. But he was no longer in armour. He wore a surcoat of yellow velvet, and his eyes were very kindly and affectionate when they rested on Galeotto and from Galeotto passed on to take survey of me.
“So this is our hermit!” quoth he, a note of some surprise in his crisp tones. “Somewhat changed!”
“By a change that goes deeper than his pretty doublet,” said Galeotto.
We dismounted, and grooms, in the Cavalcanti livery of scarlet with the horse-head in white upon their breasts, led away our horses. The seneschal acted as quartermaster to our lances, whilst Cavalcanti himself led us up the great stone staircase with its carved balustrade of marble, from which rose a file of pillars to support the groined ceiling. This last was frescoed in dull red with the white horse-head at intervals. On our right, on every third step, stood orange-trees in tubs, all flowering and shedding the most fragrant perfume.
Thus we ascended to a spacious gallery, and through a succession of magnificent rooms we came to the noble apartments that had been made ready for us.
A couple of pages came to tend me, bringing perfumed water and macerated herbs for my ablutions. These performed, they helped me into fresh garments that awaited me–black hose of finest silk and velvet trunks of the same sable hue, and for my body a fine close-fitting doublet of cloth of gold, caught at the waist by a jewelled girdle from which hung a dagger that was the merest toy.
When I was ready they went before me, to lead the way to what they called the private dining-room, where supper awaited us. At the very mention of a private dining-room I had a vision of whitewashed walls and high-set windows and a floor strewn with rushes. Instead we came into the most beautiful chamber that I had ever seen. From floor to ceiling it was hung with arras of purple brocade alternating with cloth of gold; thus on three sides. On the fourth there was an opening for the embayed window which glowed like a gigantic sapphire in the deepening twilight.
The floor was spread with a carpet of the ruddy purple of porphyry, very soft and silent to the feet. From the frescoed ceiling, where a joyous Phoebus drove a team of spirited white stallions, hung a chain that was carved in the semblance of interlocked Titans to support a great candelabrum, each branch of which was in the image of a Titan holding a stout candle of scented wax. It was all in gilded bronze and the workmanship–as I was presently to learn–of that great artist and rogue Benvenuto Cellini. From this candelabrum there fell upon the board a soft golden radiance that struck bright gleams from crystals and plate of gold and silver.
By a buffet laden with meats stood the master of the household in black velvet, his chain of office richly carved, his badge a horse’s head in silver, and he was flanked on either hand by a nimble-looking page.
Of all this my first glance gathered but the most fleeting of impressions. For my eyes were instantly arrested by her who stood between Cavalcanti and Galeotto, awaiting my arrival. And, miracle of miracles, she was arrayed exactly as I had seen her in my vision.
Her supple maiden body was sheathed in a gown of cloth of silver; her brown hair was dressed into two plaits interlaced with gold threads and set with tiny gems, and these plaits hung one on either breast. Upon the low, white brow a single jewel gleamed–a brilliant of the very whitest fire.
Her long blue eyes were raised to look at me as I entered, and their glance grew startled when it encountered mine, the delicate colour faded gradually from her cheeks, and her eyes fell at last as she moved forward to bid me welcome to Pagliano in her own name.
They must have perceived her emotion as they perceived mine. But they gave no sign. We got to the round table–myself upon Cavalcanti’s left, Galeotto in the place of honour, and Bianca facing her father so that I was on her right.
The seneschal bestirred himself, and the silken ministering pages fluttered round us. My Lord of Pagliano was one who kept a table as luxurious as all else in his splendid palace. First came a broth of veal in silver basins, then a stew of cocks’ combs and capons’ breasts, then the ham of a roasted boar, the flesh very lusciously saturated with the flavour of rosemary; and there was venison that was as soft as velvet, and other things that I no longer call to mind. And to drink there was a fragrant, well-sunned wine of Lombardy that had been cooled in snow.
Galeotto ate enormously, Cavalcanti daintily, I but little, and Bianca nothing. Her presence had set up such emotions in me that I had no thought for food. But I drank deeply, and so came presently to a spurious ease which enabled me to take my share in the talk that was toward, though when all is said it was but a slight share, since Cavalcanti and Galeotto discoursed of matters wherein my knowledge was not sufficient to enable me to bear a conspicuous part.
More than once I was on the point of addressing Bianca herself, but always courage failed me. I had ever in mind the memory she must have of me as she had last seen me, to increase the painful diffidence which her presence itself imposed upon me. Nor did I hear her voice more than once or twice when she demurely answered such questions as her father set her. And though once or twice I found her stealing a look at me, she would instantly avert her eyes when our glances crossed.
Thus was our first meeting, and for a little time it was to be our last, because I lacked the courage to seek her out. She had her own apartments at Pagliano with her own maids of honour, like a princess; and the castle garden was entirely her domain into which even her father seldom intruded. He gave me the freedom of it; but it was a freedom of which I never took advantage in the week that we abode there. Several times was I on the point of doing so. But I was ever restrained by my unconquerable diffidence.
And there was something else to impose restraint upon me. Hitherto the memory of Giuliana had come to haunt me in my hermitage, by arousing in me yearnings which I had to combat with fasting and prayer, with scourge and dice. Now the memory of her haunted me again; but in a vastly different way. It haunted me with the reminder of all the sin in which through her I had steeped myself; and just as the memory of that sin had made me in purer moments deem myself unworthy to be the guardian of the shrine on Monte Orsaro, so now did it cause me to deem myself all unworthy to enter the garden that enshrined Madonna Bianca de’ Cavalcanti.
Before the purity that shone from her I recoiled in an awe whose nature was as the feelings of a religion. I felt that to seek her presence would be almost to defile her. And so I abstained, my mind very full of her the while, for all that the time was beguiled for me in daily exercise with horse and arms under the guidance of Galeotto.
I was not so tutored merely for the sake of repairing a grave omission in my education. It had a definite scope, as Galeotto frankly told me, informing me that the time approached in which to avenge my father and strike a blow for my own rights.
And then at the end of a week a man rode into the courtyard of Pagliano one day, and flung down from his horse shouting to be led to Messer Galeotto. There was something about this courier’s mien and person that awoke a poignant memory. I was walking in the gallery when the clatter of his advent drew my attention, and his voice sent a strange thrill through me.
One glance I gave to make quite sure, and then I leapt down the broad steps four at a time, and a moment later, to the amazement of all present, I had caught the dusty rider in my arms, and I was kissing the wrinkled, scarred, and leathery old cheeks.
“Falcone!” I cried. “Falcone, do you not know me?”
He was startled by the violence of my passionate onslaught. Indeed, he was almost borne to the ground by it, for his old legs were stiff now from riding.
And then–how he stared! What oaths he swore!
“Madonnino!” he babbled. “Madonnino!” And he shook himself free of my embrace, and stood back that he might view me. “Body of Satan! But you are finely grown, and how like to what your father was when he was no older than are you! And they have not made a shaveling of you, after all. Now blessed be God for that!” Then he stopped short, and his eyes went past me, and he seemed to hesitate.
I turned, and there, leaning on the balustrade of the staircase, looking on with smiling eyes stood Galeotto with Messer Cavalcanti at his elbow.
I heard Galeotto’s words to the Lord of Pagliano. “His heart is sound– which is a miracle. That woman, it seems, could not quite dehumanize him.” And he came down heavily, to ask Falcone what news he bore.
The old equerry drew a letter from under his leathern jacket.
“From Ferrante?” quoth the Lord of Pagliano eagerly, peering over Galeotto’s shoulder.
“Ay,” said Galeotto, and he broke the seal. He stood to read, with knitted brows. “It is well,” he said, at last, and passed the sheet to Cavalcanti. “Farnese is in Piacenza already, and the Pope will sway the College to give his bastard the ducal crown. It is time we stirred.”
He turned to Falcone, whilst Cavalcanti read the letter. “Take food and rest, good Gino. For to-morrow you ride again with me. And so shall you, Agostino.”
“I ride again?” I echoed, my heart sinking and some of my dismay showing upon my face. “Whither?”
“To right the wrongs of Mondolfo,” he answered shortly, and turned away.
THE GOVERNOR OF MILAN
We rode again upon the morrow as he had said, and with us went Falcone and the same goodly company of twenty lances that had escorted me from Monte Orsaro. But I took little thought for them or pride in such an escort now. My heart was leaden. I had not seen Bianca again ere I departed, and Heaven knew when we should return to Pagliano. Thus at least was I answered by Galeotto when I made bold to ask the question.
Two days we rode, going by easy stages, and came at last upon that wondrously fair and imposing city of Milan, in the very heart of the vast plain of Lombardy with the distant Alps for background and northern rampart.
Our destination was the castle; and in a splendid ante-chamber, packed with rustling, silken courtiers and clanking captains in steel, a sprinkling of prelates and handsome, insolent-eyed women, more than one of whom reminded me of Giuliana, and every one of whom I disparaged by comparing her with Bianca, Galeotto and I stood waiting.
