Long since I had ceased so much as to kiss her finger-tips. But to kiss the very air she breathed was fraught with danger to my peace of mind. And then one evening, as we paced the garden together, I had a moment’s madness, a moment in which my yearnings would no longer be repressed. Without warning I swung about, caught her in my arms, and crushed her to me.
I saw the sudden flicker of her eyelids, the one swift upward glance of her blue eyes, and I beheld in them a yearning akin to my own, but also a something of fear that gave me pause.
I put her from me. I knelt and kissed the hem of her mourning gown.
“Forgive me, sweet.” I besought her very humbly.
“My poor Agostino,” was all she answered me, what time her fingers fluttered gently over my sable hair.
Thereafter I shunned her for a whole week, and was never in her company save at meals under the eyes of our attendants.
At last, one day in the early part of September, on the very anniversary of her father’s death–the eighth of that month it was, and a Thursday–came Galeotto with a considerable company of men-at-arms; and that night he was gay and blithe as I had never seen him in these twelve months past.
When we were alone, the cause of it, which already I suspected, at last transpired.
“It is the hour,” he said very pregnantly. “His sands are swiftly running out. To-morrow, Agostino, you ride with me to Piacenza. Falcone shall remain here to captain the men in case any attempt should be made upon Pagliano, which is not likely.”
And now he told us of the gay doings there had been in Piacenza for the occasion of the visit of the Duke’s son Ottavio–that same son-in-law of the Emperor whom the latter befriended, yet not to the extent of giving him the duchy in his father’s place when that father should have gone to answer for his sins.
Daily there had been jousts and tournaments and all manner of gaieties, for which the Piacentini had been sweated until they could sweat no more. Having fawned upon the people that they might help him to crush the barons, Farnese was now crushing the people whose service he no longer needed. Extortion had reduced them to poverty and despair and their very houses were being pulled down to supply material for the new citadel, the Duke recking little who might thus be left without a roof over his head.
“He has gone mad,” said Galeotto, and laughed. “Pier Luigi could not more effectively have played his part so as to serve our ends. The nobles he alienated long ago, and now the very populace is incensed against him and weary of his rapine. It is so bad with him that of late he has remained shut in the citadel, and seldom ventures abroad, so as to avoid the sight of the starving faces of the poor and the general ruin that he is making of that fair city. He has given out that he is ill. A little blood-letting will cure all his ills for ever.”
Upon the morrow Galeotto picked thirty of his men, and gave them their orders. They were to depose their black liveries, and clad as countryfolk, but armed as countryfolk would be for a long journey, they were severally to repair afoot to Piacenza, and assemble there upon the morning of Saturday at the time and place he indicated. They went, and that afternoon we followed.
“You will come back to me, Agostino?” Bianca said to me at parting.
“I will come back,” I answered, and bowing I left her, my heart very heavy.
But as we rode the prospect of the thing to do warmed me a little, and I shook off my melancholy. Optimism coloured the world for me all of the rosy hue of promise.
We slept in Piacenza that night, in a big house in the street that leads to the Church of San Lazzaro, and there was a company of perhaps a dozen assembled there, the principals being the brothers Pallavicini of Cortemaggiore, who had been among the first to feel the iron hand of Pier Luigi; there were also present Agostino Landi, and the head of the house of Confalonieri.
We sat after supper about a long table of smooth brown oak, which reflected as in a pool the beakers and flagons with which it was charged, when suddenly Galeotto span a coin upon the middle of it. It fell flat presently, showing the ducal arms and the inscription of which the abbreviation PLAC was a part.
Galeotto set his finger to it. “A year ago I warned him,” said he, “that his fate was written there in that shortened word. To-morrow I shall read the riddle for him.”
I did not understand the allusion and said so.
“Why,” he explained, not only to me but to others whose brows had also been knit, “first ‘Plac’ stands for Placentia where he will meet his doom; and then it contains the initials of the four chief movers in this undertaking–Pallavicini, Landi, Anguissola, and Confalonieri.”
“You force the omen to come true when you give me a leader’s rank in this affair,” said I.
He smiled but did not answer, and returned the coin to his pocket.
And now the happening that is to be related is to be found elsewhere, for it is a matter of which many men have written in different ways, according to their feelings or to the hand that hired them to the writing.
Soon after dawn Galeotto quitted us, each of us instructed how to act.
Later in the morning, as I was on my way to the castle, where we were to assemble at noon, I saw Galeotto riding through the streets at the Duke’s side. He had been beyond the gates with Pier Luigi on an inspection of the new fortress that was building. It appeared that once more there was talk between the Duke and Galeotto of the latter’s taking service under him, and Galeotto made use of this circumstance to forward his plans. He was, I think, the most self-contained and patient man that it would have been possible to find for such an undertaking.
In addition to the condottiero, a couple of gentlemen on horseback attended the Duke, and half a score of his Swiss lanzknechte in gleaming corselets and steel morions, shouldering their formidable pikes, went afoot to hedge his excellency.
The people fell back before that little company; the citizens doffed their caps with the respect that is begotten of fear, but their air was sullen and in the main they were silent, though here and there some knave, with the craven adulation of those born to serve at all costs, raised a feeble shout of “Duca!”
The Duke moved slowly at little more than a walking pace, for he was all crippled again by the disease that ravaged him, and his face, handsome in itself, was now repulsive to behold; it was a livid background for the fiery pustules that mottled it, and under the sunken eyes there were great brown stains of suffering.
I flattened myself against a wall in the shadow of a doorway lest he should see me, for my height made me an easy mark in that crowd. But he looked neither to right nor to left as he rode. Indeed, it was said that he could no longer bear to meet the glances of the people he had so grossly abused and outraged with deeds that are elsewhere abundantly related, and with which I need not turn your stomachs here.
When they had gone by, I followed slowly in their wake towards the castle. As I turned out of the fine road that Gambara had built, I was joined by the brothers Pallavicini, a pair of resolute, grizzled gentlemen, the elder of whom, as you will remember, was slightly lame. With an odd sense of fitness they had dressed themselves in black. They were accompanied by half a dozen of Galeotto’s men, but these bore no device by which they could be identified. We exchanged greetings, and stepped out together across the open space of the Piazza della Citadella towards the fortress.
We crossed the drawbridge, and entered unchallenged by the guard. People were wont to come and go, and to approach the Duke it was necessary to pass the guard in the ante-chamber above, whose business it was to question all comers.
