It was best so; best leave it to the night to bring counsel, for we were face to face with grave issues which might need determining sword in hand.
That I slept little will be readily conceived. I plagued my mind with this matter of Cosimo’s suit, thinking that I saw the ultimate intent–to bring Pagliano under the ducal sway by rendering master of it one who was devoted to Farnese.
And then, too, I would think of that other thing that Cavalcanti had said: that I had been hasty in my judgment of his daughter’s mind. My hopes rose and tortured me with the suspense they held. Then came to me the awful thought that here there might be a measure of retribution, and that it might be intended as my punishment that Cosimo, whom I had unconsciously bested in my sinful passion, should best me now in this pure and holy love.
I was astir betimes, and out in the gardens before any, hoping, I think, that Bianca, too, might seek the early morning peace of that place, and that so we might have speech.
Instead, it was Giuliana who came to me. I had been pacing the terrace some ten minutes, inhaling the matutinal fragrance, drawing my hands through the cool dew that glistened upon the boxwood hedges, when I saw her issue from the loggia that opened to the gardens.
Upon her coming I turned to go within, and I would have passed her without a word, but that she put forth a hand to detain me.
“I was seeking you, Agostino,” she said in greeting.
“Having found me, Madonna, you will give me leave to go,” said I.
But she was resolutely barring my way. A slow smile parted her scarlet lips and broke over that ivory countenance that once I had deemed so lovely and now I loathed.
“I mind me another occasion in a garden betimes one morning when you were in no such haste to shun me.”
I crimsoned under her insolent regard. “Have you the courage to remember?” I exclaimed.
“Half the art of life is to harbour happy memories,” said she.
“Happy?” quoth I.
“Do you deny that we were happy on that morning?–it would be just about this time of year, two years ago. And what a change in you since then! Heigho! And yet men say that woman is inconstant!”
“I did not know you then,” I answered harshly.
“And do you know me now? Has womanhood no mysteries for you since you gathered wisdom in the wilderness?”
I looked at her with detestation in my eyes. The effrontery, the ease and insolence of her bearing, all confirmed my conviction of her utter shamelessness and heartlessness.
“The day after…after your husband died,” I said, “I saw you in a dell near Castel Guelfo with my Lord Gambara. In that hour I knew you.”
She bit her lip, then smiled again. “What would you?” answered she. “Through your folly and crime I was become an outcast. I went in danger of my life. You had basely deserted me. My Lord Gambara, more generous, offered me shelter and protection. I was not born for martyrdom and dungeons,” she added, and sighed with smiling plaintiveness. “Are you, of all men, the one to blame me?”
“I have not the right, I know,” I answered. “Nor do I blame you more than I blame myself. But since I blame myself most bitterly–since I despise and hate myself for what is past, you may judge what my feelings are for you. And judging them, I think it were well you gave me leave to go.”
“I came to speak of other than ourselves, Ser Agostino,” she answered, all unmoved still by my scorn, or leastways showing nothing of what emotions might be hers. “It is of that simpering daughter of my Lord of Pagliano.”
“There is nothing I could less desire to hear you talk upon,” said I.
“It is so very like a man to scorn the thing I could tell him after he has already heard it from me.”
“The thing you told me was false,” said I. “It was begotten of fear to see your own base interests thwarted. It is proven so by the circumstance that the Duke has sought the hand of Madonna Bianca for Cosimo d’Anguissola.”
“For Cosimo?” she cried, and I never saw her so serious and thoughtful. “For Cosimo? You are sure of this?” The urgency of her tone was such that it held me there and compelled my answer.
“I have it from my lord himself.”
She knit her brows, her eyes upon the ground; then slowly she raised them, and looked at me again, the same unusual seriousness and alertness in every line of her face.
“Why, by what dark ways does he burrow to his ends?” she mused.
And then her eyes grew lively, her expression cunning and vengeful. “I see it!” she exclaimed. “0, it is as clear as crystal. This is the Roman manner of using complaisant husbands.”
“Madonna!” I rebuked her angrily–angry to think that anyone should conceive that Bianca could be so abused.
“Gesu!” she returned with a shrug. “The thing is plain enough if you will but look at it. Here his excellency dares nothing, lest he should provoke the resentment of that uncompromising Lord of Pagliano. But once she is safely away–as Cosimo’s wife…”
“Stop!” I cried, putting out a hand as if I would cover her mouth. Then collecting myself. “Do you suggest that Cosimo could lend himself to so infamous a compact?”
“Lend himself? That pander? You do not know your cousin. If you have any interest in this Madonna Bianca you will get her hence without delay, and see that Pier Luigi has no knowledge of the convent to which she is consigned. He enjoys the privileges of a papal offspring, and there is no sanctuary he will respect. So let the thing be done speedily and in secret.”
I looked at her between doubt and horror.
“Why should you mistrust me?” she asked, answering my look. “I have been frank with you. It is not you nor that white-faced ninny I would serve. You may both go hang for me, though I loved you once, Agostino.” And the sudden tenderness of tone and smile were infinitely mocking. “No, no, beloved, if I meddle in this at all, it is because my own interests are in peril.”
I shuddered at the cold, matter-of-fact tone in which she alluded to such interests as those which she could have in Pier Luigi.
“Ay, shrink and cringe, sir saint,” she sneered. “Having cast me off and taken up holiness, you have the right, of course.” And with that she moved past me, and down the terrace-steps without ever turning her head to look at me again. And that was the last I ever saw of her, as you shall find, though little was it to have been supposed so then.
I stood hesitating, half minded to go after her and question her more closely as to what she knew and what she did no more than surmise. But then I reflected that it mattered little. What really mattered was that her good advice should be acted upon without delay.
I went towards the house and in the loggia came face to face with Cosimo.
“Still pursuing the old love,” he greeted me, smiling and jerking his head in the direction of Giuliana. “We ever return to it in the end, they say; yet you had best have a care. It is not well to cross my Lord Pier Luigi in such matters; he can be a very jealous tyrant.”
I wondered was there some double meaning in the words. I made shift to pass on, leaving his taunt unanswered, when suddenly he stepped up to me and tapped my shoulder.
“One other thing, sweet cousin. You little deserve a warning at my hands. Yet you shall have it. Make haste to shake the dust of Pagliano from your feet. An evil is hanging over you here.”
I looked into his wickedly handsome face, and smiled coldly.
“It is a warning which in my turn I will give to you, you jackal,” said I, and watched the expression of his countenance grow set and frozen, the colour recede from it.
“What do you mean?” he growled, touched to suspicion of my knowledge by the term I had employed. “What things has that trull dared to…”
I cut in. “I mean, sir, to warn you. “Do not drive me to do more.”
We were quite alone. Behind us stretched the long, empty room, before us the empty gardens. He was without weapons as was I. But my manner was so fierce that he recoiled before me, in positive fear of my hands, I think.
I swung on my heel and pursued my way.
I went above to seek Cavalcanti, and found him newly risen. Wrapped in a gown of miniver, he received me with the news that having given the matter thought, he had determined to sacrifice his pride and remove Bianca not later than the morrow, as soon as he could arrange it. And to arrange it he would ride forth at once.
I offered to go with him, and that offer he accepted, whereafter I lounged in his antechamber waiting until he should be dressed, and considering whether to impart to him the further information I had that morning gleaned. In the end I decided not to do so, unable to bring myself to tell him that so much turpitude might possibly be plotting against Bianca. It was a statement that soiled her, so it seemed to me. Indeed I could scarcely bear to think of it.
Presently he came forth full-dressed, booted, and armed, and we went along the corridor and out upon the gallery. As side by side we were descending the steps, we caught sight of a singular group in the courtyard.
Six mounted men in black were drawn up there, and a little in the foreground a seventh, in a corselet of blackened steel and with a steel cap upon his head, stood by his horse in conversation with Farnese. In attendance upon the Duke were Cosimo and some three of his gentlemen.
We halted upon the steps, and I felt Cavalcanti’s hand suddenly tighten upon my arm.
“What is it?” I asked innocently, entirely unalarmed. “These are familiars of the Holy Office,” he answered me, his tone very grave. In that moment the Duke, turning, espied us. He came towards the staircase to meet us, and his face, too, was very solemn.
We went down, I filled by a strange uneasiness, which I am sure was entirely shared by Cavalcanti.
“Evil tidings, my Lord of Pagliano,” said Farnese. “The Holy Office has sent to arrest the person of Agostino d’Anguissola, for whom it has been seeking for over a year.”
“For me?” I cried, stepping forward ahead of Cavalcanti. “What has the Holy Office to do with me?”
The leading familiar advanced. “If you are Agostino d’Anguissola, there is a charge of sacrilege against you, for which you are required to answer before the courts of the Holy Office in Rome.”
“Sacrilege?” I echoed, entirely bewildered–for my first thought had been that here might be something concerning the death of Fifanti, and that the dread tribunal of the Inquisition dealing with the matter secretly, there would be no disclosures to be feared by those who had evoked its power.
The thought was, after all, a foolish one; for the death of Fifanti was a matter that concerned the Ruota and the open courts, and those, as I well knew, did not dare to move against me, on Messer Gambara’s account.
“Of what sacrilege can I be guilty?” I asked.
“The tribunal will inform you,” replied the familiar–a tall, sallow, elderly man.
“The tribunal will need, then, to await some other opportunity,” said Cavalcanti suddenly. “Messer d’Anguissola is my guest; and my guests are not so rudely plucked forth from Pagliano.”
The Duke drew away, and leaned upon the arm of Cosimo, watching. Behind me in the gallery I heard a rustle of feminine gowns; but I did not turn to look. My eyes were upon the stern sable figure of the familiar.