To many there he seemed known, and several came to greet him and some to whisper in his ear. At last a pert boy in a satin suit that was striped in the Imperial livery of black and yellow, pushed his way through the throng.
“Messer Galeotto,” his shrill voice announced, “his excellency awaits you.”
Galeotto took my arm, and drew me forward with him. Thus we went through a lane that opened out before us in that courtly throng, and came to a curtained door. An usher raised the curtain for us at a sign from the page, who, opening, announced us to the personage within.
We stood in a small closet, whose tall, slender windows overlooked the courtyard, and from the table, on which there was a wealth of parchments, rose a very courtly gentleman to receive us out of a gilded chair, the arms of which were curiously carved into the shape of serpents’ heads.
He was a well-nourished, florid man of middle height, with a resolute mouth, high cheek-bones, and crafty, prominent eyes that reminded me vaguely of the eyes of the taverner of Pojetta. He was splendidly dressed in a long gown of crimson damask edged with lynx fur, and the fingers of his fat hands and one of his thumbs were burdened with jewels.
This was Ferrante Gonzaga, Prince of Molfetta, Duke of Ariano, the Emperor’s Lieutenant and Governor of the State of Milan.
The smile with which he had been ready to greet Galeotto froze slightly at sight of me. But before he could voice the question obviously in his mind my companion had presented me.
“Here, my lord, is one upon whom I trust that we may count when the time comes. This is Agostino d’Anguissola, of Mondolfo and Carmina.”
Surprise overspread Gonzaga’s face. He seemed about to speak, and checked, and his eyes were very searchingly bent upon Galeotto’s face, which remained inscrutable as stone. Then the Governor looked at me, and from me back again at Galeotto. At last he smiled, whilst I bowed before him, but very vaguely conscious of what might impend.
“The time,” he said, “seems to be none too distant. The Duke of Castro– this Pier Luigi Farnese–is so confident of ultimate success that already he has taken up his residence in Piacenza, and already, I am informed, is being spoken of as Duke of Parma and Piacenza.”
“He has cause,” said Galeotto. “Who is to withstand his election since the Emperor, like Pilate, has washed his hands of the affair?”
A smile overspread Gonzaga’s crafty face. “Do not assume too much concerning the Emperor’s wishes in the matter. His answer to the Pope was that if Parma and Piacenza are Imperial fiefs–integral parts of the State of Milan–it would ill become the Emperor to alienate them from an empire which he holds merely in trust; whereas if they can be shown rightly to belong to the Holy See, why then the matter concerns him not, and the Holy See may settle it.”
Galeotto shrugged and his face grew dark. “It amounts to an assent,” he said.
“Not so,” purred Gonzaga, seating himself once more. “It amounts to nothing. It is a Sibylline answer which nowise prejudices what he may do in future. We still hope,” he added, “that the Sacred College may refuse the investiture. Pier Luigi Farnese is not in good odour in the Curia.”
“The Sacred College cannot withstand the Pope’s desires. He has bribed it with the undertaking to restore Nepi and Camerino to the States of the Church in exchange for Parma and Piacenza, which are to form a State for his son. How long, my lord, do you think the College will resist him?”
“The Spanish Cardinals all have the Emperor’s desires at heart.”
“The Spanish Cardinals may oppose the measure until they choke themselves with their vehemence,” was the ready answer. “There are enough of the Pope’s creatures to carry the election, and if there were not it would be his to create more until there should be sufficient for his purpose. It is an old subterfuge.”
“Well, then,” said Gonzaga, smiling, “since you are so assured, it is for you and the nobles of Piacenza to be up and doing. The Emperor depends upon you; and you may depend upon him.”
Galeotto looked at the Governor out of his scarred face, and his eyes were very grave.
“I had hoped otherwise,” he said. “That is why I have been slow to move. That is why I have waited, why I have even committed the treachery of permitting Pier Luigi to suppose me ready at need to engage in his service.”
“Ah, there you play a dangerous game,” said Gonzaga frankly.
“I’ll play a more dangerous still ere I have done,” he answered stoutly. “Neither Pope nor Devil shall dismay me. I have great wrongs to right, as none knows better than your excellency, and if my life should go in the course of it, why”–he shrugged and sneered–“it is all that is left me; and life is a little thing when a man has lost all else.”
“I know, I know,” said the sly Governor, wagging his big head, “else I had not warned you. For we need you, Messer Galeotto.”
“Ay, you need me; you’ll make a tool of me–you and your Emperor. You’ll use me as a cat’s-paw to pull down this inconvenient duke.”
Gonzaga rose, frowning. “You go a little far, Messer Galeotto,” he said.
“I go no farther than you urge me,” answered the other.
“But patience, patience!” the Lieutenant soothed him, growing sleek again in tone and manner. “Consider now the position. What the Emperor has answered the Pope is no more than the bare and precise truth. It is not clear whether the States of Parma and Piacenza belong to the Empire or the Holy See. But let the people rise and show themselves ill-governed, let them revolt against Farnese once he has been created their duke and when thus the State shall have been alienated from the Holy See, and then you may count upon the Emperor to step in as your liberator and to buttress up your revolt.”
“Do you promise us so much?” asked Galeotto.
“Explicitly,” was the ready answer, “upon my most sacred honour. Send me word that you are in arms, that the first blow has been struck, and I shall be with you with all the force that I can raise in the Emperor’s name.”
“Your excellency has warrant for this?” demanded Galeotto.
“Should I promise it else? About it, sir. You may work with confidence.”
“With confidence, yes,” replied Galeotto gloomily, “but with no great hope. The Pontifical government has ground the spirit out of half the nobles of the Val di Taro. They have suffered so much and so repeatedly–in property, in liberty, in life itself–that they are grown rabbit-hearted, and would sooner cling to the little liberty that is still theirs than strike a blow to gain what belongs to them by every right. Oh, I know them of old! What man can do, I shall do; but…” He shrugged, and shook his head sorrowfully.
“Can you count on none?” asked Gonzaga, very serious, stroking his smooth, fat chin.
“I can count upon one,” answered Galeotto. “The Lord of Pagliano; he is ghibelline to the very marrow, and he belongs to me. At my bidding there is nothing he will not do. There is an old debt between us, and he is a noble soul who will not leave his debts unpaid. Upon him I can count; and he is rich and powerful. But then, he is not really a Piacentino himself. He holds his fief direct from the Emperor. Pagliano is part of the State of Milan, and Cavalcanti is no subject of Farnese. His case, therefore, is exceptional and he has less than the usual cause for timidity. But the others…” Again he shrugged. “What man can do to stir them, that will I do. You shall hear from me soon again, my lord.”
Gonzaga looked at me. “Did you not say that here was another?”
Galeotto smiled sadly. “Ay–just one arm and one sword. That is all. Unless this emprise succeeds he is never like to rule in Mondolfo. He may be counted upon; but he brings no lances with him.”
“I see,” said Gonzaga, his lip between thumb and forefinger. “But his name…”
“That and his wrongs shall be used, depend upon it, my lord–the wrongs which are his by inheritance.”
I said no word. A certain resentment filled me to hear myself so disposed of without being consulted; and yet it was tempered by a certain trust in Galeotto, a faith that he would lead me into nothing unworthy.
Gonzaga conducted us to the door of the closet. “I shall look to hear from you, Ser Galeotto,” he said. “And if at first the nobles of the Val di Taro are not to be moved, perhaps after they have had a taste of Messer Pier Luigi’s ways they will gather courage out of despair. I think we may be hopeful if patient. Meanwhile, my master the Emperor shall be informed.”
Another moment and we were out of that florid, crafty, well-nourished presence. The curtains had dropped behind us, and we were thrusting our way through the press in the ante-chamber, Galeotto muttering to himself things which as we gained the open air I gathered to be curses directed against the Emperor and his Milanese Lieutenant.
In the inn of the sign of the Sun, by the gigantic Duomo of Visconti’s building, he opened the gates to his anger and let it freely forth.
“It is a world of cravens,” he said, “a world of slothful, self-seeking, supine cowards, Agostino. In the Emperor, at least, I conceived that we should have found a man who would not be averse to acting boldly where his interests must be served. More I had not expected of him; but that, at least. And even in that he fails me. Oh, this Charles V!” he cried. “This prince upon whose dominions the sun never sets! Fortune has bestowed upon him all the favours in her gift, yet for himself he can do nothing.
“He is crafty, cruel, irresolute, and mistrustful of all. He is without greatness of any sort, and he is all but Emperor of the World! Others must do his work for him; others must compass the conquests which he is to enjoy.
“Ah, well!” he ended, with a sneer, “perhaps as the world views these things there is a certain greatness in that–the greatness of the fox.”
Naturally there was much in this upon which I needed explanation, and I made bold to intrude upon his anger to crave it. And it was then that I learnt the true position of affairs.