Moreover the only guard set consisted of a couple of Swiss who lounged in the gateway, the garrison being all at dinner, a circumstance upon which Galeotto had calculated in appointing noon as the hour for the striking of the blow.
We crossed the quadrangle, and passing under a second archway came into the inner bailey as we had been bidden. Here we were met by Confalonieri, who also had half a dozen men with him. He greeted us, and issued his orders sharply.
“You, Ser Agostino, are to come with us, whilst you others are to remain here until Messer Landi arrives with the remainder of our forces. He should have a score of men with him, and they will cut down the guard when they enter. The moment that is done let a pistol-shot be discharged as the signal to us above, and proceed immediately to take up the bridge and overpower the Swiss who should still be at table. Landi has his orders and knows how to act.”
The Pallavicini briefly spoke their assents, and Confalonieri, taking me by the arm, led me quickly above-stairs, his half-dozen men following close upon our heels. Upon none was there any sign of armour. But every man wore a shirt of mail under his doublet or jerkin.
We entered the ante-chamber–a fine, lofty apartment, richly hung and richly furnished. It was empty of courtiers, for all were gone to dine with the captain of the guard, who had been married upon that very morning and was giving a banquet in honour of the event, as Galeotto had informed himself when he appointed the day.
Over by a window sat four of the Swiss–the entire guard–about a table playing at dice, their lances deposited in an angle of the wall.
Watching their game–for which he had lingered after accompanying the Duke thus far–stood the tall, broad-shouldered figure of Galeotto. He turned as we entered, and gave us an indifferent glance as if we were of no interest to him, then returned his attention to the dicers.
One or two of the Swiss looked up at us casually. The dice rattled merrily, and there came from the players little splutters of laughter and deep guttural, German oaths.
At the room’s far end, by the curtains that masked the door of the chamber where Farnese sat at dinner, stood an usher in black velvet, staff in hand, who took no more interest in us than did the Swiss.
We sauntered over to the dicers’ table, and in placing ourselves the better to watch their game, we so contrived that we entirely hemmed them into the embrasure, whilst Confalonieri himself stood with his back to the pikes, an effective barrier between the men and their weapons.
We remained thus for some moments whilst the game went on, and we laughed with the winners and swore with the losers, as if our hearts were entirely in the dicing and we had not another thought in the world.
Suddenly a pistol-shot crackled below, and startled the Swiss, who looked at one another. One burly fellow whom they named Hubli held the dice-box poised for a throw that was never made.
Across the courtyard below men were running with drawn swords, shouting as they ran, and hurled themselves through the doorway leading to the quarters where the Swiss were at table. This the guards saw through the open window, and they stared, muttering German oaths to express their deep bewilderment.
And then there came a creak of winches and a grinding of chains to inform us that the bridge was being taken up. At last those four lanzknechte looked at us.
“Beim blute Gottes!” swore Hubli. “Was giebt es?”
Our set faces, showing no faintest trace of surprise, quickened their alarm, and this became flavoured by suspicion when they perceived at last how closely we pressed about them.
“Continue your game,” said Confalonieri quietly, “it will be best for you.”
The great blonde fellow Hubli flung down the dice-box and heaved himself up truculently to face the speaker who stood between him and the lances. Instantly Confalonieri stabbed him, and he sank back into his chair with a cry, intensest surprise in his blue eyes, so sudden and unlooked-for had the action been.
Galeotto had already left the group about the table, and with a blow of his great hand he felled the usher who sought to bar his passage to the Duke’s chamber. He tore down the curtains, and he was wrapping and entangling the fellow in the folds of them when I came to his aid followed by Confalonieri, whose six men remained to hold the three sound and the one wounded Swiss in check.
And now from below there rose such a din of steel on steel, of shouts and screams and curses, that it behoved us to make haste.
Bidding us follow him, Galeotto flung open the door. At table sat Farnese with two of his gentlemen, one of whom was the Marquis Sforza-Fogliani, the other a doctor of canon law named Copallati.
Alarm was already written on their faces. At sight of Galeotto–“Ah! You are still here!” cried Farnese. “What is taking place below? Have the Swiss fallen to fighting among themselves?”
Galeotto returned no answer, but advanced slowly into the room; and now Farnese’s eyes went past him and fastened upon me, and I saw them suddenly dilate; beyond me they went and met the cold glance of Confalonieri, that other gentleman he had so grievously wronged and whom he had stripped of the last rag of his possessions and his rights. The sun coming through the window caught the steel that Confalonieri still carried in his hands; its glint drew the eyes of the Duke, and he must have seen that the baron’s sleeve was bloody.
He rose, leaning heavily upon the table.
“What does this mean?” he demanded in a quavering voice, and his face had turned grey with apprehension.
“It means,” Galeotto answered him, firmly and coldly, “that your rule in Piacenza is at an end, that the Pontifical sway is broken in these States, and that beyond the Po Ferrante Gonzaga waits with an army to take possession here in the Emperor’s name. Finally, my Lord Duke, it means that the Devil’s patience is to be rewarded, and that he is at last to have you who have so faithfully served him upon earth.”
Farnese made a gurgling sound and put a jewelled hand to his throat as if he choked. He was all in green velvet, and every button of his doublet was a brilliant of price; and that gay raiment by its incongruity seemed to heighten the tragedy of the moment.
Of his gentlemen the doctor sat frozen with terror in his high-backed seat, clutching the arms of it so that his knuckles showed white as marble. In like case were the two attendant servants, who hung motionless by the buffet. But Sforza-Fogliani, a man of some spirit for all his effeminate appearance, leapt to his feet and set a hand to his weapons.
Instantly Confalonieri’s sword flashed from its sheath. He had passed his dagger into his left hand.
“On your life, my Lord Marquis, do not meddle here,” he warned him in a voice that was like a trumpet-call.
And before that ferocious aspect and those naked weapons Sforza-Fogliani stood checked and intimidated.
I too had drawn my poniard, determined that Farnese should fall to my steel in settlement of the score that lay between us. He saw the act, and if possible his fears were increased, for he knew that the wrongs he had done me were personal matters between us for which it was not likely I should prove forgiving.
“Mercy!” he gasped, and held out supplicating hands to Galeotto.
“Mercy?” I echoed, and laughed fiercely. “What mercy would you have shown me against whom you set the Holy Office, but that you could sell my life at a price that was merciless? What mercy would you have shown to the daughter of Cavalcanti when she lay in your foul power? What mercy did you show her father who died by your hand? What mercy did you show the unfortunate Giuliana whom you strangled in her bed? What mercy did you ever show to any that you dare ask now for mercy?”