“You will not be so ill-advised, my lord,” he was saying, “as to compel us to use force.”
“You will not, I trust, be so ill-advised as to attempt it,” laughed Cavalcanti, tossing his great head. “I have five score men-at-arms within these walls, Messer Blackclothes.”
The familiar bowed. “That being so, the force for to-day is yours, as you say. But I would solemnly warn you not to employ it contumaciously against the officers of the Holy Office, nor to hinder them in the duty which they are here to perform, lest you render yourself the object of their just resentment.”
Cavalcanti took a step forward, his face purple with anger that this tipstaff ruffian should take such a tone with him. But in that instant I seized his arm.
“It is a trap!” I muttered in his ear. “Beware!”
I was no more than in time. I had surprised upon Farnese’s mottled face a sly smile–the smile of the cat which sees the mouse come venturing from its lair. And I saw the smile perish–to confirm my suspicions–when at my whispered words Cavalcanti checked in his rashness.
Still holding him by the arm, I turned to the familiar.
“I shall surrender to you in a moment, sir,” said I. “Meanwhile, and you, gentlemen–give us leave apart.” And I drew the bewildered Cavalcanti aside and down the courtyard under the colonnade of the gallery.
“My lord, be wise for Bianca’s sake,” I implored him. “I am assured that here is nothing but a trap baited for you. Do not gorge their bait as your valour urges you. Defeat them, my lord, by circumspection. Do you not see that if you resist the Holy Office, they can issue a ban against you, and that against such a ban not even the Emperor can defend you? Indeed, if they told him that his feudatory, the Lord of Pagliano, had been guilty of contumaciously thwarting the ends of the Holy Inquisition, that bigot Charles V would be the first to deliver you over to the ghastly practices of that tribunal. It should not need, my lord, that I should tell you this.”
“My God!” he groaned in utter misery. “But you, Agostino?”
“There is nothing against me,” I answered impatiently. “What sacrilege have I ever committed? The thing is a trumped-up business, conceived with a foul purpose by Messer Pier Luigi there. Courage, then, and self- restraint; and thus we shall foil their aims. Come, my lord, I will ride to Rome with them. And do not doubt that I shall return very soon.”
He looked at me with eyes that were full of trouble, indecision in every line of a face that was wont to look so resolute. He knew himself between the sword and the wall.
“I would that Galeotto were here!” cried that man usually so self-reliant. “What will he say to me when he comes? You were a sacred charge, boy.”
“Say to him that I will be returning shortly–which must be true. Come, then. You may serve me this way. The other way you will but have to endure ultimate arrest, and so leave Bianca at their mercy, which is precisely what they seek.”
He braced himself at the thought of Bianca. We turned, and in silence we paced back, quite leisurely as if entirely at our ease, for all that Cavalcanti’s face had grown very haggard.
“I yield me, sir,” I said to the familiar.
“A wise decision,” sneered the Duke.
“I trust you’ll find it so, my lord,” I answered, sneering too.
They led forward a horse for me, and when I had embraced Cavalcanti, I mounted and my funereal escort closed about me. We rode across the courtyard under the startled eyes of the folk of Pagliano, for the familiars of the Holy Office were dread and fearful objects even to the stoutest-hearted man. As we neared the gateway a shrill cry rang out on the morning air:
Fear and tenderness and pain were all blent in that cry.
I swung round in the saddle to behold the white form of Bianca, standing in the gallery with parted lips and startled eyes that were gazing after me, her arms outheld. And then, even as I looked, she crumpled and sank with a little moan into the arms of the ladies who were with her.
I looked at Pier Luigi and from the depths of my heart I cursed him, and I prayed that the day might not be far distant when he should be made to pay for all the sins of his recreant life.
And then, as we rode out into the open country, my thoughts were turned to tenderer matters, and it came to me that when all was done, that cry of Bianca’s made it worth while to have been seized by the talons of the Holy Office.
THE PAPAL BULL
And now, that you may understand to the full the thing that happened, it is necessary that I should relate it here in its proper sequence, although that must entail my own withdrawal for a time from pages upon which too long I have intruded my own doings and thoughts and feelings.
I set it down as it was told to me later by those who bore their share in it, and particularly by Falcone, who, as you shall learn, came to be a witness of all, and retailed to me the affair with the greatest detail of what this one said and how that one looked.
I reached Rome on the fourth day after my setting out with my grim escort, and on that same day, at much the same hour as that in which the door of my dungeon in Sant’ Angelo closed upon me, Galeotto rode into the courtyard of Pagliano on his return from his treasonable journey.
He was attended only by Falcone, and it so chanced that his arrival was witnessed by Farnese, who with various members of his suite was lounging in the gallery at the time.
Surprise was mutual at the encounter; for Galeotto had known nothing of the Duke’s sojourn at Pagliano, believing him to be still at Parma, whilst the Duke as little suspected that of the five score men-at-arms garrisoned in Pagliano, three score lances were of Galeotto’s free company.
But at sight of this condottiero, whose true aims he was far from suspecting, and whose services he was eager to enlist, the Duke heaved himself up from his seat and went down the staircase shouting greetings to the soldier, and playfully calling him Galeotto in its double sense, and craving to know where he had been hiding himself this while.
The condottiero swung down from his saddle unaided–a thing which he could do even when full-armed–and stood before Farnese, a grim, dust-stained figure, with a curious smile twisting his scarred face.
“Why,” said he, in answer, “I have been upon business that concerns your magnificence somewhat closely.”
And with Falcone at his heels he advanced, the horses relinquished to the grooms who had hastened forward.
“Upon business that concerns me?” quoth the Duke, intrigued.
“Why, yes,” said Galeotto, who stood now face to face with Farnese at the foot of the steps up which the Duke’s attendants were straggling. “I have been recruiting forces, and since one of these days your magnificence is to give me occupation, you will see that the matter concerns you.”
Above leaned Cavalcanti, his face grey and haggard, without the heart to relish the wicked humour of Galeotto that could make jests for his own entertainment. True there was also Falcone to overhear, appreciate, and grin under cover of his great brown hand.
“Does this mean that you are come to your senses on the score of a stipend, Ser Galeotto?” quoth the Duke.
“I am not a trader out of the Giudecca to haggle over my wares,” replied the burly condottiero. “But I nothing doubt that your magnificence and I will come to an understanding at the last.”
“Five thousand ducats yearly is my offer,” said Farnese, “provided that you bring three hundred lances.”
“Ah, well!” said Galeotto softly, “you may come to regret one of these days, highness, that you did not think well to pay me the price I ask.”
“Regret?” quoth the Duke, with a frown of displeasure at so much frankness.
“When you see me engaged in the service of some other,” Galeotto explained. “You need a condottiero, my lord; and you may come to need one even more than you do now.”
“I have the Lord of Mondolfo,” said the Duke.
Galeotto stared at him with round eyes. “The Lord of Mondolfo?” quoth he, intentionally uncomprehending.
“You have not heard? Why, here he stands.” And he waved a jewelled hand towards Cosimo, a handsome figure in green and blue, standing nearest to Farnese.
Galeotto looked at this Anguissola, and his brow grew very black.
“So,” he said slowly, “you are the Lord of Mondolfo, eh? I think you are very brave.”
“I trust my valour will not be lacking when the proof of it is needed,” answered Cosimo haughtily, feeling the other’s unfriendly mood and responding to it.
“It cannot,” said Galeotto, “since you have the courage to assume that title, for the lordship of Mondolfo is an unlucky one to bear, Ser Cosimo. Giovanni d’Anguissola was unhappy in all things, and his was a truly miserable end. His father before him was poisoned by his best friend, and as for the last who legitimately bore that title–why, none can say that the poor lad was fortunate.”
“The last who legitimately bore that title?” cried Cosimo, very ruffled. “I think, sir, it is your aim to affront me.”
“And what is more,” continued the condottiero, as if Cosimo had not spoken, “not only are the lords of Mondolfo unlucky in themselves, but they are a source of ill luck to those they serve. Giovanni’s father had but taken service with Cesare Borgia when the latter’s ruin came at the hands of Pope Julius II. What Giovanni’s own friendship cost his friends none knows better than your highness. So that, when all is said, I think you had better look about you for another condottiero, magnificent.”
The magnificent stood gnawing his beard and brooding darkly, for he was a grossly superstitious fellow who studied omens and dabbled in horoscopes, divinations, and the like. And he was struck by the thing that Galeotto said. He looked at Cosimo darkly. But Cosimo laughed.
“Who believes such old wives’ tales? Not I, for one.”
“The more fool you!” snapped the Duke.
“Indeed, indeed,” Galeotto applauded. “A disbelief in omens can but spring from an ignorance of such matters. You should study them, Messer Cosimo. I have done so, and I tell you that the lordship of Mondolfo is unlucky to all dark-complexioned men. And when such a man has a mole under the left ear as you have–in itself a sign of death by hanging–it is well to avoid all risks.”
“Now that is very strange!” muttered the Duke, much struck by this whittling down of Cosimo’s chances, whilst Cosimo shrugged impatiently and smiled contemptuously. “You seem to be greatly versed in these matters, Ser Galeotto,” added Farnese.
“He who would succeed in whatever he may undertake should qualify to read all signs,” said Galeotto sententiously. “I have sought this knowledge.”
“Do you see aught in me that you can read?” inquired the Duke in all seriousness.
Galeotto considered him a moment without any trace in his eyes of the wicked mockery that filled his soul. “Why,” he answered slowly, “not in your own person, magnificent–leastways, not upon so brief a glance. But since you ask me, I have lately been considering the new coinage of your highness.”
“Yes, yes!” exclaimed the Duke, all eagerness, whilst several of his followers came crowding nearer–for all the world is interested in omens. “What do you read there?”