Between France and the Empire, the State of Milan had been in contention until quite lately, when Henri II had abandoned it to Charles V. And in the State of Milan were the States of Parma and Piacenza, which Pope Julius II had wrested from it and incorporated in the domain of the Church. The act, however, was unlawful, and although these States had ever since been under Pontifical rule, it was to Milan that they belonged, though Milan never yet had had the power to enforce her rights. She had that power at last, now that the Emperor’s rule there was a thing determined, and it was in this moment that papal nepotism was to make a further alienation of them by constituting them into a duchy for the Farnese bastard, Pier Luigi, who was already Duke of Castro.
Under papal rule the nobles–more particularly the ghibellines–and the lesser tyrants of the Val di Taro had suffered rudely, plundered by Pontifical brigandage, enduring confiscations and extortions until they were reduced to a miserable condition. It was against the beginnings of this that my father had raised his standard, to be crushed thorough the supineness of his peers, who would not support him to save themselves from being consumed in the capacious maw of Rome.
But what they had suffered hitherto would be as nothing to what they must suffer if the Pope now had his way and if Pier Luigi Farnese were to become their duke–an independent prince. He would break the nobles utterly, to remain undisputed master of the territory. That was a conclusion foregone. And yet our princelings saw the evil approaching them, and cowered irresolute to await and suffer it.
They had depended, perhaps, upon the Emperor, who, it was known, did not favour the investiture, nor would confirm it. It was remembered that Ottavio Farnese– Pier Luigi’s son–was married to Margaret of Austria, the Emperor’s daughter, and that if a Farnese dominion there was to be in Parma and Piacenza, the Emperor would prefer that it should be that of his own son-in-law, who would hold the duchy as a fief of the Empire. Further was it known that Ottavio was intriguing with Pope and Emperor to gain the investiture in his own father’s stead.
“The unnatural son!” I exclaimed upon learning that.
Galeotto looked at me, and smiled darkly, stroking his great beard.
“Say, rather, the unnatural father,” he replied. “More honour to Ottavio Farnese in that he has chosen to forget that he is Pier Luigi’s son. It is not a parentage in which any man–be he the most abandoned–could take pride.”
“How so?” quoth I.
“You have, indeed, lived out of the world if you know nothing of Pier Luigi Farnese. I should have imagined that some echo of his turpitudes must have penetrated even to a hermitage–that they would be written upon the very face of Nature, which he outrages at every step of his infamous life. He is a monster, a sort of antichrist; the most ruthless, bloody, vicious man that ever drew the breath of life. Indeed, there are not wanting those who call him a warlock, a dealer in black magic who has sold his soul to the Devil. Though, for that matter, they say the same of the Pope his father, and I doubt not that his magic is just the magic of a wickedness that is scarcely human.
“There is a fellow named Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Nocera, a charlatan and a wretched dabbler in necromancy and something of an alchemist, who has lately written the life of another Pope’s son–Cesare Borgia, who lived nigh upon half a century ago, and who did more than any man to consolidate the States of the Church, though his true aim, like Pier Luigi’s, was to found a State for himself. I am given to think that for his model of a Pope’s bastard this Giovio has taken the wretched Farnese rogue, and attributed to the son of Alexander VI the vices and infamies of this son of Paul III.
“Even to attempt to draw a parallel is to insult the memory of the Borgia; for he, at least, was a great captain and a great ruler, and he knew how to endear to himself the fold that he governed; so that when I was a lad– thirty years ago–there were still those in the Romagna who awaited the Borgia’s return, and prayed for it as earnestly as pray the faithful for the second coming of the Messiah, refusing to believe that he was dead. But this Pier Luigi!” He thrust out a lip contemptuously. “He is no better than a thief, a murderer, a defiler, a bestial, lecherous dog!
And with that he began to relate some of the deeds of this man; and his life, it seemed, was written in blood and filth–a tale of murders and rapes and worse. And when as a climax he told me of the horrible, inhuman outrage done to Cosimo Gheri, the young Bishop of Fano, I begged him to cease, for my horror turned me almost physically sick.1
1 The incident to which Agostino here alludes is fully set forth by Benedetto Varchi at the end of Book XVI of his Storia Fiorentina.
“That bishop was a holy man, of very saintly life,” Galeotto insisted, “and the deed permitted the German Lutherans to say that here was a new form of martyrdom for saints invented by the Pope’s son. And his father pardoned him the deed, and others as bad, by a secret bull, absolving him from all pains and penalties that he might have incurred through youthful frailty or human incontinence!”
It was the relation of those horrors, I think, which, stirring my indignation, spurred me even more than the thought of redressing the wrongs which the Pontifical or Farnesian government would permit my mother to do me.
I held out my hand to Galeotto. “To the utmost of my little might,” said I, “you may depend upon me in this good cause in which you have engaged.”
“There speaks the son of the house of Anguissola,” said he, a light of affection in his steel-coloured eyes. “And there are your father’s wrongs to right as well as the wrongs of humanity, remember. By this Pier Luigi was he crushed; whilst those who bore arms with him at Perugia and were taken alive…” He paused and turned livid, great beads of perspiration standing upon his brow. “I cannot,” he faltered, “I cannot even now, after all these years, bear to think upon those horrors perpetrated by that monster.”
I was strangely moved at the sight of emotion in one who seemed emotionless as iron.
“I left the hermitage,” said I, “in the hope that I might the better be able to serve God in the world. I think you are showing me the way, Ser Galeotto.”
PIER LUIGI FARNESE
We left Milan that same day, and there followed for some months a season of wandering through Lombardy, going from castle to castle, from tyranny to tyranny, just the three of us–Galeotto and myself with Falcone for our equerry and attendant.
Surely something of the fanatic’s temperament there must have been in me; for now that I had embraced a cause, I served it with all the fanaticism with which on Monte Orsaro I sought to be worthy of the course I had taken then.
I was become as an apostle, preaching a crusade or holy war against the Devil’s lieutenant on earth, Messer Pier Luigi Farnese, sometime Duke of Castro, now Duke of Parma and Piacenza–for the investiture duly followed in the August of that year, and soon his iron hand began to be felt throughout the State of which the Pope had constituted him a prince.
And to the zest that was begotten of pure righteousness, Galeotto cunningly added yet another and more worldly spur. We were riding one day in late September of that year from Cortemaggiore, where we had spent a month in seeking to stir the Pallavicini to some spirit of resistance, and we were making our way towards Romagnese, the stronghold of that great Lombard family of dal Verme.
As we were ambling by a forest path, Galeotto abruptly turned to me, Falcone at the time being some little way in advance of us, and startled me by his words.
“Cavalcanti’s daughter seemed to move you strangely, Agostino,” he said, and watched me turn pale under his keen glance.
In my confusion–more or less at random–“What should Cavalcanti’s daughter be to me?” I asked.
“Why, what you will, I think,” he answered, taking my question literally. “Cavalcanti would consider the Lord of Mondolfo and Carmina a suitable mate for his daughter, however he might hesitate to marry her to the landless Agostino d’Anguissola. He loved your father better than any man that ever lived, and such an alliance was mutually desired.”
“Do you think I need this added spur?” quoth I.
“Nay, I know that you do not. But it is well to know what reward may wait upon our labour. It makes that labour lighter and increases courage.”
I hung my head, without answering him, and we rode silently amain.
He had touched me where the flesh was raw and tender. Bianca de’ Cavalcanti! It was a name I uttered like a prayer, like a holy invocation. Just so had I been in a measure content to carry that name and the memory of her sweet face. To consider her as the possible Lady of Mondolfo when I should once more have come into my own, was to consider things that filled me almost with despair.
Again I experienced such hesitations as had kept me from ever seeking her at Pagliano, though I had been given the freedom of her garden. Giuliana had left her brand upon me. And though Bianca had by now achieved for me what neither prayers nor fasting could accomplish, and had exorcized the unholy visions of Giuliana from my mind, yet when I came to consider Bianca as a possible companion–as something more or something less than a saint enthroned in the heaven created by my worship of her–there rose between us ever that barrier of murder and adultery, a barrier which not even in imagination did I dare to overstep.
I strove to put such thoughts from my mind that I might leave it free to do the work to which I had now vowed myself.
All through that winter we pursued our mission. With the dal Verme we had but indifferent success, for they accounted themselves safe, being, like Cavalcanti, feudatories of the Emperor himself, and nowise included in the territories of Parma and Piacenza. From Romagnese we made our way to the stronghold of the Anguissola of Albarola, my cousins, who gave me a very friendly welcome, and who, though with us in spirit and particularly urged by their hatred of our guelphic cousin Cosimo who was now Pier Luigi’s favourite, yet hesitated as the others had done. And we met with little better success with Sforza of Santafiora, to whose castle we next repaired, or yet with the Landi, the Scotti, or Confalonieri. Everywhere the same spirit of awe was abroad, and the same pusillanimity, content to hug the little that remained rather than rear its head to demand that which by right belonged.
So that when the spring came round again, and our mission done, our crusade preached to hearts that would not be inflamed, we turned our steps once more towards Pagliano, we were utterly dispirited men–although, for myself, my despondency was tempered a little by the thought that I was to see Bianca once more.
Yet before I come to speak of her again, let me have done with these historical matters in so far as they touched ourselves.