He looked at me with dazed eyes, and from me to Galeotto. He shuddered and turned a greenish hue. His knees were loosened by terror, and he sank back into the chair from which he had risen.
“At least…at least,” he gasped, “let me have a priest to shrive me. Do not…do not let me die with all my sins upon me!”
In that moment there came from the ante-chamber the sound of swiftly moving feet, and the clash of steel mingling with cries. The sound heartened him. He conceived that someone came to his assistance. He raised his voice in a desperate screech:
“To me! To me! Help!”
As he shouted I sprang towards him, to find my passage suddenly barred by Galeotto’s arm. He shot it out, and my breast came against it as against a rod of iron. It threw me out of balance, and ere I had recovered it had thrust me back again.
“Back there!” said Galeotto’s brazen voice. “This affair is mine. Mine are the older wrongs and the greater.”
With that he stepped behind the Duke’s chair, and Farnese in a fresh spurt of panic came to his feet. Galeotto locked an arm about his neck and pulled his head back. Into his ear he muttered words that I could not overhear, but it was matter that stilled Farnese’s last struggle. Only the Duke’s eyes moved, rolling in his head as he sought to look upon the face of the man who spoke to him. And in that moment Galeotto wrenched his victim’s head still farther back, laying entirely bare the long brown throat, across which he swiftly drew his dagger.
Copallati screamed and covered his face with his hands; Sforza-Fogliani, white to the lips, looked on like a man entranced.
There was a screech from Farnese that ended in a gurgle, and suddenly the blood spurted from his neck as from a fountain. Galeotto let him go. He dropped to his chair and fell forward against the table, drenching it in blood. Thence he went over sideways and toppled to the floor, where he lay twitching, a huddle of arms and legs, the head lolling sideways, the eyes vitreous, and blood, blood, blood all about him.
The sight turned me almost physically sick.
I faced about, and sprang from the room out into the ante-chamber, where a battle was in progress. Some three or four of the Duke’s gentlemen and a couple of Swiss had come to attempt a rescue. They had compelled Galeotto’s six men to draw and defend themselves, the odds being suddenly all against them. Into that medley I went with drawn sword, hacking and cutting madly, giving knocks and taking them, glad of the excitement of it; glad of anything that would shut out from my mind the horror of the scene I had witnessed.
Presently Confalonieri came out to take a hand, leaving Galeotto on guard within, and in a few minutes we had made an end of that resistance–the last splutter of resistance within those walls.
Beyond some cuts and scratches that some of us had taken, not a man of ours was missing, whilst of the Duke’s followers not a single one remained alive in that antechamber. The place was a shambles. Hangings that had been clutched had been torn from the walls; a great mirror was cracked from top to bottom; tables were overset and wrecked; chairs were splintered; and hardly a pane of glass remained in any of the windows. And everywhere there was blood, everywhere dead men.
Up the stairs came trooping now our assembled forces led by Landi and the Pallavicini. Below all was quiet. The Swiss garrison taken by surprise at table, as was planned, had been disarmed and all were safe and impotent under lock and bolt. The guards at the gate had been cut down, and we were entirely masters of the place.
Sforza-Fogliani, Copallati, and the two servants were fetched from the Duke’s chamber and taken away to be locked up in another room until the business should be ended. For after all, it was but begun.
In the town the alarm-bell was ringing from the tower of the Communal Palace, and at the sound I saw Galeotto’s eyes kindling. He took command, none disputing it him, and under his orders men went briskly to turn the cannon of the fortress upon the square, that an attack might be repulsed if it were attempted. And three salvoes were fired, to notify Ferrante Gonzaga where he waited that the castle was in the hands of the conspirators and Pier Luigi slain.
Meanwhile we had returned with Galeotto to the room where the Duke had died, and where his body still lay, huddled as it had fallen. The windows of this chamber were set in the outer wall of the fortress, immediately above the gates and commanding a view of the square. We were six– Confalonieri, Landi, the two Pallavicini, Galeotto, and myself, besides a slight fellow named Malvicini, who had been an officer of light-horse in the Duke’s service, but who had taken a hand in betraying him.
In the square there was by now a seething, excited mob through which a little army of perhaps a thousand men of the town militia with their captain, da Terni, riding at their head, was forcing its way. And they were shouting “Duca!” and crying out that the castle had been seized by Spaniards–by which they meant the Emperor’s troops.
Galeotto dragged a chair to the window, and standing upon it, showed himself to the people.
“Disperse!” he shouted to them. “To your homes! The Duke is dead!”
But his voice could not surmount that raging din, above which continued to ring the cry of “Duca! Duca!”
“Let me show them their Duca,” said a voice. It was Malvicini’s.
He had torn down a curtain-rope, and had attached an end of it to one of the dead man’s legs. Thus he dragged the body forward towards the window. The other end of the rope he now knotted very firmly to a mullion. Then he took the body up in his arms, whilst Galeotto stood aside to make way for him, and staggering under his ghastly burden, Malvicini reached the window, and heaved it over the sill.
It fell the length of the rope and there was arrested with a jerk to hang head downwards, spread-eagle against the brown wall; and the diamond buttons in his green velvet doublet sparkled merrily in the sunshine.
At that sight a great silence swept across the multitude, and availing himself of this, Galeotto again addressed those Piacentini.
“To your homes,” he cried to them, “and arm yourselves to defend the State from your enemies if the need should arise. There hangs the Duke–dead. He has been slain to liberate our country from unjust oppression.”
Still, it seemed, they did not hear him; for though to us they appeared to be almost silent, yet there was a rustle and stir amongst them, which must have deafened each to what was being announced.
They renewed their cries of “Duca!” of “Spaniards!” and “To arms!”
“A curse on your ‘Spaniards!'” cried Malvicini. “Here! Take your Duke. Look at him, and understand.” And he slashed the rope across, so that the body plunged down into the castle ditch.
A few of the foremost of the crowd ran forward and scrambled down into the ditch to view the body, and from them the rumour of the truth ran like a ripple over water through that mob, so that in the twinkling of an eye there was no man in that vast concourse–and all Piacenza seemed by now to be packed into the square–but knew that Pier Luigi Farnese was dead.
A sudden hush fell. There were no more cries of “Duca!” They stood silent, and not a doubt but that in the breasts of the majority surged a great relief. Even the militia ceased to advance. If the Duke was dead there was nothing left to do.