“Your fate, I think.”
“Have you a coin upon you?”
Farnese produced a gold ducat, fire-new from the mint. The condottiero took it and placed his finger upon the four letters P L A C–the abbreviation of “Placentia” in the inscription.
“P–L–A–C,” he spelled. “That contains your fate, magnificent, and you may read it for yourself.” And he returned the coin to the Duke, who stared at the letters foolishly and then at this reader of omens.
“But what is the meaning of PLAC?” he asked, and he had paled a little with excitement.
“I have a feeling that it is a sign. I cannot say more. I can but point it out to you, my lord, and leave the deciphering of it to yourself, who are more skilled than most men in such matters. Have I your excellency’s leave to go doff this dusty garb?” he concluded.
“Ay, go, sir,” answered the Duke abstractedly, puzzling now with knitted brows over the coin that bore his image.
“Come, Falcone,” said Galeotto, and with his equerry at his heels he set his foot on the first step.
Cosimo leaned forward, a sneer on his white hawk-face, “I trust, Ser Galeotto, that you are a better condottiero than a charlatan.”
“And you, sir,” said Galeotto, smiling his sweetest in return, “are, I trust, a better charlatan than a condottiero.”
He went up the stairs, the gaudy throng making way before him, and he came at last to the top, where stood the Lord of Pagliano awaiting him, a great trouble in his eyes. They clasped hands in silence, and Cavalcanti went in person to lead his guest to his apartments.
“You have not a happy air,” said Galeotto as they went. “And, Body of God! it is no matter for marvel considering the company you keep. How long has the Farnese beast been here?”
“His visit is now in its third week,” said Cavalcanti, answering mechanically.
Galeotto swore in sheer surprise. “By the Host! And what keeps him?”
Cavalcanti shrugged and let his arms fall to his sides. To Galeotto this proud, stern baron seemed most oddly dispirited.
“I see that we must talk,” he said. “Things are speeding well and swiftly now,” he added, dropping his voice. “But more of that presently. I have much to tell you.”
When they had reached the chamber that was Galeotto’s, and the doors were closed and Falcone was unbuckling his master’s spurs–“Now for my news,” said the condottiero. “But first, to spare me repetitions, let us have Agostino here. Where is he?”
The look on Cavalcanti’s face caused Galeotto to throw up his head like a spirited animal that scents danger.
“Where is he?” he repeated, and old Falcone’s fingers fell idle upon the buckle on which they were engaged.
Cavalcanti’s answer was a groan. He flung his long arms to the ceiling, as if invoking Heaven’s aid; then he let them fall again heavily, all strength gone out of them.
Galeotto stood an instant looking at him and turning very white. Suddenly he stepped forward, leaving Falcone upon his knees.
“What is this?” he said, his voice a rumble of thunder. “Where is the boy? I say.”
The Lord of Pagliano could not meet the gaze of those steel coloured eyes.
“0 God!” he groaned. “How shall I tell you?”
“Is he dead?” asked Galeotto, his voice hard.
“No, no–not dead. But…But…” The plight of one usually so strong, so full of mastery and arrogance, was pitiful.
“But what?” demanded the condottiero. “Gesu! Am I a woman, or a man without sorrows, that you need to stand hesitating? Whatever it may be, speak, then, and tell me.”
“He is in the clutches of the Holy Office,” answered Cavalcanti miserably.
Galeotto looked at him, his pallor increasing. Then he sat down suddenly, and, elbows on knees, he took his head in his hands and spoke no word for a spell, during which time Falcone, still kneeling, looked from one to the other in an agony of apprehension and impatience to hear more.
Neither noticed the presence of the equerry; nor would it have mattered if they had, for he was trusty as steel, and they had no secrets from him.
At last, having gained some measure of self-control, Galeotto begged to know what had happened, and Cavalcanti related the event.
“What could I do? What could I do?” he cried when he had finished.
“You let them take him?” said Galeotto, like a man who repeats the thing he has been told, because he cannot credit it. “You let them take him?”
“What alternative had I?” groaned Cavalcanti, his face ashen and seared with pain.
“There is that between us, Ettore, that…that will not let me credit this, even though you tell it me.”
And now the wretched Lord of Pagliano began to use the very arguments that I had used to him. He spoke of Cosimo’s suit of his daughter, and how the Duke sought to constrain him to consent to the alliance. He urged that in this matter of the Holy Office was a trap set for him to place him in Farnese’s power.
“A trap?” roared the condottiero, leaping up. “What trap? Where is this trap? You had five score men-at-arms under your orders here–three score of them my own men, each one of whom would have laid down his life for me, and you allowed the boy to be taken hence by six rascals from the Holy Office, intimidated by a paltry score of troopers that rode with this filthy Duke!”
“Nay, nay–not that,” the other protested. “Had I dared to raise a finger I should have brought myself within the reach of the Inquisition without benefiting Agostino. That was the trap, as Agostino himself perceived. It was he himself who urged me not to intervene, but to let them take him hence, since there was no possible charge which the Holy Office could prefer against him.”
“No charge!” cried Galeotto, with a withering scorn. “Did villainy ever want for invention? And this trap? Body of God, Ettore, am I to account you a fool after all these years? What trap was there that could be sprung upon you as things stood? Why, man, the game was in your hands entirely. Here was this Farnese in your power. What better hostage than that could you have held? You had but to whistle your war-dogs to heel and seize his person, demanding of the Pope his father a plenary absolution and indemnity for yourself and for Agostino from any prosecutions of the Holy Office ere you surrendered him. And had they attempted to employ force against you, you could have held them in check by threatening to hang the Duke unless the parchments you demanded were signed and delivered to you. My God, Ettore! Must I tell you this?”
Cavalcanti sank to a seat and took his head in his hands.
“You are right,” he said. “I deserve all your reproaches. I have been a fool. Worse–I have wanted for courage.” And then, suddenly, he reared his head again, and his glance kindled. “But it is not yet too late,” he cried, and started up. “It is still time!”
“Time!” sneered Galeotto. “Why, the boy is in their hands. It is hostage for hostage now, a very different matter. He is lost–irretrievably lost!” he ended, groaning. “We can but avenge him. To save him is beyond our power.”
“No,” said Cavalcanti. “It is not. I am a dolt, a dotard; and I have been the cause of it. Then I shall pay the price.”
“What price?” quoth the condottiero, pondering the other with an eye that held no faintest gleam of hope.
“Within an hour you shall have in your hands the necessary papers to set Agostino at liberty; and you shall carry them yourself to Rome. It is the amend I owe you. It shall be made.”
“But how is it possible?”
“It is possible, and it shall be done. And when it is done you may count upon me to the last breath to help you to pull down this pestilential Duke in ruin.”
He strode to the door, his step firm once more and his face set, though it was very grey. “I will leave you now. But you may count upon the fulfilment of my promise.”
He went out, leaving Galeotto and Falcone alone, and the condottiero flung himself into a chair and sat there moodily, deep in thought, still in his dusty garments and with no thought for changing them. Falcone stood by the window, looking out upon the gardens and not daring to intrude upon his master’s mood.
Thus Cavalcanti found them a hour later when he returned. He brought a parchment, to which was appended a great seal bearing the Pontifical arms. He thrust it into Galeotto’s hand.
“There,” he said, “is the discharge of the debt which through my weakness and folly I have incurred.”
Galeotto looked at the parchment, then at Cavalcanti, and then at the parchment once more. It was a papal bull of plenary pardon and indemnity to me.
“How came you by this?” he asked, astonished.
“Is not Farnese the Pope’s son?” quoth Cavalcanti scornfully.
“But upon what terms was it conceded? If it involves your honour, your life, or your liberty, here’s to make an end of it.” And he held it across in his hands as if to tear it, looking up at the Lord of Pagliano.
“It involves none of these,” the latter answered steadily. “You had best set out at once. The Holy Office can be swift to act.”
THE THIRD DEGREE
I was haled from my dungeon by my gaoler accompanied by two figures that looked immensely tall in their black monkish gowns, their heads and faces covered by vizored cowls in which two holes were cut for their eyes. Seen by the ruddy glare of the torch which the gaoler carried to that subterranean place of darkness, those black, silent figures, their very hands tucked away into the widemouthed sleeves of their habits, looked spectral and lurid–horrific messengers of death.
By chill, dark passages of stone, through which our steps reverberated, they brought me to a pillared, vaulted underground chamber, lighted by torches in iron brackets on the walls.
On a dais stood an oaken writing-table bearing two massive wax tapers and a Crucifix. At this table sat a portly, swarthy-visaged man in the black robes of the order of St. Dominic. Immediately below and flanking him on either hand sat two mute cowled figures to do the office of amanuenses.
Away on the right, where the shadows were but faintly penetrated by the rays of the torches, stood an engine of wood somewhat of the size and appearance of the framework of a couch, but with stout straps of leather to pinion the patient, and enormous wooden screws upon which the frame could be made to lengthen or contract. From the ceiling grey ropes dangled from pulleys, like the tentacles of some dread monster of cruelty.
One glance into that gloomy part of the chamber was enough for me.
Repressing a shudder, I faced the inquisitor, and thereafter kept my eyes upon him to avoid the sight of those other horrors. And he was horror enough for any man in my circumstances to envisage.
He was very fat, with a shaven, swarthy face and the dewlap of an ox. In that round fleshliness his eyes were sunken like two black buttons, malicious through their very want of expression. His mouth was loose- lipped and gluttonous and cruel.
When he spoke, the deep rumbling quality of his voice was increased by the echoes of that vaulted place.
“What is your name?” he said.
I am Agostino d’Anguissola, Lord of Mondolfo and…”
“Pass over your titles,” he boomed. “The Holy Office takes no account of worldly rank. What is your age?”