We had left the nobles unresponsive, as you have seen. But soon the prognostications of the crafty Gonzaga were realized. Soon Farnese, through his excessive tyranny, stung them out of their apathy. The first to feel his iron hand were the Pallavicini, whom he stripped of their lands of Cortemaggiore, taking as hostages Girolamo Pallavicini’s wife and mother. Next he hurled his troops against the dal Verme, forcing Romagnese to capitulate, and then seeking similarly to reduce their other fief of Bobbio. Thence upon his all-conquering way, he marched upon Castel San Giovanni, whence he sought to oust the Sforza, and at the same time he committed the mistake of attempting to drive the Gonzaga out of Soragna.
This last rashness brought down upon his head the direct personal resentment of Ferrante Gonzaga. With the Imperial troops at his heels the Governor of Milan not only intervened to save Soragna for his family, but forced Pier Luigi to disgorge Bobbio and Romagnese, restoring them to the dal Verme, and compelled him to raise the siege of San Giovanni upon which he was at the time engaged–claiming that both these noble houses were feudatories of the Empire.
Intimidated by that rude lesson, Pier Luigi was forced to draw in his steely claws. To console himself, he turned his attention to the Val di Taro, and issued an edict commanding all nobles there to disarm, disband their troops, quit their fortresses, and go to reside in the principal cities of their districts. Those who resisted or demurred, he crushed at once with exile and confiscation; and even those who meekly did his will, he stripped of all privileges as feudal lords.
Even my mother, we heard, was forced to dismiss her trivial garrison, having been ordered to close the Citadel of Mondolfo, and take up her residence in our palace in the city itself. But she went further than she was bidden–she took the veil in the Convent of Santa Chiara, and so retired from the world.
The State began to ferment in secret at so much and such harsh tyranny. Farnese was acting in Piacenza as Tarquin of old had acted in his garden, slicing the tallest poppies from their stems. And soon to swell his treasury, which not even his plunder, brigandage, and extortionate confiscations could fill sufficiently to satisfy his greed, he set himself to look into the past lives of the nobles, and to promulgate laws that were retroactive, so that he was enabled to levy fresh fines and perpetrate fresh sequestrations in punishment of deeds that had been done long years ago.
Amongst these, we heard that he had Giovanni d’Anguissola decapitated in effigy for his rebellion against the authority of the Holy See, and that my tyrannies of Mondolfo and Carmina were confiscated from me because of my offence in being Giovanni d’Anguissola’s son. And presently we heard that Mondolfo had been conferred by Farnese upon his good and loyal servant and captain, the Lord Cosimo d’Anguissola, subject to a tax of a thousand ducats yearly!
Galeotto ground his teeth and swore horribly when the news was brought us from Piacenza, whilst I felt my heart sink and the last hope of Bianca–the hope secretly entertained almost against hope itself–withering in my soul.
But soon came consolation. Pier Luigi had gone too far. Even rats when cornered will turn at bay and bare their teeth for combat. So now the nobles of the Valnure and the Val di Taro.
The Scotti, the Pallavicini, the Landi, and the Anguissola of Albarola, came one after the other in secret to Pagliano to interview the gloomy Galeotto. And at one gathering that was secretly held in a chamber of the castle, he lashed them with his furious scorn.
“You are come now,” he jeered at them, “now that you are maimed; now that you have been bled of half your strength; now that most of your teeth are drawn. Had you but had the spirit and good sense to rise six months ago when I summoned you so to do, the struggle had been brief and the victory certain. Now the fight will be all fraught with risk, dangerous to engage, and uncertain of issue.”
But it was they–these men who themselves had been so pusillanimous at first–who now urged him to take the lead, swearing to follow him to the death, to save for their children what little was still left them.
“In that spirit I will not lead you a step,” he answered them. “If we raise our standard, we fight for all our ancient rights, for all our privileges, and for the restoration of all that has been confiscated; in short, for the expulsion of the Farnese from these lands. If that is your spirit, then I will consider what is to be done–for, believe me, open warfare will no longer avail us here. What we have to do must be done by guile. You have waited too long to resolve yourselves. And whilst you have grown weak, Farnese has been growing strong. He has fawned upon and flattered the populace; he has set the people against the nobles; he has pretended that in crushing the nobles he was serving the people, and they– poor fools!–have so far believed him that they will run to his banner in any struggle that may ensue.”
He dismissed them at last with the promise that they should hear from him, and on the morrow, attended by Falcone only, he rode forth again from Pagliano, to seek out the dal Verme and the Sforza of Santafiora and endeavour to engage their interest against the man who had outraged them.
And that was early in August of the year ’46.
I remained at Pagliano by Galeotto’s request. He would have no need of me upon his mission. But he might desire me to seek out some of the others of the Val di Taro with such messages as he should send me.
And in all this time I had seen but little of Monna Bianca. We met under her father’s eye in that gold-and-purple dining-room; and there I would devoutly, though surreptitiously, feast my eyes upon the exquisite beauty of her. But I seldom spoke to her, and then it was upon the most trivial matters; whilst although the summer was now full fragrantly unfolded, yet I never dared to intrude into that garden of hers to which I had been bidden, ever restrained by the overwhelming memory of the past.
So poignant was this memory that at times I caught myself wondering whether, after all, I had not been mistaken in lending an ear so readily to the arguments of Fra Gervasio, whether Fra Gervasio himself had not been mistaken in assuming that my place was in the world, and whether I had not done best to have carried out my original intention of seeking refuge in some monastery in the lowly position of a lay brother.
Meanwhile the Lord of Pagliano used me in the most affectionate and fatherly manner. But not even this sufficed to encourage me where his daughter was concerned, and I seemed to observe also that Bianca herself, if she did not actually avoid my society, was certainly at no pains to seek it.
What the end would have been but for the terrible intervention there was in our affairs, I have often surmised without result.
It happened that one day, about a week after Galeotto had left us there rode up to the gates of Pagliano a very magnificent company, and there was great braying of horns, stamping of horses and rattle of arms.
My Lord Pier Luigi Farnese had been on a visit to his city of Parma, and on his return journey had thought well to turn aside into the lands of ultra- Po, and pay a visit to the Lord of Pagliano, whom he did not love, yet whom, perhaps, it may have been his intention to conciliate, since hurt him he could not.
Sufficiently severe had been the lesson he had received for meddling with Imperial fiefs; and he must have been mad had he thought of provoking further the resentment of the Emperor. To Farnese, Charles V was a sleeping dog it was as well to leave sleeping.
He rode, then, upon his friendly visit into the Castle of Pagliano, attended by a vast retinue of courtiers and ladies, pages, lackeys, and a score of men-at-arms. A messenger had ridden on in advance to warn Cavalcanti of the honour that the Duke proposed to do him, and Cavalcanti, relishing the honour no whit, yet submitting out of discreetness, stood to receive his excellency at the foot of the marble staircase with Bianca on one side and myself upon the other.
Under the archway they rode, Farnese at the head of the cavalcade. He bestrode a splendid white palfrey, whose mane and tail were henna-dyed, whose crimson velvet trappings trailed almost to the ground. He was dressed in white velvet, even to his thigh-boots, which were laced with gold and armed with heavy gold spurs. A scarlet plume was clasped by a great diamond in his velvet cap, and on his right wrist was perched a hooded falcon.
He was a tall and gracefully shaped man of something over forty years of age, black-haired and olive-skinned, wearing a small pointed beard that added length to his face. His nose was aquiline, and he had fine eyes, but under them there were heavy brown shadows, and as he came nearer it was seen that his countenance was marred by an unpleasant eruption of sores.
After him came his gentlemen, a round dozen of them, with half that number of splendid ladies, all a very dazzling company. Behind these, in blazing liveries, there was a cloud of pages upon mules, and lackeys leading sumpter-beasts; and then to afford them an effective background, a grey, steel phalanx of men-at-arms.
I describe his entrance as it appeared at a glance, for I did not study it or absorb any of its details. My horrified gaze was held by a figure that rode on his right hand, a queenly woman with a beautiful pale countenance and a lazy, insolent smile.
It was Giuliana.
How she came there I did not at the moment trouble to reflect. She was there. That was the hideous fact that made me doubt the sight of my own eyes, made me conceive almost that I was at my disordered visions again, the fruit of too much brooding. I felt as if all the blood were being exhausted from my heart, as if my limbs would refuse their office, and I leaned for support against the terminal of the balustrade by which I stood.
She saw me. And after the first slight start of astonishment, her lazy smile grew broader and more insolent. I was but indifferently conscious of the hustle about me, of the fact that Cavalcanti himself was holding the Duke’s stirrup, whilst the latter got slowly to the ground and relinquished his falcon to a groom who wore a perch suspended from his neck, bearing three other hooded birds. Similarly I was no more than conscious of being forced to face the Duke by words that Cavalcanti was uttering. He was presenting me.
“This, my lord, is Agostino d’Anguissola.”
I saw, as through a haze, the swarthy, pustuled visage frown down upon me. I heard a voice which was at once harsh and effeminate and quite detestable, saying in unfriendly tones:
“The son of Giovanni d’Anguissola of Mondolfo, eh?”