Again Galeotto spoke to them, and this time his words were caught by those in the ditch immediately below us, and from them they were passed on, and suddenly a great cry went up–a shout of relief, a paean of joy. If Farnese was dead, and well dead, they could, at last, express the thing that was in their hearts.
And now at the far end of the square a glint of armour appeared; a troop of horse emerged, and began slowly to press forward through the crowd, driving it back on either side, but very gently. They came three abreast, and there were six score of them, and from their lance-heads fluttered bannerols showing a sable bar on an argent field. They were Galeotto’s free company, headed by one of his lieutenants. Beyond the Po they too had been awaiting the salvo of artillery that should be their signal to advance.
When their identity was understood, and when the crowd had perceived that they rode to support the holders of the castle, they were greeted with lusty cheers, in which presently even the militia joined, for these last were Piacentini and no Swiss hireling soldiers of the Duke’s.
The drawbridge was let down, and the company thundered over it to draw up in the courtyard under the eyes of Galeotto. He issued his orders once more to his companions. Then calling for horses for himself and for me, and bidding a score of lances to detach themselves to ride with us, we quitted the fortress.
We pressed through the clamant multitude until we had reached the middle of the square. Here Galeotto drew rein and, raising his hand for silence, informed the people once more that the Duke had been done to death by the nobles of Piacenza, thus to avenge alike their own and the people’s wrongs, and to free them from unjust oppression and tyranny.
They cheered him when he had done, and the cry now was “Piacenza! Piacenza!”
When they had fallen silent again–“I would have you remember,” he cried, “that Pier Luigi was the Pontiff’s son, and that the Pontiff will make haste to avenge his death and to re-establish here in Piacenza the Farnese sway. So that all that we have done this day may go for naught unless we take our measures.”
The silence deepened.
“But you have been served by men who have the interest of the State at heart; and more has been done to serve you than the mere slaying of Pier Luigi Farnese. Our plans are made, and we but wait to know is it your will that the State should incorporate itself as of old with that of Milan, and place itself under the protection of the Emperor, who will appoint you fellow-countrymen for rulers, and will govern you wisely and justly, abolishing extortion and oppression?”
A thunder of assent was his answer. “Cesare! Cesare!” was now the cry, and caps were tossed into the air.
“Then go arm yourselves and repair to the Commune, and there make known your will to the Anziani and councillors, and see that it is given effect by them. The Emperor’s Lieutenant is at your gates. I ride to surrender to him the city in your name, and before nightfall he will be here to protect you from any onslaught of the Pontificals.”
With that he pushed on, the mob streaming along with us, intent upon going there and then to do the thing that Galeotto advised. And by now they had discovered Galeotto’s name, and they were shouting it in acclamation of him, and at the sound he smiled, though his eyes seemed very wistful.
He leaned over to me, and gripped my hand where it lay on the saddle-bow clutching the reins.
“Thus is Giovanni d’Anguissola at last avenged!” he said to me in a deep voice that thrilled me.
“I would that he were here to know,” I answered.
And again Galeotto’s eyes grew wistful as they looked at me.
We won out of the town at last, and when we came to the high ground beyond the river, we saw in the plain below phalanx upon phalanx of a great army. It was Ferrante Gonzaga’s Imperial force.
Galeotto pointed to it. “That is my goal,” he said. “You had best ride on to Pagliano with these lances. You may need them there. I had hoped that Cosimo would have been found in the castle with Pier Luigi. His absence makes me uneasy. Away with you, then. You shall have news of me within three days.”
We embraced, on horseback as we were. Then he wheeled his charger and went down the steep ground, riding hard for Ferrante’s army, whilst we pursued our way, and came some two hours later without mishap to Pagliano.
I found Bianca awaiting me in the gallery above the courtyard, drawn thither by the sounds of our approach.
“Dear Agostino, I have been so fearful for you,” was her greeting when I had leapt up the staircase to take her hand.
I led her to the marble seat she had occupied on that night, two years ago, when first we had spoken of our visions. Briefly I gave her the news of what had befallen in Piacenza.
When I had done, she sighed and looked at me.
“It brings us no nearer to each other,” she said.
“Nay, now–this much nearer, at least, that the Imperial decree will return me the lordships of Mondolfo and Carmina, dispossessing the usurper. Thus I shall have something to offer you, my Bianca.”
She smiled at me very sadly, almost reproachfully.
“Foolish,” said she. “What matter the possessions that it may be yours to cast into my lap? Is that what we wait for, Agostino? Is there not Pagliano for you? Would not that, at need, be lordship enough?”
“The meanest cottage of the countryside were lordship enough so that you shared it,” I answered passionately, as many in like case have answered before and since.
“You see, then, that you are wrong to attach importance to so slight a thing as this Imperial decree where you and I are concerned. Can an Imperial decree annul my marriage?”
“For that a papal bull would be necessary.”
“And how is a papal bull to be obtained?”
“It is not for us,” I admitted miserably.
“I have been wicked,” she said, her eyes upon the ground, a faint colour stirring in her cheeks. “I have prayed that the usurper might be dispossessed of his rights in me. I have prayed that when the attack was made and revolt was carried into the Citadel of Piacenza, Cosimo d’Anguissola might stand at his usual post beside the Duke and might fall with him. Surely justice demanded it!” she cried out. “God’s justice, as well as man’s. His act in marrying me was a defilement of one of the holiest of sacraments, and for that he should surely be punished and struck down!”
I went upon my knees to her. “Dear love!” I cried. “See, I have you daily in my sight. Let me not be ungrateful for so much.”
She took my face in her hands and looked into my eyes, saying no word. Then she leaned forward, and very gently touched my forehead with her 1ips.
“God pity us a little, Agostino,” she murmured, her eyes shining with unshed tears.
“The fault is mine–all mine!” I denounced myself. “We are being visited with my sins. When I can take you for my own–if that blessed day should ever dawn–I shall know that I have attained to pardon, that I am cleansed and worthy of you at last.”
She rose and I escorted her within; then went to my own chamber to bathe and rest.
We were breaking our fast upon the following morning when Falcone sent word to me by one of the pages that a considerable force was advancing towards us from the south.
I rose, somewhat uneasy. Yet I reflected that it was possible that, news of the revolt in Piacenza having reached Parma, this was an army of Pontificals moving thence upon the rebellious city. But in that case, what should they be doing this side of Po?
An hour later, from the battlements where we paced side by side–Bianca and I–we were able to estimate this force and we fixed its strength at five score lances. Soon we could make out the device upon their bannerols–a boar’s head azure upon an argent field–my own device, that of the Anguissola of Mondolfo; and instantly I knew them for Cosimo’s men.