“I am in my twenty-first year.”
“Benedicamus Dominum,” he commented, though I could not grasp the appositeness of the comment. “You stand accused, Agostino d’Anguissola, of sacrilege and of defiling holy things. What have you to say? Do you confess your guilt?”
“I am so far from confessing it,” I answered, “that I have yet to learn what is the nature of the sacrilege with which I am charged. I am conscious of no such sin. Far from it, indeed…”
“You shall be informed,” he interrupted, imposing silence upon me by a wave of his fat hand; and heaving his vast bulk sideways–“Read him the indictment,” he bade one of the amanuenses.
From the depths of a vizored cowl came a thin, shrill voice:
“The Holy Office has knowledge that Agostino d’Anguissola did for a space of some six months, during the winter of the year of Our Blessed Lord 1544, and the spring of the year of Our Blessed Lord 1545, pursue a fraudulent and sacrilegious traffic, adulterating, for moneys which he extorted from the poor and the faithful, things which are holy, and adapting them to his own base purposes. It is charged against him that in a hermitage on Monte Orsaro he did claim for an image of St. Sebastian that it was miraculous, that it had power to heal suffering and that miraculously it bled from its wounds each year during Passion Week, whence it resulted that pilgrimages were made to this false shrine and great store of alms was collected by the said Agostino d’Anguissola, which moneys he appropriated to his own purposes. It is further known that ultimately he fled the place, fearing discovery, and that after his flight the image was discovered broken and the cunning engine by which this diabolical sacrilege was perpetrated was revealed.”
Throughout the reading, the fleshy eyes of the inquisitor had been steadily, inscrutably regarding me. He passed a hand over his pendulous chin, as the thin voice faded into silence.
“You have heard,” said he.
“I have heard a tangle of falsehood,” answered I. “Never was truth more untruly told than this.”
The beady eyes vanished behind narrowing creases of fat; and yet I knew that they were still regarding me. Presently they appeared again.
“Do you deny that the image contained this hideous engine of fraud?”
“I do not,” I answered.
“Set it down,” he eagerly bade one of the amanuenses. “He confesses thus much.” And then to me–” Do you deny that you occupied that hermitage during the season named?”
“I do not.”
“Set it down,” he said again. “What, then, remains?” he asked me.
“It remains that I knew nothing of the fraud. The trickster was a pretended monk who dwelt there before me and at whose death I was present. I took his place thereafter, implicitly believing in the miraculous image, refusing, when its fraud was ultimately suggested to me, to credit that any man could have dared so vile and sacrilegious a thing. In the end, when it was broken and its fraud discovered, I quitted that ghastly shrine of Satan’s in horror and disgust.”
There was no emotion on the huge, yellow face. “That is the obvious defence,” he said slowly. “But it does not explain the appropriation of the moneys.”
“I appropriated none,” I cried angrily. That is the foulest lie of all.”
“Do you deny that alms were made?”
“Certainly they were made; though to what extent I am unaware. A vessel of baked earth stood at the door to receive the offerings of the faithful. It had been my predecessor’s practice to distribute a part of these alms among the poor; a part, it was said, he kept to build a bridge over the Bagnanza torrent, which was greatly needed.”
“Well, well?” quoth he. “And when you left you took with you the moneys that had been collected?”
“I did not,” I answered. “I gave the matter no thought. When I left I took nothing with me–not so much as the habit I had worn in that hermitage.”
There was a pause. Then he spoke slowly. “Such is not the evidence before the Holy Office.”
“What evidence?” I cried, breaking in upon his speech. “Where is my accuser? Set me face to face with him.”
Slowly he shook his huge head with its absurd fringe of greasy locks about the tonsured scalp–that symbol of the Crown of Thorns.
“You must surely know that such is not the way of the Holy Office. In its wisdom this tribunal holds that to produce delators would be to subject them perhaps to molestation, and thus dry up the springs of knowledge and information which it now enjoys. So that your request is idle as idle as is the attempt at defence that you have made, the falsehoods with which you have sought to clog the wheels of justice.”
“Falsehood, sir monk?” quoth I, so fiercely that one of my attendants set a restraining hand upon my arm.
The beady eyes vanished and reappeared, and they considered me impassively.
“Your sin, Agostino d’Anguissola,” said he in his booming, level voice, “is the most hideous that the wickedness of man could conceive or diabolical greed put into execution. It is the sin that more than any other closes the door to mercy. It is the offence of Simon Mage, and it is to be expiated only through the gates of death. You shall return hence to your cell, and when the door closes upon you, it closes upon you for all time in life, nor shall you ever see your fellow-man again. There hunger and thirst shall be your executioners, slowly to deprive you of a life of which you have not known how to make better use. Without light or food or drink shall you remain there until you die. This is the punishment for such sacrilege as yours.”
I could not believe it. I stood before him what time he mouthed out those horrible and emotionless words. He paused a moment, and again came that broad gesture of his that stroked mouth and chin. Then he resumed:
“So much for your body. There remains your soul. In its infinite mercy, the Holy Office desires that your expiation be fulfilled in this life, and that you may be rescued from the fires of everlasting Hell. Therefore it urges you to cleanse yourself by a full and contrite avowal ere you go hence. Confess, then, my son, and save your soul.”
“Confess?” I echoed. “Confess to a falsehood? I have told you the truth of this matter. I tell you that in all the world there is none less prone to sacrilege than I that I am by nature and rearing devout and faithful. These are lies which have been uttered to my hurt. In dooming me you doom an innocent man. Be it so. I do not know that I have found the world so delectable a place as to quit it with any great regret. My blood be upon your own heads and upon this iniquitous and monstrous tribunal. But spare yourselves at least the greater offence of asking my confession of a falsehood.”
The little eyes had vanished. The face grew very evil, stirred at last into animosity by my denunciation of that court. Then the inscrutable mask slipped once more over that odious countenance.
He took up a little mallet, and struck a gong that stood beside him.
I heard a creaking of hinges, and saw an opening in the wall to my right, where I had perceived no door. Two men came forth–brawny, muscular, bearded men in coarse, black hose and leathern waistcoats cut deep at the neck and leaving their great arms entirely naked. The foremost carried a thong of leather in his hands.
“The hoist,” said the inquisitor shortly.
The men advanced towards me and came to replace the familiars between whom I had been standing. Each seized an arm, and they held me so. I made no resistance.
“Will you confess?” the inquisitor demanded. There is still time to save yourself from torture.”
But already the torture had commenced, for the very threat of it is known as the first degree. I was in despair. Death I could suffer. But under torments I feared that my strength might fail. I felt my flesh creeping and tightening upon my body, which had grown very cold with the awful chill of fear; my hair seemed to bristle and stiffen until I thought that I could feel each separate thread of it.
“I swear to you that I have spoken the truth,” I cried desperately. “I swear it by the sacred image of Our Redeemer standing there before you.”
“Shall we believe the oath of an unbeliever attainted of sacrilege?” he grumbled, and he almost seemed to sneer.
“Believe or not,” I answered. “But believe this–that one day you shall stand face to face with a Judge Whom there is no deceiving, to answer for the abomination that you make of justice in His Holy Name. Let loose against me your worst cruelties, then; they shall be as caresses to the torments that will be loosed against you when your turn for Judgment comes.”
“To the hoist with him,” he commanded, stretching an arm towards the grey tentacle-like ropes. “We must soften his heart and break the diabolical pride that makes him persevere in blasphemy.”
They led me aside into that place of torments, and one of them drew down the ropes from the pulley overhead, until the ends fell on a level with my wrists. And this was torture of the second degree–to see its imminence.
“Will you confess?” boomed the inquisitor’s voice. I made him no answer.
“Strip and attach him,” he commanded.
The executioners laid hold of me, and in the twinkling of an eye I stood naked to the waist. I caught my lips in my teeth as the ropes were being adjusted to my wrists, and as thus I suffered torture of the third degree.
“Will you confess?” came again the question.
And scarcely had it been put–for the last time, as I well knew–than the door was flung open, and a young man in black sprang into the chamber, and ran to thrust a parchment before the inquisitor.
The inquisitor made a sign to the executioners to await his pleasure.
I stood with throbbing pulses, and waited, instinctively warned that this concerned me. The inquisitor took the parchment, considered its seals and then the writing upon it.
That done he set it down and turned to face us.
“Release him,” he bade the executioners, whereat I felt as I would faint in the intensity of this reaction.
When they had done his bidding, the Dominican beckoned me forward. I went, still marvelling.
“See,” he said, “how inscrutable are the Divine ways, and how truth must in the end prevail. Your innocence is established, after all, since the Holy Father himself has seen cause to intervene to save you. You are at liberty. You are free to depart and to go wheresoever you will. This bull concerns you.” And he held it out to me.
My mind moved through these happenings as a man moves through a dense fog, faltering and hesitating at every step. I took the parchment and considered it. Satisfied as to its nature, however mystified as to how the Pope had come to intervene, I folded the document and thrust it into my belt.
Then the familiars of the Holy Office assisted me to resume my garments; and all was done now in utter silence, and for my own part in the same mental and dream-like confusion.
At length the inquisitor waved a huge hand doorwards. “Ite!” he said, and added, whilst his raised hand seemed to perform a benedictory gesture–“Pax Domini sit tecum.”
“Et cum spiritu tuo,” I replied mechanically, as, turning, I stumbled out of that dread place in the wake of the messenger who had brought the bull, and who went ahead to guide me.