“The same, my lord,” said Cavalcanti, adding generously–“Giovanni d’Anguissola was my friend.”
“It is a friendship that does you little credit, sir,” was the harsh answer. “It is not well to befriend the enemies of God.”
Was it possible that I had heard aright? Had this human foulness dared to speak of God?
“That is a matter upon which I will not dispute with a guest,” said Cavalcanti with an urbanity of tone belied by the anger that flashed from his brown eyes.
At the time I thought him greatly daring, little dreaming that, forewarned of the Duke’s coming, his measures were taken, and that one blast from the silver whistle that hung upon his breast would have produced a tide of men- at-arms that would have engulfed and overwhelmed Messer Pier Luigi and his suite.
Farnese dismissed the matter with a casual laugh. And then a lazy, drawling voice–a voice that once had been sweetest music to my ears, but now was loathsome as the croaking of Stygian frogs–addressed me.
“Why, here is a great change, sir saint! We had heard you had turned anchorite; and behold you in cloth of gold, shining as you would out-dazzle Phoebus.”
I stood palely before her, striving to keep the loathing from my face, and I was conscious that Bianca had suddenly turned and was regarding us with eyes of grave concern.
“I like you better for the change,” pursued Giuliana. “And I vow that you have grown at least another inch. Have you no word for me, Agostino?”
I was forced to answer her. “I trust that all is well with you, Madonna,” I said.
Her lazy smile grew broader, displaying the dazzling whiteness of her strong teeth. “Why, all is very well with me,” said she, and her sidelong glance at the Duke, half mocking, half kindly with an odious kindliness, seemed to give added explanations.
That he should have dared bring here this woman whom no doubt he had wrested from his creature Gambara–here into the shrine of my pure and saintly Bianca–was something for which I could have killed him then, for which I hated him far more bitterly than for any of those dark turpitudes that I had heard associated with his odious name.
And meanwhile there he stood, that Pope’s bastard, leaning over my Bianca, speaking to her, and in his eyes the glow of a dark and unholy fire what time they fed upon her beauty as the slug feeds upon the lily. He seemed to have no thought for any other, nor for the circumstance that he kept us all standing there.
“You must come to our Court at Piacenza, Madonna,” I heard him murmuring. “We knew not that so fair a flower was blossoming unseen in this garden of Pagliano. It is not well that such a jewel should be hidden in this grey casket. You were made to queen it in a court, Madonna; and at Piacenza you shall be hailed and honoured as its queen.” And so he rambled on with his rough and trivial flattery, his foully pimpled face within a foot of hers, and she shrinking before him, very white and mute and frightened. Her father looked on with darkling brows, and Giuliana began to gnaw her lip and look less lazy, whilst in the courtly background there was a respectful murmuring babble, supplying a sycophantic chorus to the Duke’s detestable adulation.
It was Cavalcanti, at last, who came to his daughter’s rescue by a peremptory offer to escort the Duke and his retinue within.
Pier Luigi’s original intent had been to spend no more than a night at Pagliano. But when the morrow came, he showed no sign of departing, nor upon the next day, nor yet upon the next.
A week passed, and still he lingered, seeming to settle more and more in the stronghold of the Cavalcanti, leaving the business of his Duchy to his secretary Filarete and to his council, at the head of which, as I learnt, was my old friend Annibale Caro.
And meanwhile, Cavalcanti, using great discreetness, suffered the Duke’s presence, and gave him and his suite most noble entertainment.
His position was perilous and precarious in the extreme, and it needed all his strength of character to hold in curb the resentment that boiled within him to see himself thus preyed upon; and that was not the worst. The worst was Pier Luigi’s ceaseless attentions to Bianca, the attentions of the satyr for the nymph, a matter in which I think Cavalcanti suffered little less than did I.
He hoped for the best, content to wait until cause for action should be forced upon him. And meanwhile that courtly throng took its ease at Pagliano. The garden that hitherto had been Bianca’s own sacred domain, the garden into which I had never yet dared set foot, was overrun now by the Duke’s gay suite–a cloud of poisonous butterflies. There in the green, shaded alleys they disported themselves; in the lemon-grove, in the perfumed rose-garden, by hedges of box and screens of purple clematis they fluttered.
Bianca sought to keep her chamber in those days, and kept it for as long on each day as was possible to her. But the Duke, hobbling on the terrace– for as a consequence of his journey on horseback he had developed a slight lameness, being all rotten with disease–would grow irritable at her absence, and insistent upon her presence, hinting that her retreat was a discourtesy; so that she was forced to come forth again, and suffer his ponderous attentions and gross flatteries.
And three days later there came another to Pagliano, bidden thither by the Duke, and this other was none else than my cousin Cosimo, who now called himself Lord of Mondolfo, having been invested in that tyranny, as I have said.
On the morning after his arrival we met upon the terrace.
“My saintly cousin!” was his derisive greeting. “And yet another change in you–out of sackcloth into velvet! The calendar shall know you as St. Weathercock, I think–or, perhaps, St. Mountebank.”
What followed was equally bitter and sardonic on his part, fiercely and openly hostile on mine. At my hostility he had smiled cruelly.
“Be content with what is, my strolling saint,” he said, in the tone of one who gives a warning, “unless you would be back in your hermitage, or within the walls of some cloister, or even worse. Already have you found it a troublesome matter to busy yourself with the affairs of the world. You were destined for sanctity.” He came closer, and grew very fierce. “Do not put it upon me to make a saint of you by sending you to Heaven.”
“It might end in your own dispatch to Hell,” said I. “Shall we essay it?”
“Body of God!” he snarled, laughter still lingering on his white face. “Is this the mood of your holiness at present? What a bloodthirsty brave are you become! Consider, pray, sir, that if you trouble me I have no need to do my own office of hangman. There is sufficient against you to make the Tribunal of the Ruota very busy; there is–can you have forgotten it?–that little affair at the house of Messer Fifanti.”
I dropped my glance, browbeaten for an instant. Then I looked at him again, and smiled
“You are but a poor coward, Messer Cosimo,” said I, “to use a shadow as a screen. You know that nothing can be proved against me unless Giuliana speaks, and that she dare not for her own sake. There are witnesses who will swear that Gambara went to Fifanti’s house that night. There is not one to swear that Gambara did not kill Fifanti ere he came forth again; and it is the popular belief, for his traffic with Giuliana is well-known, as it is well-known that she fled with him after the murder–which, in itself, is evidence of a sort. Your Duke has too great a respect for the feelings of the populace,” I sneered, “to venture to outrage them in such a matter. Besides,” I ended, “it is impossible to incriminate me without incriminating Giuliana and, Messer Pier Luigi seems, I should say, unwilling to relinquish the lady to the brutalities of a tribunal.”
“You are greatly daring,” said he, and he was pale now, for in that last mention of Giuliana, it seemed that I had touched him where he was still sensitive.
“Daring?” I rejoined. “It is more than I can say for you, Ser Cosimo. Yours is the coward’s fault of caution.”
I thought to spur him. If this failed, I was prepared to strike him, for my temper was beyond control. That he, standing towards me as he did, should dare to mock me, was more than I could brook. But at that moment there spoke a harsh voice just behind me.
“How, sir? What words are these?”
There, very magnificent in his suit of ivory velvet, stood the Duke. He was leaning heavily upon his cane, and his face was more blotched than ever, the sunken eyes more sunken.
“Are you seeking to quarrel with the Lord of Mondolfo?” quoth he, and I saw by his smile that he used my cousin’s title as a taunt.
Behind him was Cavalcanti with Bianca leaning upon his arm just as I had seen her that day when she came with him to Monte Orsaro, save that now there was a look as of fear in the blue depths of her eyes. A little on one side there was a group composed of three of the Duke’s gentlemen with Giuliana and another of the ladies, and Giuliana was watching us with half- veiled eyes.
“My lord,” I answered, very stiff and erect, and giving him back look for look, something perhaps of the loathing with which he inspired me imprinted on my face, “my lord, you give yourself idle alarms. Ser Cosimo is too cautious to embroil himself.”
He limped toward me; leaning heavily upon his stick, and it pleased me that of a good height though he was, he was forced to look up into my face.
“There is too much bad Anguissola blood in you,” he said. “Be careful lest out of our solicitude for you, we should find it well to let our leech attend you.”
I laughed, looking into his blotched face, considering his lame leg and all the evil humours in him.
“By my faith, I think it is your excellency needs the attentions of a leech,” said I, and flung all present into consternation by that answer.
I saw his face turn livid, and I saw the hand shake upon the golden head of his cane. He was very sensitive upon the score of his foul infirmities. His eyes grew baleful as he controlled himself. Then he smiled, displaying a ruin of blackened teeth.
“You had best take care,” he said. “It were a pity to cripple such fine limbs as yours. But there is a certain matter upon which the Holy Office might desire to set you some questions. Best be careful, sir, and avoid disagreements with my captains.”