On the lower parapet six culverins had been dragged into position under the supervision of Falcone–who was still with us at Pagliano. These pieces stood loaded and manned by the soldiers to whom I had assigned the office of engineers.
Thus we waited until the little army came to a halt about a quarter of a mile away, and a trumpeter with a flag of truce rode forward accompanied by a knight armed cap-a-pie, his beaver down.
The herald wound a challenge; and it was answered from the postern by a man-at-arms, whereupon the herald delivered his message.
“In the name of our Holy Father and Lord, Paul III, we summon Agostino d’Anguissola here to confer with the High and Mighty Cosimo d’Anguissola, Tyrant of Mondolfo and Carmina.”
Three minutes later, to their infinite surprise, the bridge thudded down to span the ditch, and I walked out upon it with Bianca at my side.
“Will the Lord Cosimo come within to deliver his message?” I demanded.
The Lord Cosimo would not, fearing a trap.
“Will he meet us here upon the bridge, divesting himself first of his weapons? Myself I am unarmed.”
The herald conveyed the words to Cosimo, who hesitated still. Indeed, he had wheeled his horse when the bridge fell, ready to gallop off at the first sign of a sortie.
I laughed. “You are a paltry coward, Cosimo, when all is said,” I shouted. “Do you not see that had I planned to take you, I need resort to no subterfuge? I have,” I added–though untruthfully–” twice your number of lances under arms, and by now I could have flung them across the bridge and taken you under the very eyes of your own men. You were rash to venture so far. But if you will not venture farther, at least send me your herald.”
At that he got down from his horse, delivered up sword and dagger to his single attendant, received from the man a parchment, and came towards us, opening his vizor as he advanced. Midway upon the bridge we met. His lips curled in a smile of scorn.
“Greetings, my strolling saint,” he said. “Through all your vagaries you are at least consistent in that you ever engage your neighbour’s wife to bear you company in your wanderings.”
I went hot and cold, red and white by turns. With difficulty I controlled myself under that taunt–the cruellest he could have flung at me in Bianca’s hearing.
“Your business here?” I snarled.
He held out the parchment, his eyes watching me intently, so that they never once strayed to Bianca.
“Read, St. Mountebank,” he bade me.
I took the paper, but before I lowered my eyes to it, I gave him warning.
“If on your part you attempt the slightest treachery,” I said, “you shall be repaid in kind. My men are at the winches, and they have my orders that at the first treacherous movement on your part they are to take up the bridge. You will see that you could not reach the end of it in time to save yourself.”
It was his turn to change colour under the shadow of his beaver. “Have you trapped me?” he asked between his teeth.
“If you had anything of the Anguissola besides the name,” I answered, “you would know me incapable of such a thing. It is because I know that of the Anguissola you have nothing but the name, that you are a craven, a dastard and a dog, that I have taken my precautions.”
“Is it your conception of valour to insult a man whom you hold as if bound hand and foot against striking you as you deserve?”
I smiled sweetly into that white, scowling face.
“Throw down your gauntlet upon this bridge, Cosimo, if you deem yourself affronted, if you think that I have lied; and most joyfully will I take it up and give you the trial by battle of your seeking.”
For an instant I almost thought that he would take me at my word, as most fervently I hoped. But he restrained himself.
“Read!” he bade me again, with a fierce gesture. And accounting him well warned by now, I read with confidence.
It was a papal brief ordering me under pain of excommunication and death to make surrender to Cosimo d’Anguissola of the Castle of Pagliano which I traitorously held, and of the person of his wife, Madonna Bianca.
“This document is not exact,” said I. “I do not hold this castle traitorously. It is an Imperial fief, and I hold it in the Emperor’s name.”
He smiled. “Persist if you are weary of life,” he said. “Surrender now, and you are free to depart and go wheresoever you list. Continue in your offence, and the consequences shall daunt you ere all is done. This Imperial fief belongs to me, and it is for me, who am Lord of Pagliano by virtue of my marriage and the late lord’s death, to hold it for the Emperor.
“And you are not to doubt that when this brief is laid before the Emperor’s Lieutenant at Milan, he will move instantly against you to cast you out and to invest me in those rights which are mine by God’s law and man’s alike.”
My answer may, at first, have seemed hardly to the point. I held out the brief to him.
“To seek the Emperor’s Lieutenant you need not go as far as Milan. You will find him in Piacenza.”
He looked at me, as if he did not understand. “How?” he asked.
I explained. “While you have been cooling your heels in the ante-chambers of the Vatican to obtain this endorsement of your infamy, the world hereabouts has moved a little. Yesterday Ferrante Gonzaga took possession of Piacenza in the Emperor’s name. To-day the Council will be swearing fealty to Caesar upon his Lieutenant’s hands.”
He stared at me for a long moment, speechless in his utter amazement. Then he swallowed hard.
“And the Duke?” he asked.
“The Duke has been in Hell these four-and-twenty hours.”
“Dead?” he questioned, his voice hushed.
“Dead,” said I.
He leaned against the rail of the bridge, his arms fallen limply to his sides, one hand crushing the Pontifical parchment. Then he braced himself again. He had reviewed the situation, and did not see that it hurt his position, when all was said.
“Even so,” he urged, “what can you hope for? The Emperor himself must bow before this, and do me justice.” And he smacked the document. “I demand my wife, and my demand is backed by Pontifical authority. You are mad if you think that Charles V can fail to support it.”
“It is possible that Charles V may take a different view of the memorial setting forth the circumstances of your marriage, from that which the Holy Father appears to have taken. I counsel you to seek the Imperial Lieutenant at Piacenza without delay. Here you waste time.”
His lips closed with a snap. Then, at last, his eyes wandered to Bianca, who stood just beside and slightly behind me.
“Let me appeal to you, Monna Bianca…” he began.
But at that I got between them. “Are you so dead to shame,” I roared, “that you dare address her, you pimp, you jackal, you eater of dirt? Be off, or I will have this drawbridge raised and deal with you here and now, in despite of Pope and Emperor and all the other powers you can invoke. Away with you, then!”
“You shall pay!” he snarled, “By God, you shall pay!”
And on that he went off, in some fear lest I should put my threat into execution.
But Bianca was in a panic. “He will do as he says.” she cried as soon as we had re-entered the courtyard. “The Emperor cannot deny him justice. He must, he must! 0, Agostino, it is the end. And see to what a pass I have brought you!”