Above in the blessed sunlight, which hurt my eyes–for I had not seen it for a full week–I found Galeotto awaiting me in a bare room; and scarcely was I aware of his presence than his great arms went round me and enclasped me so fervently that his corselet almost hurt my breast, and brought back as in a flash a poignant memory of another man fully as tall, who had held me to him one night many years ago, and whose armour, too, had hurt me in that embrace.
Then he held me at arms’ length and considered me, and his steely eyes were blurred and moist. He muttered something to the familiar, linked his arm through mine and drew me away, down passages, through doors, and so at last into the busy Roman street.
We went in silence by ways that were well known to him but in which I should assuredly have lost myself, and so we came at last to a fair tavern–the Osteria del Sole–near the Tower of Nona.
His horse was stalled here, and a servant led the way above-stairs to the room that he had hired.
How wrong had I not been, I reflected, to announce before the Inquisition that I should have no regrets in leaving this world. How ungrateful was that speech, considering this faithful one who loved me for my father’s sake! And was there not Bianca, who, surely–if her last cry, wrung from her by anguish, contained the truth–must love me for my own?
How sweet the revulsion that now came upon me as I sank into a chair by the window, and gave myself up to the enjoyment of that truly happy moment in which the grey shadow of death had been lifted from me.
Servants bustled in, to spread the board with the choice meats that Galeotto had ordered, and great baskets of luscious fruits and flagons of red Puglia wine; and soon we seated ourselves to the feast.
But ere I began to eat, I asked Galeotto how this miracle had been wrought; what magic powers he wielded that even the Holy Office must open its doors at his bidding. With a glance at the servants who attended us, he bade me eat, saying that we should talk anon. And as my reaction had brought a sharp hunger in its train, I fell to with the best will in all the world, and from broth to figs there were few words between us.
At last, our goblets charged and the servants withdrawn, I repeated my inquiry.
“The magic is not mine,” said Galeotto. “It is Cavalcanti’s. It was he who obtained this bull.”
And with that he set himself briefly to relate the matters that already are contained here concerning that transaction, but the minuter details of which I was later to extract from Falcone. And as he proceeded with his narrative I felt myself growing cold again with apprehension, just as I had grown cold that morning in the hands of the executioners. Until at last, seeing me dead-white, Galeotto checked to inquire what ailed me.
“What–what was the price that Cavalcanti paid for this?” I inquired in answer.
“I could not glean it, nor did I stay to insist, for there was haste. He assured me that the thing had been accomplished without hurt to his honour, life, or liberty; and with that I was content, and spurred for Rome.”
“And you have never since thought what the price was that Cavalcanti might have paid?”
He looked at me with troubled eyes. “I confess that in this matter the satisfaction of coming to your salvation has made me selfish. I have had thoughts for nothing else.”
I groaned, and flung out my arms across the table. “He has paid such a price,” I said, “that a thousand times sooner would I that you had left me where I was.”
He leaned forward, frowning darkly. “What do you mean?” he cried.
And then I told him what I feared; told him how Farnese had sued for Bianca’s hand for Cosimo; how proudly and finally Cavalcanti had refused; how the Duke had insisted that he would remain at Pagliano until my lord changed his mind; how I had learned from Giuliana the horrible motive that urged the Duke to press for that marriage.
Lastly–“And that is the price he consented to pay,” I cried wildly. “His daughter–that sweet virgin–was the price! And at this hour, maybe, the price is paid and that detestable bargain consummated. 0, Galeotto! Galeotto! Why was I not left to rot in that dungeon of the Inquisition– since I could have died happily, knowing naught of this?”
“By the Blood of God, boy! Do you imply that I had knowledge? Do you suggest that I would have bought any life at such a price?”
“No, no!” I answered. “I know that you did not–that you could not…” And then I leaped to my feet. “And we sit talking here, whilst this…whilst this…O God!” I sobbed. “We may yet be in time. To horse, then! Let us away!”
He, too, came to his feet. “Ay, you are right. It but remains to remedy the evil. Come, then. Anger shall mend my spent strength. It can be done in three days. We will ride as none ever rode yet since the world began.”
And we did–so desperately that by the morning of the third day, which was a Sunday, we were in Forli (having crossed the Apennines at Arcangelo) and by that same evening in Bologna. We had not slept and we had scarcely rested since leaving Rome. We were almost dead from weariness.
Since such was my own case, what must have been Galeotto’s? He was of iron, it is true. But consider that he had ridden this way at as desperate a pace already, to save me from the clutches of the Inquisition; and that, scarce rested, he was riding north again. Consider this, and you will not marvel that his weariness conquered him at last.
At the inn at Bologna where we dismounted, we found old Falcone awaiting us. He had set out with his master to ride to Rome. But being himself saddle-worn at the time, he had been unable to proceed farther than this, and here Galeotto in his fierce impatience had left him, pursuing his way alone.
Here, then, we found the equerry again, consumed by anxiety. He leapt forward to greet me, addressing me by the old title of Madonnino which I loved to hear from him, however much that title might otherwise arouse harsh and gloomy memories.
Here at Bologna Galeotto announced that he would be forced to rest, and we slept for three hours–until night had closed in. We were shaken out of our slumbers by the host as he had been ordered; but even then I lay entranced, my limbs refusing their office, until the memory of what was at issue acted like a spur upon me, and caused me to fling my weariness aside as if it had been a cloak.
Galeotto, however, was in a deplorable case. He could not move a limb. He was exhausted–utterly and hopelessly exhausted with fatigue and want of sleep. Falcone and I pulled him to his feet between us; but he collapsed again, unable to stand.
“I am spent,” he muttered. “Give me twelve hours–twelve hours’ sleep, Agostino, and I’ll ride with you to the Devil.”
I groaned and cursed in one. “Twelve hours!” I cried. “And she…I can’t wait, Galeotto. I must ride on alone.”
He lay on his back and stared up at me, and his eyes had a glassy stare. Then he roused himself by an effort, and raised himself upon his elbow.
“That is it, boy–ride on alone. Take Falcone. Listen, there are three score men of mine at Pagliano who will follow you to Hell at a word that Falcone shall speak to them from me. About it, then, and save her. But wait, boy! Do no violence to Farnese, if you can help it.”
“But if I can’t?” I asked.
“If you can’t–no matter. But endeavour not to offer him any hurt! Leave that to me–anon when all is ripe for it. To-day it would be premature, and…and we …we should be…crushed by the…” His speech trailed off into incoherent mutterings; his eyelids dropped, and he was fast asleep again.
Ten minutes later we were riding north again, and all that night we rode, along the endless Aemilian Way, pausing for no more than a draught of wine from time to time, and munching a loaf as we rode. We crossed the Po, and kept steadily on, taking fresh horses when we could, until towards sunset a turn in the road brought Pagliano into our view–grey and lichened on the crest of its smooth emerald hill.
The dusk was falling and lights began to gleam from some of the castle windows when we brought up in the shadow of the gateway.
A man-at-arms lounged out of the guardhouse to inquire our business.
“Is Madonna Bianca wed yet?” was the breathless greeting I gave him.
He peered at me, and then at Falcone, and he swore in some surprise.
“Well, returned my lord! Madonna Bianca? The nuptials were celebrated to-day. The bride has gone.”
“Gone?” I roared. “Gone whither, man?”
“Why, to Piacenza–to my Lord Cosimo’s palace there. They set out some three hours since.”
“Where is your lord?” I asked him, flinging myself from the saddle.
“Within doors, most noble.”
How I found him, or by what ways I went to do so, are things that are effaced completely from my memory. But I know that I came upon him in the library. He was sitting hunched in a great chair, his face ashen, his eyes fevered. At sight of me–the cause, however innocent, of all this evil– his brows grew dark, and his eyes angry. If he had reproaches for me, I gave him no time to utter them, but hurled him mine.
“What have you done, sir?” I demanded. “By what right did you do this thing? By what right did you make a sacrifice of that sweet dove? Did you conceive me so vile as to think that I should ever owe you gratitude–that I should ever do aught but abhor the deed, abhor all who had a hand in it, abhor the very life itself purchased for me at such a cost?”
He cowered before my furious wrath; for I must have seemed terrific as I stood thundering there, my face wild, my eyes bloodshot, half mad from pain and rage and sleeplessness.
“And do you know what you have done?” I went on. “Do you know to what you have sold her? Must I tell you?”
And I told him, in a dozen brutal words that brought him to his feet, the lion in him roused at last, his eyes ablaze.
“We must after them,” I urged. “We must wrest her from these beasts, and make a widow of her for the purpose. Galeotto’s lances are below and they will follow me. You may bring what more you please. Come, sir–to horse!”
He sprang forward with no answer beyond a muttered prayer that we might come in time.
“We must,” I answered fiercely, and ran madly from the room, along the gallery and down the stairs, shouting and raging like a maniac, Cavalcanti following me.
Within ten minutes, Galeotto’s three score men and another score of those who garrisoned Pagliano for Cavalcanti were in the saddle and galloping hell-for-leather to Piacenza. Ahead on fresh horses went Falcone and I, the Lord of Pagliano spurring beside me and pestering me with questions as to the source of my knowledge.
Our great fear was lest we should find the gates of Piacenza closed on our arrival. But we covered the ten miles in something under an hour, and the head of our little column was already through the Fodesta Gate when the first hour of night rang out from the Duomo, giving the signal for the closing of the gates.
The officer in charge turned out to view so numerous a company, and challenged us to stand. But I flung him the answer that we were the Black Bands of Ser Galeotto and that we rode by order of the Duke, with which perforce he had to be content; for we did not stay for more and were too numerous to be detained by such meagre force as he commanded.
Up the dark street we swept–the same street down which I had last ridden on that night when Gambara had opened the gates of the prison for me–and so we came to the square and to Cosimo’s palace.
All was in darkness, and the great doors were closed. A strange appearance this for a house to which a bride had so newly come.