He turned away. He had had the last word, and had left me cold with apprehension, yet warmed by the consciousness that in the brief encounter it was he who had taken the deeper wound.
He bowed before Bianca. “Oh, pardon me,” he said. “I did not dream you stood so near. Else no such harsh sounds should have offended your fair ears. As for Messer d’Anguissola…” He shrugged as who would say, “Have pity on such a boor!”
But her answer, crisp and sudden as come words that are spoken on impulse or inspiration, dashed his confidence.
“Nothing that he said offended me,” she told him boldly, almost scornfully.
He flashed me a glance that was full of venom, and I saw Cosimo smile, whilst Cavalcanti started slightly at such boldness from his meek child. But the Duke was sufficiently master of himself to bow again.
“Then am I less aggrieved,” said he, and changed the subject. “Shall we to the bowling lawn?” And his invitation was direct to Bianca, whilst his eyes passed over her father. Without waiting for their answer, his question, indeed, amounting to a command, he turned sharply to my cousin. “Your arm, Cosimo,” said he, and leaning heavily upon his captain he went down the broad granite steps, followed by the little knot of courtiers, and, lastly, by Bianca and her father.
As for me, I turned and went indoors, and there was little of the saint left in me in that hour. All was turmoil in my soul, turmoil and hatred and anger. Anon to soothe me came the memory of those sweet words that Bianca had spoken in my defence, and those words emboldened me at last to seek her but as I had never yet dared in all the time that I had spent at Pagliano.
I found her that evening, by chance, in the gallery over the courtyard. She was pacing slowly, having fled thither to avoid that hateful throng of courtiers. Seeing me she smiled timidly, and her smile gave me what little further encouragement I needed. I approached, and very earnestly rendered her my thanks for having championed my cause and supported me with the express sign of her approval.
She lowered her eyes; her bosom quickened slightly, and the colour ebbed and flowed in her cheeks.
“You should not thank me,” said she. “What I did was done for justice’s sake.”
“I have been presumptuous,” I answered humbly, “in conceiving that it might have been for the sake of me.”
“But it was that also,” she answered quickly, fearing perhaps that she had pained me. “It offended me that the Duke should attempt to browbeat you. I took pride in you to see you bear yourself so well and return thrust for thrust.”
“I think your presence must have heartened me,” said I. “No pain could be so cruel as to seem base or craven in your eyes.”
Again the tell-tale colour showed upon her lovely cheek. She began to pace slowly down the gallery, and I beside her. Presently she spoke again.
“And yet,” she said, ” I would have you cautious. Do not wantonly affront the Duke, for he is very powerful.”
“I have little left to lose,” said I.
“You have your life,” said she.
“A life which I have so much misused that it must ever cry out to me in reproach.”
She gave me a little fluttering, timid glance, and looked away again. Thus we came in silence to the gallery’s end, where a marble seat was placed, with gay cushions of painted and gilded leather. She sank to it with a little sigh, and I leaned on the balustrade beside her and slightly over her. And now I grew strangely bold.
“Set me some penance,” I cried, “that shall make me worthy.”
Again came that little fluttering, frightened glance.
“A penance?” quoth she. “I do not understand.”
“All my life,” I explained, “has been a vain striving after something that eluded me. Once I deemed myself devout; and because I had sinned and rendered myself unworthy, you found me a hermit on Monte Orsaro, seeking by penance to restore myself to the estate from which I had succumbed. That shrine was proved a blasphemy; and so the penance I had done, the signs I believed I had received, were turned to mockery. It was not there that I should save myself. One night I was told so in a vision.”
She gave an audible gasp, and looked at me so fearfully that I fell silent, staring back at her.
“You knew!” I cried.
Long did her blue, slanting eyes meet my glance without wavering, as never yet they had met it. She seemed to hesitate, and at the same time openly to consider me.
“I know now,” she breathed.
“What do you know?” My voice was tense with excitement.
“What was your vision?” she rejoined.
“Have I not told you? There appeared to me one who called me back to the world; who assured me that there I should best serve God; who filled me with the conviction that she needed me. She addressed me by name, and spoke of a place of which I had never heard until that hour, but which to-day I know.”
“And you? And you?” she asked. “What answer did you make?”
“I called her by name, although until that hour I did not know it.”
She bowed her head. Emotion set her all a-tremble.
“It is what I have so often wondered,” she confessed, scarce above a whisper. “And it is true–as true as it is strange!”
“True?” I echoed. “It was the only true miracle in that place of false ones, and it was so clear a call of destiny that it decided me to return to the world which I had abandoned. And yet I have since wondered why. Here there seems to be no place for me any more than there was yonder. I am devout again with a worldly devotion now, yet with a devotion that must be Heaven-inspired, so pure and sweet it is. It has shut out from me all the foulness of that past; and yet I am unworthy. And that is why I cry to you to set me some penance ere I can make my prayer.”
She could not understand me, nor did she. We were not as ordinary lovers. We were not as man and maid who, meeting and being drawn each to the other, fence and trifle in a pretty game of dalliance until the maid opines that the appearances are safe, and that, her resistance having been of a seemly length, she may now make the ardently desired surrender with all war’s honours. Nothing of that was in our wooing, a wooing which seemed to us, now that we spoke of it, to have been done when we had scarcely met, done in the vision that I had of her, and the vision that she had of me.
With averted eyes she set me now a question.
“Madonna Giuliana used you with a certain freedom on her arrival, and I have since heard your name coupled with her own by the Duke’s ladies. But I have asked no questions of them. I know how false can be the tongues of courtly folk. I ask it now of you. What is or was this Madonna Giuliana to you?”
“She was,” I answered bitterly, “and God pity me that I must say it to you–she was to me what Circe was to the followers of Ulysses.”
She made a little moan, and I saw her clasp her hands in her lap; and the sound and sight filled me with sorrow and despair. She must know. Better that the knowledge should stand between us as a barrier which both could see than that it should remain visible only to the eyes of my own soul, to daunt me.
“0 Bianca! Forgive me!” I cried. “I did not know! I did not know! I was a poor fool reared in seclusion and ripened thus for the first temptation that should touch me. That is what on Monte Orsaro I sought to expiate, that I might be worthy of the shrine I guarded then. That is what I would expiate now that I might be worthy of the shrine whose guardian I would become, the shrine at which I worship now.”
I was bending very low above her little brown head, in which the threads of the gold coif-net gleamed in the fading light.
“If I had but had my vision sooner,” I murmured, “how easy it would have been! Can you find mercy for me in your gentle heart? Can you forgive me, Bianca?
“0 Agostino,” she answered very sadly, and the sound of my name from her lips, coming so naturally and easily, thrilled me like the sound of the mystic music of Monte Orsaro. “What shall I answer you? I cannot now. Give me leisure to think. My mind is all benumbed. You have hurt me so!”
“Me miserable!” I cried.
“I had believed you one who erred through excess of holiness.”
“Whereas I am one who attempted holiness through excess of error.”
“I had believed you so, so…0 Agostino!” It was a little wail of pain.
“Set me a penance,” I implored her.
“What penance can I set you? Will any penance restore to me my shattered faith?”
I groaned miserably and covered my face with my hands. It seemed that I was indeed come to the end of all my hopes; that the world was become as much a mockery to me as had been the hermitage; that the one was to end for me upon the discovery of a fraud, as had the other ended–with the difference that in this case the fraud was in myself.
It seemed, indeed, that our first communion must be our last. Ever since she had seen me step into that gold-and-purple dining-room at Pagliano, the incarnation of her vision, as she was the incarnation of mine, Bianca must have waited confidently for this hour, knowing that it was foreordained to come. Bitterness and disillusion were all that it had brought her.
And then, ere more could be said, a thin, flute-like voice hissed down the vaulted gallery:
“Madonna Bianca! To hide your beauty from our hungry eyes. To quench the light by which we guide our footsteps. To banish from us the happiness and joy of your presence! Unkind, unkind!”
It was the Duke. In his white velvet suit he looked almost ghostly in the deepening twilight. He hobbled towards us, his stick tapping the black- and-white squares of the marble floor. He halted before her, and she put aside her emotion, donned a worldly mask, and rose to meet him.
Then he looked at me, and his brooding eyes seemed to scan my face.
“Why! It is Ser Agostino, Lord of Nothing,” he sneered, and down the gallery rang the laugh of my cousin Cosimo, and there came, too, a ripple of other voices.
Whether to save me from friction with those steely gentlemen who aimed at grinding me to powder, whether from other motives, Bianca set her finger- tips upon the Duke’s white sleeve and moved away with him.
I leaned against the balustrade all numb, watching them depart. I saw Cosimo come upon her other side and lean over her as he moved, so slim and graceful, beside her own slight, graceful figure. Then I sank to the cushions of the seat she had vacated, and stayed there with my misery until the night had closed about the place, and the white marble pillars looked ghostly and unreal.
I prayed that evening more fervently than I had prayed since quitting Monte Orsaro. It was as if all the influences of my youth, which lately had been shaken off in the stir of intrigue and of rides that had seemed the prelude to battle, were closing round me again.