I comforted her. I spoke brave words. I swore to hold that castle as long as one stone of it stood upon another. But deep down in my heart there was naught but presages of evil.
On the following day, which was Sunday, we had peace. But towards noon on Monday the blow fell. An Imperial herald from Piacenza rode out to Pagliano with a small escort.
We were in the garden when word was brought us, and I bade the herald be admitted. Then I looked at Bianca. She was trembling and had turned very white.
We spoke no word whilst they brought the messenger–a brisk fellow in his black-and-yellow Austrian livery. He delivered me a sealed letter. It proved to be a summons from Ferrante Gonzaga to appear upon the morrow before the Imperial Court which would sit in the Communal Palace of Piacenza to deliver judgment upon an indictment laid against me by Cosimo d’Anguissola.
I looked at the herald, hesitation in my mind and glance. He held out a second letter.
“This, my lord, I was asked by favour to deliver to you also.”
I took it, and considered the superscription:
“These to the Most Noble Agostino d’Anguissola, at Pagliano.
The hand was Galeotto’s. I tore it open. It contained but two lines:
“Upon your life do not fail to obey the Imperial summons. Send Falcone to me here at once.” And it was signed–“GALEOTTO.”
“It is well,” I said to the herald, “I will not fail to attend.”
I bade the seneschal who stood in attendance to give the messenger refreshment ere he left, and upon that dismissed him.
When we were alone I turned to Bianca. “Galeotto bids me go,” I said. “There is surely hope.”
She took the note, and passing a hand over her eyes, as if to clear away some mist that obscured her vision, she read it. Then she considered the curt summons that gave no clue, and lastly looked at me.
“It is the end,” I said. “One way or the other, it is the end. But for Galeotto’s letter, I think I should have refused to obey, and made myself an outlaw indeed. As it is–there is surely hope!”
“0, Agostino, surely, surely!” she cried. “Have we not suffered enough? Have we not paid enough already for the happiness that should be ours? Tomorrow I shall go with you to Piacenza.”
“No, no,” I implored her.
“Could I remain here?” she pleaded. “Could I sit here and wait? Could you be so cruel as to doom me to such a torture of suspense?”
“But if…if the worst befalls?”
“It cannot,” she answered. “I believe in God.”
THE WILL OF HEAVEN
In the Chamber of Justice of the Communal Palace sat that day not the Assessors of the Ruota, but the Councillors in their damask robes–the Council of Ten of the City of Piacenza. And to preside over them sat not their Prior, but Ferrante Gonzaga himself, in a gown of scarlet velvet edged with miniver.
They sat at a long table draped in red at the room’s end, Gonzaga slightly above them on a raised dais, under a canopy. Behind him hung a golden shield upon which was figured, between two upright columns each surmounted by a crown, the double-headed black eagle of Austria; a scroll intertwining the pillars was charged with the motto “PLUS ULTRA.”
At the back of the court stood the curious who had come to see the show, held in bounds by a steel line of Spanish halberdiers. But the concourse was slight, for the folk of Piacenza still had weightier matters to concern them than the trial of a wife-stealer.
I had ridden in with an escort of twenty lances. But I left these in the square when I entered the palace and formally made surrender to the officer who met me. This officer led me at once into the Chamber of Justice, two men-at-arms opening a lane for me through the people with the butts of their pikes, so that I came into the open space before my judges, and bowed profoundly to Gonzaga.
Coldly he returned the salutation, his prominent eyes regarding me from out of that florid, crafty countenance.
On my left, but high up the room and immediately at right angles to the judges’ tables, sat Galeotto, full-armed. He was flanked on the one side by Fra Gervasio, who greeted me with a melancholy smile, and on the other by Falcone, who sat rigid.
Opposite to this group on the judges’ other hand stood Cosimo. He was flushed, and his eyes gleamed as they measured me with haughty triumph. From me they passed to Bianca, who followed after me with her women, pale, but intrepid and self-contained, her face the whiter by contrast with the mourning-gown which she still wore for her father, and which it might well come to pass that she should continue hereafter to wear for me.
I did not look at her again as she passed on and up towards Galeotto, who had risen to receive her. He came some few steps to meet her, and escorted her to a seat next to his own, so that Falcone moved down to another vacant stool. Her women found place behind her.
An usher set a chair for me, and I, too, sat down, immediately facing the Emperor’s Lieutenant. Then another usher in a loud voice summoned Cosimo to appear and state his grievance.
He advanced a step or two, when Gonzaga raised his hand, to sign to him to remain where he was so that all could see him whilst he spoke.
Forthwith, quickly, fluently, and lucidly, as if he had got the thing by heart, Cosimo recited his accusation: How he had married Bianca de’ Cavalcanti by her father’s consent in her father’s own Castle of Pagliano; how that same night his palace in Piacenza had been violently invested by myself and others abetting me, and how we had carried off his bride and burnt his palace to the ground; how I had since held her from him, shut up in the Castle of Pagliano, which was his fief in his quality as her husband; and how similarly I had unlawfully held Pagliano against him to his hurt.
Finally he reminded the Court that he had appealed to the Pope, who had issued a brief commanding me, under pain of excommunication and death, to make surrender; that I had flouted the Pontifical authority, and that it was only upon his appeal to Caesar and upon the Imperial mandate that I had surrendered. Wherefore he begged the Court to uphold the Holy Father’s authority, and forthwith to pronounce me excommunicate and my life forfeit, restoring to him his wife Bianca and his domain of Pagliano, which be would hold as the Emperor’s liege and loyal servitor.
Having spoken thus, he bowed to the Court, stepped back, and sat down.
The Ten looked at Gonzaga. Gonzaga looked at me.
“Have you anything to say?” he asked.
I rose imbued by a calm that surprised me.
“Messer Cosimo has left something out of his narrative,” said I. “When he says that I violently invested his palace here in Piacenza on the night of his marriage, and dragged thence the Lady Bianca, others abetting me, he would do well to add in the interests of justice, the names of those who were my abettors.”
Cosimo rose again. “Does it matter to this Court and to the affair at issue what caitiffs he employed?” he asked haughtily.
“If they were caitiffs it would not matter,” said I. “But they were not. Indeed, to say that it was I who invested his palace is to say too much. The leader of that expedition was Monna Bianca’s own father, who, having discovered the truth of the nefarious traffic in which Messer Cosimo was engaged, hastened to rescue his daughter from an infamy.”
Cosimo shrugged. “These are mere words,” he said.
“The lady herself is present, and can bear witness to their truth,” I cried.