I dismounted as lightly as if I had not ridden lately more than just the ten miles from Pagliano. Indeed, I had become unconscious of all fatigue, entirely oblivious of the fact that for three nights now I had not slept– save for the three hours at Bologna.
I knocked briskly on the iron-studded gates. We stood there waiting, Cavalcanti and Falcone afoot with me, the men on horseback still, a silent phalanx.
I issued an order to Falcone. “Ten of them to secure our egress, the rest to remain here and allow none to leave the house.”
The equerry stepped back to convey the command in his turn to the men, and the ten he summoned slipped instantly from their saddles and ranged themselves in the shadow of the wall.
I knocked again, more imperatively, and at last the postern in the door was opened by an elderly serving-man.
“What’s this?” he asked, and thrust a lanthorn into my face.
“We seek Messer Cosimo d’Anguissola,” I answered. He looked beyond me at the troop that lined the street, and his face became troubled. “Why, what is amiss?” quoth he.
“Fool, I shall tell that to your master. Conduct me to him. The matter presses.”
“Nay, then–but have you not heard? My lord was wed to-day. You would not have my lord disturbed at such a time?” He seemed to leer.
I put my foot into his stomach, and bore him backward, flinging him full length upon the ground. He went over and rolled away into a corner, where he lay bellowing.
“Silence him!” I bade the men who followed us in. “Then, half of you remain here to guard the stairs; the rest attend us.”
The house was vast, and it remained silent, so that it did not seem that the clown’s scream when he went over had been heard by any.
Up the broad staircase we sped, guided by the light of the lanthorn, which Falcone had picked up–for the place was ominously in darkness. Cavalcanti kept pace with me, panting with rage and anxiety.
At the head of the stairs we came upon a man whom I recognized for one of the Duke’s gentlemen-in-waiting. He had been attracted, no doubt, by the sound of our approach; but at sight of us he turned to escape. Cavalcanti reached forward in time to take him by the ankle, so that he came down heavily upon his face.
In an instant I was sitting upon him, my dagger at his throat.
“A sound,” said I, “and you shall finish it in Hell!” Eyes bulging with fear stared at me out of his white face. He was an effeminate cur, of the sort that the Duke was wont to keep about him, and at once I saw that we should have no trouble with him.
“Where is Cosimo?” I asked him shortly. “Come, man, conduct us to the room that holds him if you would buy your dirty life.”
“He is not here,” wailed the fellow.
“You lie, you hound,” said Cavalcanti, and turning to me–“Finish him, Agostino,” he bade me.
The man under me writhed, filled now by the terror that Cavalcanti had so cunningly known how to inspire in him. “I swear to God that he is not here,” he answered, and but that fear had robbed him of his voice, he would have screamed it. “Gesu! I swear it–it is true!”
I looked up at Cavalcanti, baffled, and sick with sudden dismay. I saw Cavalcanti’s eye, which had grown dull, kindle anew. He stooped over the prostrate man.
“Is the bride here–is my daughter in this house?”
The fellow whimpered and did not answer until my dagger’s edge was at his throat again. Then he suddenly screeched–“Yes!”
In an instant I had dragged him to his feet again, his pretty clothes and daintily curled hair all crumpled, so that he looked the most pitiful thing in all the world.
“Lead us to her chamber,” I bade him.
And he obeyed as men obey when the fear of death is upon them.
THE NUPTIALS OF BIANCA
An awful thought was in my mind as we went, evoked by the presence in such a place of one of the Duke’s gentlemen; an awful question rose again and again to my lips, and yet I could not bring myself to utter it.
So we went on in utter silence now, my hand upon his shoulder, clutching velvet doublet and flesh and bone beneath it, my dagger bare in my other hand.
We crossed an antechamber whose heavy carpet muffled our footsteps, and we halted before tapestry curtains that masked a door, Here, curbing my fierce impatience, I paused. I signed to the five attendant soldiers to come no farther; then I consigned the courtier who had guided us to the care of Falcone, and I restrained Cavalcanti, who was shaking from head to foot.
I raised the heavy, muffling curtain, and standing there an instant by the door, I heard my Bianca’s voice, and her words seemed to freeze the very marrow in my bones.
“0, my lord,” she was imploring in a choking voice, “0, my lord, have pity on me!”
“Sweet,” came the answer, “it is I who beseech pity at your hands. Do you not see how I suffer? Do you not see how fiercely love of you is torturing me–how I burn–that you can so cruelly deny me?”
It was Farnese’s voice. Cosimo, that dastard, had indeed carried out the horrible compact of which Giuliana had warned me, carried it out in a more horrible and inhuman manner than even she had suggested or suspected.
Cavalcanti would have hurled himself against the door but that I set a hand upon his arm to restrain him, and a finger of my other hand–the one that held the dagger–to my lips.
Softly I tried the latch. I was amazed to find the door yield. And yet, where was the need to lock it? What interruption could he have feared in a house that evidently had been delivered over to him by the bridegroom, a house that was in the hands of his own people?
Very quietly I thrust the door open, and we stood there upon the threshold–Cavalcanti and I–father and lover of that sweet maid who was the prey of this foul Duke. We stood whilst a man might count a dozen, silent witnesses of that loathsome scene.
The bridal chamber was all hung in golden arras, save the great carved bed which was draped in dead-white velvet and ivory damask–symbolizing the purity of the sweet victim to be offered up upon that sacrificial altar.
And to that dread sacrifice she had come–for my sake, as I was to learn– with the fearful willingness of Iphigenia. For that sacrifice she had been prepared; but not for this horror that was thrust upon her now.
She crouched upon a tall-backed praying-stool, her gown not more white than her face, her little hands convulsively clasped to make her prayer to that monster who stood over her, his mottled face all flushed, his eyes glowing as they considered her helplessness and terror with horrible, pitiless greed.
Thus we observed them, ourselves unperceived for some moments, for the praying-stool on which she crouched was placed to the left, by the cowled fire-place, in which a fire of scented wood was crackling, the scene lighted by two golden candlebranches that stood upon the table near the curtained window.
“0, my lord!” she cried in her despair, “of your mercy leave me, and no man shall ever know that you sought me thus. I will be silent, my lord. 0, if you have no pity for me, have, at least, pity for yourself. Do not cover yourself with the infamy of such a deed–a deed that will make you hateful to all men.”
“Gladly at such a price would I purchase your love, my Bianca! What pains could daunt me? Ah, you are mine, you are mine!”
As the hawk that has been long poised closes its wings and drops at last upon its prey, so swooped he of a sudden down upon her, caught and dragged her up from the praying-stool to crush her to him.
She screamed in that embrace, and sought to battle, swinging round so that her back was fully towards us, and Farnese, swinging round also in that struggle, faced us and beheld us.
It was as if a mask had been abruptly plucked from his face, so sudden and stupendous was its alteration. From flushed that it had been it grew livid and sickly; the unholy fires were spent in his eyes, and they grew dull and dead as a snake’s; his jaw was loosened, and the sensual mouth looked unutterably foolish.
For a moment I think I smiled upon him, and then Cavalcanti and I sprang forward, both together. As we moved, his arms loosened their hold, and Bianca would have fallen but that I caught her.
Her terror still upon her, she glanced upwards to see what fresh enemy was this, and then, at sight of my face, as my arms closed about her, and held her safe–
“Agostino!” she cried, and closed her eyes to lie panting on my breast.
The Duke, fleeing like a scared rat before the anger of Cavalcanti, scuttled down the room to a small door in the wall that held the fire- place. He tore it open and sprang through, Cavalcanti following recklessly.
There was a snarl and a cry, and the Lord of Pagliano staggered back, clutching one hand to his breast, and through his fingers came an ooze of blood. Falcone ran to him. But Cavalcanti swore like a man possessed.
“It is nothing!” he snapped. “By the horns of Satan! it is nothing. A flesh wound, and like a fool I gave back before it. After him! In there! Kill! Kill!”
Out came Falcone’s sword with a swish, and into the dark closet beyond went the equerry with a roar, Cavalcanti after him.
It seemed that scarce had Farnese got within that closet than, flattening himself against the wall, he had struck at Cavalcanti as the latter followed, thus driving him back and gaining all the respite he needed. For now they found the closet empty. There was a door beyond, that opened to a corridor, and this was locked. Not a doubt but that Farnese had gone that way. They broke that door down. I heard them at it what time I comforted Bianca, and soothed her, stroking her head, her cheek, and murmuring fondly to her until presently she was weeping softly.
Thus Cavalcanti and Falcone found us presently when they returned. Farnese had escaped with one of his gentlemen who had reached him in time to warn him that the street was full of soldiers and the palace itself invaded. Thereupon the Duke had dropped from one of the windows to the garden, his gentleman with him, and Cavalcanti had been no more than in time to see them disappearing through the garden gate.
The Lord of Pagliano’s buff-coat was covered with blood where Pier Luigi had stabbed him. But he would give the matter no thought. He was like a tiger now. He dashed out into the antechamber, and I heard him bellowing orders. Someone screamed horribly, and then followed a fierce din as if the very place were coming down about our ears.
“What is it?” cried Bianca, quivering in my arms. “Are…are they fighting?”
“I do not think so, sweet,” I answered her. “We are in great strength. Have no fear.”
And then Falcone came in again.
“The Lord of Pagliano is raging like a madman,” he said. “We had best be getting away or we shall have a brush with the Captain of Justice.”
Supporting Bianca, I led her from that chamber.
“Where are we going?” she asked me.
“Home to Pagliano,” I answered her, and with that answer comforted that sorely tried maid.