Even as a woman had lured me once from the ways to which I seemed predestined, only to drive me back once more the more frenziedly, so now it almost seemed as if again a woman should have lured me to the world but to drive me from it again and more resolutely than ever. For I was anew upon the edge of a resolve to have done with all human interests and to seek the peace and seclusion of the cloister.
And then I bethought me of Gervasio. I would go to him for guidance, as I had done aforetime. I would ride on the morrow to seek him out in the convent near Piacenza to which he had withdrawn.
I was disturbed at last by the coming of a page to my chamber with the announcement that my lord was already at supper.
I had thoughts of excusing myself, but in the end I went.
The repast was spread, as usual, in the banqueting-hall of the castle; and about the splendid table was Pier Luigi’s company, amounting to nigh upon a score in all. The Duke himself sat on Monna Bianca’s right, whilst on her left was Cosimo.
Heeding little whether I was observed or not, I sank to a vacant place, midway down the board, between one of the Duke’s pretty young gentlemen and one of the ladies of that curious train–a bold-eyed Roman woman, whose name, I remember, was Valeria Cesarini, but who matters nothing in these pages. Almost facing me sat Giuliana, but I was hardly conscious of her, or conscious, indeed, of any save Monna Bianca.
Once or twice Bianca’s glance met mine, but it fell away again upon the instant. She was very pale, and there were wistful lines about her lips; yet her mood was singular. Her eyes had an unnatural sparkle, and ever and anon she would smile at what was said to her in half-whispers, now by the Duke, now by Cosimo, whilst once or twice she laughed outright. Gone was the usual chill reserve with which she hedged herself about to distance the hateful advances of Pier Luigi. There were moments now when she seemed almost flattered by his vile ogling and adulatory speeches, as if she had been one of those brazen ladies of his Court.
It wounded me sorely. I could not understand it, lacking the wit to see that this queer mood sprang from the blow I had dealt her, and was the outward manifestation of her own pain at the shattering of the illusions she had harboured concerning myself.
And so I sat there moodily, gnawing my lip and scowling darkly upon Pier Luigi and upon my cousin, who was as assiduous in his attentions as his master, and who seemed to be receiving an even greater proportion of her favours. One little thing there was to hearten me. Looking at the Lord of Pagliano, who sat at the table’s head, I observed that his glance was dark as it kept watch upon his daughter–that chaste white lily that seemed of a sudden to have assumed such wanton airs.
It was a matter that stirred me to battle, and forgotten again were my resolves to seek Gervasio, forgotten all notion of abandoning the world for the second time. Here was work to be done. Bianca was to be guarded. Perhaps it was in this that she would come to have need of me.
Once Cosimo caught my gloomy looks, and he leaned over to speak to the Duke, who glanced my way with languid, sneering eyes. He had a score to settle with me for the discomfiture he had that morning suffered at my hands thanks to Bianca’s collaboration. He was a clumsy fool, when all is said, and confident now of her support–from the sudden and extreme friendliness of her mood–he ventured to let loose a shaft at me in a tone that all the table might overhear.
“That cousin of yours wears a very conventual hang-dog look,” said he to Cosimo. And then to the lady on my right–“Forgive, Valeria,” he begged, “the scurvy chance that should have sat a shaveling next to you.” Lastly he turned to me to complete this gross work of offensiveness.
“When do you look, sir, to enter the life monastic for which Heaven has so clearly designed you?”
There were some sycophants who tittered at his stupid pleasantry; then the table fell silent to hear what answer I should make, and a frown sat like a thundercloud upon the brow of Cavalcanti.
I toyed with my goblet, momentarily tempted to fling its contents in his pustuled face, and risk the consequences. But I bethought me of something else that would make a deadlier missile.
“Alas!” I sighed. “I have abandoned the notion–constrained to it.”
He took my bait. “Constrained?” quoth he. “Now what fool did so constrain you?”
“No fool, but circumstance,” I answered. “It has occurred to me,” I explained, and I boldly held his glance with my own, “that as a simple monk my life would be fraught with perils, seeing that in these times even a bishop is not safe.”
Saving Bianca (who in her sweet innocence did not so much as dream of the existence of such vileness as that to which I was referring and by which a saintly man had met his death) I do not imagine that there was a single person present who did not understand to what foul crime I alluded.
The silence that followed my words was as oppressive as the silence which in Nature preludes thunder.
A vivid flame of scarlet had overspread the Duke’s countenance. It receded, leaving his cheeks a greenish white, even to the mottling pimples. Abashed, his smouldering eyes fell away before my bold, defiant glance. The fingers of his trembling hand tightened about the slender stem of his Venetian goblet, so that it snapped, and there was a gush of crimson wine upon the snowy napery. His lips were drawn back–like a dog’s in the act of snarling–and showed the black stumps of his broken teeth. But he made no sound, uttered no word. It was Cosimo who spoke, half rising as he did so.
“This insolence, my lord Duke, must be punished; this insult wiped out. Suffer me…”
But Pier Luigi reached forward across Bianca, set a hand upon my cousin’s sleeve, and pressed him back into his seat silencing him.
“Let be,” he said. And looked up the board at Cavalcanti. “It is for my Lord of Pagliano to say if a guest shall be thus affronted at his board.”
Cavalcanti’s face was set and rigid. “You place a heavy burden on my shoulders,” said he, “when your excellency, my guest, appeals to me against another guest of mine–against one who is all but friendless and the son of my own best friend.”
“And my worst enemy,” cried Pier Luigi hotly.
“That is your excellency’s own concern, not mine,” said Cavalcanti coldly. “But since you appeal to me I will say that Messer d’Anguissola’s words were ill-judged in such a season. Yet in justice I must add that it is not the way of youth to weigh its words too carefully; and you gave him provocation. When a man–be he never so high–permits himself to taunt another, he would do well to see that he is not himself vulnerable to taunts.”
Farnese rose with a horrible oath, and every one of his gentlemen with him.
“My lord,” he said, “this is to take sides against me; to endorse the affront.”
“Then you mistake my intention,” rejoined Cavalcanti, with an icy dignity. “You appeal to me for judgment. And between guests I must hold the scales dead-level, with no thought for the rank of either. Of your chivalry, my lord Duke, you must perceive that I could not do else.”
It was the simplest way in which he could have told Farnese that he cared nothing for the rank of either, and of reminding his excellency that Pagliano, being an Imperial fief, was not a place where the Duke of Parma might ruffle it unchecked.
Messer Pier Luigi hesitated, entirely out of countenance. Then his eyes turned to Bianca, and his expression softened.
“What says Madonna Bianca?” he inquired, his manner reassuming some measure of its courtliness. “Is her judgment as unmercifully level?”
She looked up, startled, and laughed a little excitedly, touched by the tenseness of a situation which she did not understand.
“What say I?” quoth she. “Why, that here is a deal of pother about some foolish words.”
“And there,” cried Pier Luigi, “spoke, I think, not only beauty but wisdom–Minerva’s utterances from the lips of Diana!”
In glad relief the company echoed his forced laugh, and all sat down again, the incident at an end, and my contempt of the Duke increased to see him permit such a matter to be so lightly ended.
But that night, when I had retired to my chamber, I was visited by Cavalcanti. He was very grave.
“Agostino,” he said, “let me implore you to be circumspect, to keep a curb upon your bitter tongue. Be patient, boy, as I am–and I have more to endure.”
“I marvel, sir, that you endure it,” answered I, for my mood was petulant.
“You will marvel less when you are come to my years–if, indeed, you come to them. For if you pursue this course, and strike back when such men as Pier Luigi tap you, you will not be likely to see old age. Body of Satan! I would that Galeotto were here! If aught should happen to you…” He checked, and set a hand upon my shoulder.
“For your father’s sake I love you, Agostino, and I speak as one who loves you.”
“I know, I know!” I cried, seizing his hand in a sudden penitence. “I am an ingrate and a fool. And you upheld me nobly at table. Sir, I swear that I will not submit you to so much concern again.”
He patted my shoulder in a very friendly fashion, and his kindly eyes smiled upon me. “If you but promise that–for your own sake, Agostino–we need say no more. God send this papal by-blow takes his departure soon, for he is as unwelcome here as he is unbidden.”
“The foul toad!” said I. “To see him daily, hourly bending over Monna Bianca, whispering and ogling–ugh!”
“It offends you, eh? And for that I love you! There. Be circumspect and patient, and all will be well. Put your faith in Galeotto, and endure insults which you may depend upon him to avenge when the hour strikes.”
Upon that he left me, and he left me with a certain comfort. And in the days that followed, I acted upon his injunction, though, truth to tell, there was little provocation to do otherwise. The Duke ignored me, and all the gentlemen of his following did the like, including Cosimo. And meanwhile they revelled at Pagliano and made free with the hospitality to which they had not been bidden.
Thus sped another week in which I had not the courage again to approach Bianca after what had passed between us at our single interview. Nor for that matter was I afforded the opportunity. The Duke and Cosimo were ever at her side, and yet it almost seemed as if the Duke had given place to his captain, for Cosimo’s was the greater assiduity now.