“A prejudiced witness, indeed!” said Cosimo with confidence; and Gonzaga nodded, whereupon my heart sank.
“Will Messer Agostino give us the names of any of the braves who were with him?” quoth Cosimo. “It will no doubt assist the ends of justice, for those men should be standing by him now.”
He checked me no more than in time. I had been on the point of citing Falcone; and suddenly I perceived that to do so would be to ruin Falcone without helping myself.
I looked at my cousin. “In that case,” said I, “I will not name them.”
Falcone, however, was minded to name himself, for with a grunt he made suddenly to rise. But Galeotto stretched an arm across Bianca, and forced the equerry back into his seat.
Cosimo saw and smiled. He was very sure of himself by now.
“The only witness whose word would carry weight would be the late Lord of Pagliano,” he said. “And the prisoner is more crafty than honest in naming one who is dead. Your excellency will know the precise importance to attach to that.”
Again his excellency nodded. Could it indeed be that I was enmeshed? My calm deserted me.
“Will Messer Cosimo tell your excellency under what circumstances the Lord of Pagliano died?” I cried.
“It is yourself should be better able to inform the Court of that,” answered Cosimo quickly, “since he died at Pagliano after you had borne his daughter thither, as we have proof.”
Gonzaga looked at him sharply. “Are you implying, sir, that there is a further crime for which Messer Agostino d’Anguissola should be indicted?” he inquired.
Cosimo shrugged and pursed his lips. “I will not go so far, since the matter of Ettore Cavalcanti’s death does not immediately concern me. Besides, there is enough contained in the indictment as it stands.”
The imputation was none the less terrible, and could not fail of an effect upon the minds of the Ten. I was in despair, for at every question it seemed that the tide of destruction rose higher about me. I deemed myself irrevocably lost. The witnesses I might have called were as good as gagged.
Yet there was one last question in my quiver–a question which I thought must crumple up his confidence.
“Can you tell his excellency where you were upon your marriage night?” I cried hoarsely, my temples throbbing.
Superbly Cosimo looked round at the Court; he shrugged, and shook his head as if in utter pity.
“I leave it to your excellency to say where a man should be upon his marriage night,” he said, with an astounding impudence, and there were some who tittered in the crowd behind me. “Let me again beg your excellency and your worthinesses to pass to judgment, and so conclude this foolish comedy.”
Gonzaga nodded gravely, as if entirely approving, whilst with a fat jewelled hand he stroked his ample chin.
“I, too, think that it is time,” he said, whereupon Cosimo, with a sigh of relief, would have resumed his seat but that I stayed him with the last thing I had to say.
“My lord,” I cried, appealing to Gonzaga, “the true events of that night are set forth in a memorial of which two copies were drawn up, one for the Pope and the other for your excellency, as the Emperor’s vicegerent. Shall I recite its contents–that Messer Cosimo may be examined upon them.
“It is not necessary,” came Gonzaga’s icy voice. “The memorial is here before me.” And he tapped a document upon the table. Then he fixed his prominent eyes upon Cosimo. “You are aware of its contents?” he asked.
Cosimo bowed, and Galeotto moved at last, for the first time since the trial’s inception.
Until now he had sat like a carved image, save when he had thrust out a hand to restrain Falcone, and his attitude had filled me with an unspeakable dread. But at this moment he leaned forward turning an ear towards Cosimo, as if anxious not to miss a single word that the man might utter. And Cosimo, intent as he was, did not observe the movement.
“I saw its fellow at the Vatican,” said my cousin, “and since the Pope in his wisdom and goodness judged worthless the witnesses whose signatures it bears, his holiness thought well to issue the brief upon which your excellency has acted in summoning Agostino d’Anguissola before you here.
“Thus is that memorial disposed of as a false and lying document.”
“And yet,” said Gonzaga thoughtfully, his heavy lip between thumb and forefinger, “it bears, amongst others, the signature of the Lord of Pagliano’s confessor.”
“Without violation of the seal of the confessional, it is impossible for that friar to testify,” was the answer. “And the Holy Father cannot grant him dispensation for so much. His signature, therefore, stands for nothing.”
There followed a moment’s silence. The Ten whispered among themselves. But Gonzaga never consulted them by so much as a glance. They appeared to serve none but a decorative office in that Court of his, for they bore no share in the dispensing of a justice of which he constituted himself the sole arbiter.
At last the Governor spoke.
“It seems, indeed, that there is no more to say and the Court has a clear course before it, since the Emperor cannot contravene the mandates of the Holy See. Nothing remains, then, but to deliver sentence; unless…”
He paused, and his eyes singularly sly, his lips pursed almost humorously, he turned his glance upon Galeotto.
“Ser Cosimo,” he said, “has pronounced this memorial a false and lying document. Is there anything that you, Messer Galeotto, as its author, can have to tell the Court?”
Instantly the condottiero rose, his great scarred face very solemn, his eyes brooding. He advanced almost to the very centre of the table, so that he all but stood immediately before Gonzaga, yet sideways, so that I had him in profile, whilst he fully faced Cosimo.
Cosimo at least had ceased to smile. His handsome white face had lost some of its supercilious confidence. Here was something unexpected, something upon which he had not reckoned, against which he had not provided.
“What has Ser Galeotto to do with this?” he demanded harshly.
“That, sir, no doubt he will tell us, if you will have patience,” Gonzaga answered, so sweetly and deferentially that of a certainty some of Cosimo’s uneasiness must have been dissipated.
I leaned forward now, scarce daring to draw breath lest I should lose a word of what was to follow. The blood that had earlier surged to my face had now all receded again, and my pulses throbbed like hammers.
Then Galeotto spoke, his voice very calm and level.
“Will your excellency first permit me to see the papal brief upon which you acted in summoning hither the accused?”
Silently Gonzaga delivered a parchment into Galeotto’s hands. The condottiero studied it, frowning. Then he smote it sharply with his right hand.
“This document is not in order,” he announced.
“How?” quoth Cosimo, and he smiled again, reassured completely by now, convinced that here was no more than a minor quibble of the law.
“You are here described as Cosimo d’Anguissola, Lord of Mondolfo and Carmina. These titles are not yours.”
The blood stirred faintly in Cosimo’s cheeks.
“Those fiefs were conferred upon me by our late lord, Duke Pier Luigi,” he replied.
Gonzaga spoke. “The confiscations effected by the late usurping Duke, and the awards made out of such confiscations, have been cancelled by Imperial decree. All lands so confiscated are by this decree revertible to their original holders upon their taking oath of allegiance to Caesar.”