We found the antechamber in wreckage. The great chandelier had been dragged from the ceiling, pictures were slashed and cut to ribbons, the arras had been torn from the walls and the costly furniture was reduced to fire-wood; the double-windows opening to the balcony stood wide, and not a pane of glass left whole, the fragments lying all about the place.
Thus, it seemed, childishly almost, had Cavalcanti vented his terrible rage, and I could well conceive what would have befallen any of the Duke’s people upon whom in that hour he had chanced. I did not know then that the poor pimp who had acted as our guide was hanging from the balcony dead, nor that his had been the horrible scream I had heard.
On the stairs we met the raging Cavalcanti reascending, the stump of his shivered sword in his hand.
“Hasten!” he cried. “I was coming for you. Let us begone!”
Below, just within the main doors we found a pile of furniture set on a heap of straw.
“What is this?” I asked.
“You shall see,” he roared. “Get to horse.”
I hesitated a moment, then obeyed him, and took Bianca on the withers in front of me, my arm about her to support her.
Then he called to one of the men-at-arms who stood by with a flaring torch. He snatched the brand from his hand, and stabbed the straw with it in a dozen places, from each of which there leapt at once a tongue of flame. When, at last, he flung the torch into the heart of the pile, it was all a roaring, hissing, crackling blaze.
He stood back and laughed. “If there are any more of his brothel-mates in the house, they can escape as he did. They will be more fortunate than that one.” And he pointed up to the limp figure hanging from the balcony, so that I now learnt what already I have told you.
With my hand I screened Bianca’s eyes. “Do not look,” I bade her.
I shuddered at the sight of that limply hanging body. And yet I reflected that it was just. Any man who could have lent his aid to the foul crime that was attempted there that night deserved this fate and worse.
Cavalcanti got to horse, and we rode down the street, bringing folk to their windows in alarm. Behind us the flames began to lick out from the ground floor of Cosimo’s palace.
We reached the Porta Fodesta, and peremptorily bade the guard to open for us. He answered, as became his duty, with the very words that had been addressed to me at that place on a night two years ago:
“None passes out to-night.”
In an instant a group of our men surrounded him, others made a living barrier before the guard-house, whilst two or three dismounted, drew the bolts, and dragged the great gates open.
We rode on, crossing the river, and heading straight for Pagliano.
For a while it was the sweetest ride that ever I rode, with my Bianca nestling against my breast, and responding faintly to all the foolishness that poured from me in that ambrosial hour.
And then it seemed to me that we rode not by night but in the blazing light of day, along a dusty road, flanking an arid, sun-drenched stretch of the Campagna; and despite the aridity there must be water somewhere, for I heard it thundering as the Bagnanza had thundered after rain, and yet I knew that could not be the Bagnanza, for the Bagnanza was nowhere in the neighbourhood of Rome.
Suddenly a great voice, and I knew it for the voice of Bianca, called me by name.
The vision was dissipated. It was night again and we were riding for Pagliano through the fertile lands of ultra-Po; and there was Bianca clutching at my breast and uttering my name in accents of fear, whilst the company about me was halting.
“What is it?” cried Cavalcanti. Are you hurt?” I understood. I had been dozing in the saddle, and I must have rolled out of it but that Bianca awakened me with her cry. I said so.
“Body of Satan!” he swore. “To doze at such a time!”
“I have scarce been out of the saddle for three days and three nights–this is the fourth,” I informed him. I have had but three hours’ sleep since we left Rome. I am done,” I admitted. “You, sir, had best take your daughter. She is no longer safe with me.”
It was so. The fierce tension which had banished sleep from me whilst these things were doing, being now relaxed, left me exhausted as Galeotto had been at Bologna. And Galeotto had urged me to halt and rest there! He had begged for twelve hours! I could now thank Heaven from a full heart for having given me the strength and resolution to ride on, for those twelve hours would have made all the difference between Heaven and Hell.
Cavalcanti himself would not take her, confessing to some weakness. For all that he insisted that his wound was not serious, yet he had lost much blood through having neglected in his rage to stanch it. So it was to Falcone that fell the charge of that sweet burden.
The last thing I remember was Cavalcanti’s laugh, as, from the high ground we had mounted, he stopped to survey a ruddy glare above the city of Piacenza, where, in a vomit of sparks, Cosimo’s fine palace was being consumed.
Then we rode down into the valley again; and as we went the thud of hooves grew more and more distant, and I slept in the saddle as I rode, a man-at- arms on either side of me, so that I remember no more of the doings of that strenuous night.
I awakened in the chamber that had been mine at Pagliano before my arrest by order of the Holy Office, and I was told upon awakening that I had slept a night and a day and that it was eventide once more.
I rose, bathed, and put on a robe of furs, and then Galeotto came to visit me.
He had arrived at dawn, and he too had slept for some ten hours since his arrival, yet despite of it his air was haggard, his glance overcast and heavy.
I greeted him joyously, conscious that we had done well. But he remained gloomy and unresponsive.
“There is ill news,” he said at last. “Cavalcanti is in a raging fever, and he is sapped of strength, his body almost drained of blood. I even fear that he is poisoned, that Farnese’s dagger was laden with some venom.”
“0, surely…it will be well with him!”I faltered. He shook his head sombrely, his brows furrowed.
“He must have been stark mad last night. To have raged as he did with such a wound upon him, and to have ridden ten miles afterwards! 0, it was midsummer frenzy that sustained him. Here in the courtyard he reeled unconscious from the saddle; they found him drenched with blood from head to foot; and he has been unconscious ever since. I am afraid…” He shrugged despondently.
“Do you mean that…that he may die?” I asked scarce above a whisper.
“It will be a miracle if he does not. And that is one more crime to the score of Pier Luigi.” He said it in a tone of indescribable passion, shaking his clenched fist at the ceiling.
The miracle did not come to pass. Two days later, in the presence of Galeotto, Bianca, Fra Gervasio, who had been summoned from his Piacenza convent to shrive the unfortunate baron, and myself, Ettore Cavalcanti sank quietly to rest.
Whether he was dealt an envenomed wound, as Galeotto swore, or whether he died as a result of the awful draining of his veins, I do not know.
At the end he had a moment of lucidity.
“You will guard my Bianca, Agostino,” he said to me, and I swore it fervently, as he bade me, whilst upon her knees beyond the bed, clasping one of his hands that had grown white as marble, Bianca was sobbing brokenheartedly.
Then the dying man turned his head to Galeotto. “You will see justice done upon that monster ere you die,” he said. “It is God’s holy work.”
And then his mind became clouded again by the mists of approaching dissolution, and he sank into a sleep, from which he never awakened.
We buried him on the morrow in the Chapel of Pagliano, and on the next day Galeotto drew up a memorial wherein he set forth all the circumstances of the affair in which that gallant gentleman had met his end. It was a terrible indictment of Pier Luigi Farnese. Of this memorial he prepared two copies, and to these–as witnesses of all the facts therein related– Bianca, Falcone, and I appended our signatures, and Fra Gervasio added his own. One of these copies Galeotto dispatched to the Pope, the other to Ferrante Gonzaga in Milan, with a request that it should be submitted to the Emperor.
When the memorial was signed, he rose, and taking Bianca’s hand in his own, he swore by his every hope of salvation that ere another year was sped her father should be avenged together with all the other of Pier Luigi’s victims.
That same day he set out again upon his conspirator’s work, whose aim was not only the life of Pier Luigi, but the entire shattering of the Pontifical sway in Parma and Piacenza. Some days later he sent me another score of lances–for he kept his forces scattered about the country whilst gradually he increased their numbers.
Thereafter we waited for events at Pagliano, the drawbridge raised, and none entering save after due challenge.
We expected an attack which never came; for Pier Luigi did not dare to lead an army against an Imperial fief upon such hopeless grounds as were his own. Possibly, too, Galeotto’s memorial may have caused the Pope to impose restraint upon his dissolute son.
Cosimo d’Anguissola, however, had the effrontery to send a messenger a week later to Pagliano, to demand the surrender of his wife, saying that she was his by God’s law and man’s, and threatening to enforce his rights by an appeal to the Vatican.
That we sent the messenger empty-handed away, it is scarce necessary to chronicle. I was in command at Pagliano, holding it in Bianca’s name, as Bianca’s lieutenant and castellan, and I made oath that I would never lower the bridge to admit an enemy.
But Cosimo’s message aroused in us a memory that had lain dormant these days. She was no longer for my wooing. She was the wife of another.
It came to us almost as a flash of lightning in the night; and it startled us by all that it revealed.
“The fault of it is all mine,” said she, as we sat that evening in the gold-and-purple dining-room where we had supped.
It was with those words that she broke the silence that had endured throughout the repast, until the departure of the pages and the seneschal who had ministered to us precisely as in the days when Cavalcanti had been alive.
“Ah, not that, sweet!” I implored her, reaching a hand to her across the table.
“But it is true, my dear,” she answered, covering my hand with her own. “If I had shown you more mercy when so contritely you confessed your sin, mercy would have been shown to me. I should have known from the sign I had that we were destined for each other; that nothing that you had done could alter that. I did know it, and yet…” She halted there, her lip tremulous.
“And yet you did the only thing that you could do when your sweet purity was outraged by the knowledge of what I really had been.”
“But you were so no more,” she said with a something of pleading in her voice.
“It was you–the blessed sight of you that cleansed me,” I cried. “When love for you awoke in me, I knew love for the first time, for that other thing which I deemed love had none of love’s holiness. Your image drove out all the sin from my soul. The peace which half a year of penance, of fasting and flagellation could not bring me, was brought me by my love for you when it awoke. It was as a purifying fire that turned to ashes all the evil of desires that my heart had held.”
Her hand pressed mine. She was weeping softly.