The days were spent at bowls or pallone within the castle, or upon hawking- parties or hunting-parties when presently the Duke’s health was sufficiently improved to enable him to sit his horse; and at night there was feasting which Cavalcanti must provide, and on some evenings we danced, though that was a diversion in which I took no part, having neither the will nor the art.
One night as I sat in the gallery above the great hall, watching them footing it upon the mosaic floor below, Giuliana’s deep, slow voice behind me stirred me out of my musings. She had espied me up there and had come to join me, although hitherto I had most sedulously avoided her, neither addressing her nor giving her the opportunity to address me since the first brazen speech on her arrival.
“That white-faced lily, Madonna Bianca de’ Cavalcanti, seems to have caught the Duke in her net of innocence,” said she.
I started round as if I had been stung, and at sight of my empurpling face she slowly smiled, the same hateful smile that I had seen upon her face that day in the garden when Gambara had bargained for her with Fifanti.
“You are greatly daring,” said I.
“To take in vain the name of her white innocence?” she answered, smiling superciliously. And then she grew more serious. “Look, Agostino, we were friends once. I would be your friend now.”
“It is a friendship, Madonna, best not given expression.”
“Ha! We are very scrupulous–are we not?–since we have abandoned the ways of holiness, and returned to this world of wickedness, and raised our eyes to the pale purity of the daughter of Cavalcanti!” She spoke sneeringly.
“What is that to you?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she answered frankly. “But that another may have raised his eyes to her is something. I am honest with you. If this child is aught to you, and you would not lose her, you would do well to guard her more closely than you are wont. A word in season. That is all my message.”
“Stay!” I begged her now, for already she was gliding away through the shadows of the gallery.
She laughed over her shoulder at me–the very incarnation of effrontery and insolence.
“Have I moved you into sensibility?” quoth she. “Will you condescend to questions with one whom you despise?–as, indeed,” she added with a stinging scorn, you have every right to do.”
“Tell me more precisely what you mean,” I begged her, for her words had moved me fearfully.
“Gesu!” she exclaimed. “Can I be more precise? Must I add counsels? Why, then, I counsel that a change of air might benefit Madonna Bianca’s health, and that if my Lord of Pagliano is wise, he will send her into retreat in some convent until the Duke’s visit here is at an end. And I can promise you that in that case it will be the sooner ended. Now, I think that even a saint should understand me.”
With that last gibe she moved resolutely on and left me.
Of the gibe I took little heed. What imported was her warning. And I did not doubt that she had good cause to warn me. I remembered with a shudder her old-time habit of listening at doors. It was very probable that in like manner had she now gathered information that entitled her to give me such advice.
It was incredible. And yet I knew that it was true, and I cursed my blindness and Cavalcanti’s. What precisely Farnese’s designs might be I could not conceive. It was hard to think that he should dare so much as Giuliana more than hinted. It may be that, after all, there was no more than just the danger of it, and that her own base interests urged her to do what she could to avert it.
In any case, her advice was sound; and perhaps, as she said, the removal of Bianca quietly might be the means of helping Pier Luigi’s unwelcome visit to an end.
Indeed, it was so. It was Bianca who held him at Pagliano, as the blindest idiot should have perceived.
That very night I would seek out Cavalcanti ere I retired to sleep.
THE TALONS OF THE HOLY OFFICE
Acting upon my resolve, I went to wait for Cavalcanti in the little anteroom that communicated with his bedroom. My patience was tried, for he was singularly late in coming; fully an hour passed after all the sounds had died down in the castle and it was known that all had retired, and still there was no sign of him.
I asked one of the pages who lounged there waiting for their master, did he think my lord would be in the library, and the boy was conjecturing upon this unusual tardiness of Cavalcanti’s in seeking his bed, when the door opened, and at last he appeared.
When he found me awaiting him, a certain eagerness seemed to light his face; a second’s glance showed me that he was in the grip of some unusual agitation. He was pale, with a dull flush under the eyes, and the hand with which he waved away the pages shook, as did his voice when he bade them depart, saying that he desired to be alone with me awhile.
When the two slim lads had gone, he let himself fall wearily into a tall, carved chair that was placed near an ebony table with silver feet in the middle of the room.
But instead of unburdening himself as I fully expected, he looked at me, and–
“What is it, Agostino?” he inquired.
“I have thought,” I answered after a moment’s hesitation, “of a means by which this unwelcome visit of Farnese’s might be brought to an end.”
And with that I told him as delicately as was possible that I believed Madonna Bianca to be the lodestone that held him there, and that were she removed from his detestable attentions, Pagliano would cease to amuse him and he would go his ways.
There was no outburst such as I had almost looked for at the mere suggestion contained in my faltering words. He looked at me gravely and sadly out of that stern face of his.
“I would you had given me this advice two weeks ago,” he said. “But who was to have guessed that this pope’s bastard would have so prolonged his visit? For the rest, however, you are mistaken, Agostino. It is not he who has dared to raise his eyes as you suppose to Bianca. Were such the case, I should have killed him with my hands were he twenty times the Duke of Parma. No, no. My Bianca is being honourably wooed by your cousin Cosimo.”
I looked at him, amazed. It could not be. I remembered Giuliana’s words. Giuliana did not love me, and were it as he supposed she would have seen no cause to intervene. Rather might she have taken a malicious pleasure in witnessing my own discomfiture, in seeing the sweet maid to whom I had raised my eyes, snatched away from me by my cousin who already usurped so much that was my own.
“0, you must be mistaken,” I cried.
“Mistaken?” he echoed. He shook his head, smiling bitterly. “There is no possibility of mistake. I am just come from an interview with the Duke and his fine captain. Together they sought me out to ask my daughter’s hand for Cosimo d’Anguissola.”
“And you?” I cried, for this thrust aside my every doubt.
“And I declined the honour,” he answered sternly, rising in his agitation. “I declined it in such terms as to leave them no doubt upon the irrevocable quality of my determination; and then this pestilential Duke had the effrontery to employ smiling menaces, to remind me that he had the power to compel folk to bend the knee to his will, to remind me that behind him he had the might of the Pontiff and even of the Holy Office. And when I defied him with the answer that I was a feudatory of the Emperor, he suggested that the Emperor himself must bow before the Court of the Inquisition.”
“My God!” I cried in liveliest fear.
“An idle threat!” he answered contemptuously, and set himself to stride the room, his hands clasped behind his broad back.
“What have I to do with the Holy Office?” he snorted. “But they had worse indignities for me, Agostino. They mocked me with a reminder that Giovanni d’Anguissola had been my firmest friend. They told me they knew it to have been my intention that my daughter should become the Lady of Mondolfo, and to cement the friendship by making one State of Pagliano, Mondolfo and Carmina. And they added that by wedding her to Cosimo d’Anguissola was the way to execute that plan, for Cosimo, Lord of Mondolfo already, should receive Carmina as a wedding-gift from the Duke.”
“Was such indeed your intention?” I asked scarce above a whisper, overawed as men are when they perceive precisely what their folly and wickedness have cost them.
He halted before me, and set one hand of his upon my shoulder, looking up into my face. “It has been my fondest dream, Agostino,” he said.
I groaned. “It is a dream that never can be realized now,” said I miserably.
“Never, indeed, if Cosimo d’Anguissola continues to be Lord of Mondolfo,” he answered, his keen, friendly eyes considering me.
I reddened and paled under his glance.
“Nor otherwise,” said I. “For Monna Bianca holds me in the contempt which I deserve. Better a thousand times that I should have remained out of this world to which you caused me to return–unless, indeed, my present torment is the expiation that is required of me unless, indeed, I was but brought back that I might pay with suffering for all the evil that I have wrought.”
He smiled a little. “Is it so with you? Why, then, you afflict yourself too soon, boy. You are over-hasty to judge. I am her father, and my little Bianca is a book in which I have studied deeply. I read her better than do you, Agostino. But we will talk of this again.”
He turned away to resume his pacing in the very moment in which he had fired me with such exalted hopes. “Meanwhile, there is this Farnese dog with his parcel of minions and harlots making a sty of my house. He threatens to remain until I come to what he terms a reasonable mind–until I consent to do his will and allow my daughter to marry his henchman; and he parted from me enjoining me to give the matter thought, and impudently assuring me that in Cosimo d’Anguissola–in that guelphic jackal–I had a husband worthy of Bianca de’ Cavalcanti.”
He spoke it between his teeth, his eyes kindling angrily again.
“The remedy, my lord, is to send Bianca hence,” I said. “Let her seek shelter in a convent until Messer Pier Luigi shall have taken his departure. And if she is no longer here, Cosimo will have little inclination to linger.”
He flung back his head, and there was defiance in every line of his clear- cut face. “Never!” he snapped. “The thing could have been done two weeks ago, when they first came. It would have seemed that the step was determined before his coming, and that in my independence I would not alter my plans. But to do it now were to show fear of him; and that is not my way.
“Go, Agostino. Let me have the night to think. I know not how to act. But we will talk again to-morrow.”