“I was an outcast,” I continued. “I was a mariner without compass, far from the sight of land, striving to find my way by the light of sentiments implanted in me from early youth. I sought salvation desperately-sought it in a hermitage, as I would have sought it in a cloister but that I had come to regard myself as unworthy of the cloistered life. I found it at last, in you, in the blessed contemplation of you. It was you who taught me the lesson that the world is God’s world and that God is in the world as much as in the cloister. Such was the burden of your message that night when you appeared to me on Monte Orsaro.”
“0, Agostino!” she cried, “and all this being so can you refrain from blaming me for what has come to pass? If I had but had faith in you–the faith in the sign which we both received–I should have known all this; known that if you had sinned you had been tempted and that you had atoned.”
“I think the atonement lies here and now, in this,” I answered very gravely. “She was the wife of another who dragged me down. You are the wife of another who have lifted me up. She through sin was attainable. That you can never, never be, else should I have done with life in earnest. But do not blame yourself, sweet saint. You did as your pure spirit bade you; soon all would have been well but that already Messer Pier Luigi had seen you.”
“You know, dear that if I submitted to wed your cousin, it was to save you–that such was the price imposed?”
“Dear saint!” I cried.
“I but mention it that upon such a score you may have no doubt of my motives.”
“How could I doubt?” I protested.
I rose, and moved down the room towards the window, behind which the night gleamed deepest blue. I looked out upon the gardens from which the black shadows of stark poplars thrust upward against the sky, and I thought out this thing. Then I turned to her, having as I imagined found the only and rather obvious solution.
“There is but one thing to do, Bianca.”
“And that?” her eyes were very anxious, and looked perhaps even more so in consequence of the pallor of her face and the lines of pain that had come into it in these weeks of such sore trial.
“I must remove the barrier that stands between us. I must seek out Cosimo and kill him.”
I said it without anger, without heat of any sort: a calm, cold statement of a step that it was necessary to take. It was a just measure, the only measure that could mend an unjust situation. And so, I think, she too viewed it. For she did not start, or cry out in horror, or manifest the slightest surprise at my proposal. But she shook her head, and smiled very wistfully.
“What a folly would not that be!” she said. “How would it amend what is? You would be taken, and justice would be done upon you summarily. Would that make it any easier or any better for me? I should be alone in the world and entirely undefended.”
“Ah, but you go too fast,” I cried. “By justice I could not suffer, I need but to state the case, the motive of my quarrel, the iniquitous wrong that was attempted against you, the odious traffic of this marriage, and all men would applaud my act. None would dare do me a hurt.”
“You are too generous in your faith in man,” she said. “Who would believe your claims?”
“The courts,” I said.
“The courts of a State in which Pier Luigi governs?”
“But I have witnesses of the facts.”
“Those witnesses would never be allowed to testify. Your protests would be smothered. And how would your case really look?” she cried. “The world would conceive that the lover of Bianca de’ Cavalcanti had killed her husband that he might take her for his own. What could you hope for, against such a charge as that? Men might even remember that other affair of Fifanti’s and even the populace, which may be said to have saved you erstwhile, might veer round and change from the opinion which it has ever held. They would say that one who has done such a thing once may do it twice; that…”
“0, for pity’s sake, stop! Have mercy!” I cried, flinging out my arms towards her. And mercifully she ceased, perceiving that she had said enough.
I turned to the window again, and pressed my brow against the cool glass. She was right. That acute mind of hers had pierced straight to the very core of this matter. To do the thing that had been in my mind would be not only to destroy myself, but to defile her; for upon her would recoil a portion of the odium that must be flung at me. And–as she said–what then must be her position? They would even have a case upon which to drag her from these walls of Pagliano. She would be a victim of the civil courts; she might, at Pier Luigi’s instigation, be proceeded against as my accomplice in what would be accounted a dastardly murder for the basest of motives.
I turned to her again.
“You are right,” I said. “I see that you are right. Just as I was right when I said that my atonement lies here and now. The penance for which I have cried out so long is imposed at last. It is as just as it is cruelly apt.”
I came slowly back to the table, and stood facing her across it. She looking up at me with very piteous eyes.
“Bianca, I must go hence,” I said. “That, too, is clear.”
Her lips parted; her eyes dilated; her face, if anything, grew paler.
“0, no, no!” she cried piteously.
“It must be,” I said. “How can I remain? Cosimo may appeal for justice against me, claiming that I hold his wife in duress–and justice will be done.”
“But can you not resist? Pagliano is strong and wellmanned. The Black Bands are very faithful men, and they will stand by you to the end.”
“And the world?” I cried. “What will the world say of you? It is you yourself have made me see it. Shall your name be dragged in the foul mire of scandal? The wife of Cosimo d’Anguissola a runagate with her husband’s cousin? Shall the world say that?”
She moaned, and covered her face with her hands. Then she controlled herself again, and looked at me almost fiercely.
“Do you care so much for what men say?”
“I am thinking of you.”
“Then think of me to better purpose, my Agostino. Consider that we are confronted by two evils, and that the choice of the lesser is forced upon us. If you go, I am all unprotected, and…and…the harm is done already.”
Long I looked at her with such a yearning to take her in my arms and comfort her! And I had the knowledge that if I remained, daily must I experience this yearning which must daily grow crueller and more fierce from the very restraint I must impose upon it. And then that rearing of mine, all drenched in sanctity misunderstood, came to my help, and made me see in this an added burden to my penance, a burden which I must accept if I would win to ultimate grace.
And so I consented to remain, and I parted from her with no more than a kiss bestowed upon her finger-tips, and went to pray for patience and strength to bear my heavy cross and so win to my ultimate reward, be it in this world or the next.
In the morning came news by a messenger from Galeotto–news of one more foul crime that the Duke had committed on that awful night when we had rescued Bianca from his evil claws. The unfortunate Giuliana had been found dead in her bed upon the following morning, and the popular voice said that the Duke had strangled her.
Of that rumour I subsequently had confirmation. It would appear that maddened with rage at the loss of his prey, that ravening wolf had looked about to discover who might have betrayed his purpose and procured that intervention. He bethought him of Giuliana. Had not Cosimo seen her in intimate talk with me on the morning of my arrest, and would he not have reported it to his master?
So to the handsome mansion in which he housed her, and to which at all hours he had access, the Duke went instantly. He must have taxed her with it; and knowing her nature, I can imagine that she not only admitted that his thwarting was due to her, but admitted it mockingly, exultingly, jeering as only a jealous woman can jeer, until in his rage he seized her by the throat.
How bitterly must she not have repented that she had not kept a better guard upon her tongue, during those moments of her agony, brief in themselves, yet horribly long to her, until her poor wanton spirit went forth from the weak clay that she had loved too well.
When I heard of the end of that unfortunate, all my bitterness against her went out of me, and in my heart I set myself to find excuses for her. Witty and cultured in much; in much else she had been as stupid as the dumb beast. She was irreligious as were many because what she saw of religion did not inspire respect in her, and whilst one of her lovers had been a prince of the Church another had been the son of the Pope. She was by nature sensuous, and her sensuousness stifled in her all perception of right or wrong.
I like to think that her death was brought about as the result of a good deed–so easily might it have been the consequence of an evil one. And I trust that that deed–good in itself, whatever the sources from which it may have sprung–may have counted in her favour and weighed in the balance against the sins that were largely of her nature.
I bethought me of Fra Gervasio’s words to me: “Who that knows all that goes to the making of a sin shall ever dare to blame a sinner?” He had applied those words to my own case where Giuliana was concerned. But do they not apply equally to Giuliana? Do they not apply to every sinner, when all is said?
The words that passed between Bianca and me that evening in the dining-room express all that can be said of our attitude to each other during the months that followed. Daily we met, and the things which our lips no longer dared to utter, our eyes expressed.
Days passed and grew to weeks, and these accumulated into months. The autumn faded from gold to grey, and the winter came and laid the earth to sleep, and then followed spring to awaken it once more.
None troubled us at Pagliano, and we began with some justice to consider ourselves secure. Galeotto’s memorial, not a doubt, had stirred up matters; and Pier Luigi would be under orders from his father not to add one more scandal to the many of his life by venturing to disturb Madonna Bianca in her stronghold at Pagliano.
From time to time we were visited by Galeotto. It was well for him that fatigue had overwhelmed him that day at Bologna, and so hindered him from taking a hand with us in the doings of that hideous night, else he might no longer have freedom to roam the State unchallenged as he did.
He told us of the new citadel the Duke was building in Piacenza, and how for the purpose he was pulling down houses relentlessly to obtain material and to clear himself a space, and how, further, he was widening and strengthening the walls of the city.
“But I doubt,” he said one morning in that spring, “if he will live to see the work completed. For we are resolved at last. There is no need for an armed rising. Five score of my lances will be all that is necessary. We are planning a surprise, and Ferrante Gonzaga is to be at hand to support us with Imperial troops and to receive the State as the Emperor’s vicegerent when the hour strikes. It will strike soon,” he added, “and this, too, shall be paid for with the rest.” And he touched the black mourning gown that Bianca wore.
He rode away again that day, and he went north for a last interview with the Emperor’s Lieutenant, but promising to return before the blow was struck to give me the opportunity to bear my share in it.
Spring turned to summer, and we waited, wandering in the gardens together; reading together, playing at bowls or tennis, though the latter game was not considered one for women, and sometimes exercising the men-at-arms in the great inner bailey where they lodged. Twice we rode out ahawking, accompanied by a strong escort, and returned without mishap, though I would not consent to a third excursion, lest a rumour having gone abroad, our enemies should lie in wait to trap us. I grew strangely fearful of losing her who did not and who never might belong to me.
And all this time my penance, as I regarded it, grew daily heavier to bear.