Cosimo continued to smile. “This is no matter of a confiscation effected by Duke Pier Luigi,” he said. “The confiscation and my own investiture in the confiscated fiefs are a consequence of Agostino d’Anguissola’s recreancy–at least, it is in such terms that my investiture is expressly announced in the papal bull that has been granted me and in the brief which lies before your excellency. Nor was such express announcement necessary, for since I was next heir after Ser Agostino to the Tyranny of Mondolfo, it follows that upon his being outlawed and his life forfeit I enter upon my succession.”
Here, thought I, were we finally checkmated. But Galeotto showed no sign of defeat.
“Where is this bull you speak of?” he demanded, as though he were the judge himself.
Cosimo haughtily looked past him at Gonzaga. “Does your excellency ask to see it?”
“Assuredly,” said Gonzaga shortly. “I may not take your word for its existence.”
Cosimo plucked a parchment from the breast of his brown satin doublet, unfolded it, and advanced to lay it before Gonzaga, so that he stood near Galeotto–not more than an arm’s length between them.
The Governor conned it; then passed it to Galeotto. “It seems in order,” he said.
Nevertheless, Galeotto studied it awhile; and then, still holding it, he looked at Cosimo, and the scarred face that hitherto had been so sombre now wore a smile.
“It is as irregular as the other,” he said. “It is entirely worthless.”
“Worthless?” quoth Cosimo, in an amazement that was almost scornful. “But have I not already explained…”
“It sets forth here,” cut in Galeotto with assurance, “that the fief of Mondolfo and Carmina are confiscated from Agostino d’Anguissola. Now I submit to your excellency, and to your worthinesses,” he added, turning aside, “that this confiscation is grotesque and impossible, since Mondolfo and Carmina never were the property of Agostino d’Anguissola, and could no more be taken from him than can a coat be taken from the back of a naked man–unless,” he added, sneering, “a papal bull is capable of miracles.”
Cosimo stared at him with round eyes, and I stared too, no glimmer of the enormous truth breaking yet upon my bewildered mind. In the court the silence was deathly until Gonzaga spoke.
“Do you say that Mondolfo and Carmina did not belong–that they never were the fiefs of Agostino d’Anguissola?” he asked.
“That is what I say,” returned Galeotto, towering there, immense and formidable in his gleaming armour.
“To whom, then, did they belong?”
“They did and do belong to Giovanni d’Anguissola–Agostino’s father.”
Cosimo shrugged at this, and some of the dismay passed from his countenance.
“What folly is this?” he cried. “Giovanni d’Anguissola died at Perugia eight years ago.”
“That is what is generally believed, and what Giovanni d’Anguissola has left all to believe, even to his own priest-ridden wife, even to his own son, sitting there, lest had the world known the truth whilst Pier Luigi lived such a confiscation as this should, indeed, have been perpetrated.
“But he did not die at Perugia. At Perugia, Ser Cosimo, he took this scar which for thirteen years has served him for a mask.” And he pointed to his own face.
I came to my feet, scarce believing what I heard. Galeotto was Giovanni d’Anguissola–my father! And my heart had never told me so!
In a flash I saw things that hitherto had been obscure, things that should have guided me to the truth had I but heeded their indications.
How, for instance, had I assumed that the Anguissola whom he had mentioned as one of the heads of the conspiracy against Pier Luigi could have been myself?
I stood swaying there, whilst his voice boomed out again.
“Now that I have sworn fealty to the Emperor in my true name, upon the hands of my Lord Gonzaga here; now that the Imperial aegis protects me from Pope and Pope’s bastards; now that I have accomplished my life’s work, and broken the Pontifical sway in this Piacenza, I can stand forth again and resume the state that is my own.
“There stands my foster-brother, who has borne witness to my true identity; there Falcone, who has been my equerry these thirty years; and there are the brothers Pallavicini, who tended me and sheltered me when I lay at the point of death from the wounds that disfigured me at Perugia.”
“So, my Lord Cosimo, ere you can proceed further in this matter against my son, you will need to take your brief and your bull back to Rome and get them amended, for there is in Italy no Lord of Mondolfo and Carmina other than myself.”
Cosimo fell back before him limp and trembling, his spirit broken by this shattering blow.
And then Gonzaga uttered words that might have heartened him. But after being hurled from what he accounted the pinnacle of success, he mistrusted now the crafty Lieutenant, saw that he had been played with as a mouse by this Imperial cat with the soft, deadly paws.
“We might waive the formalities in the interests of justice,” purred the Lieutenant. “There is this memorial, my lord,” he said, and tapped the document, his eyes upon my father.
“Since your excellency wishes the matter to be disposed of out of hand, it can, I think, be done,” he said, and he looked again at Cosimo.
“You have said that this memorial is false, because the witnesses whose names are here cannot be admitted to testify.”
Cosimo braced himself for a last effort. “Do you defy the Pope?” he thundered.
“If necessary,” was the answer. “I have done so all my life.”
Cosimo turned to Gonzaga. “It is not I who have branded this memorial false,” he said, “but the Holy Father himself.”
“The Emperor,” said my father, “may opine that in this matter the Holy Father has been deluded by liars. There are other witnesses. There is myself, for one. This memorial contains nothing but what was imparted to me by the Lord of Pagliano on his death-bed, in the presence of his confessor.”
“We cannot admit the confessor,” Gonzaga thrust in.
“Give me leave, your excellency. It was not in his quality as confessor that Fra Gervasio heard the dying man depone. Cavalcanti’s confession followed upon that. And there was in addition present the seneschal of Pagliano who is present here. Sufficient to establish this memorial alike before the Imperial and the Pontifical Courts.
“And I swear to God, as I stand here in His sight,” he continued in a ringing voice, “that every word there set down is as spoken by Ettore Cavalcanti, Lord of Pagliano, some hours before he died; and so will those others swear. And I charge your excellency, as Caesar’s vicegerent, to accept that memorial as an indictment of that caitiff Cosimo d’Anguissola, who lent himself to so foul and sacrilegious a deed–for it involved the defilement of the Sacrament of Marriage.”
“In that you lie!” screamed Cosimo, crimson now with rage, the veins at his throat and brow swelling like ropes.
A silence followed. My father turned to Falcone, and held out his hand. Falcone sprang to give him a heavy iron gauntlet. Holding this by the fingers, my father took a step towards Cosimo, and he was smiling, very calm again after his late furious mood.
“Be it so,” he said. “Since you say that I lie, I do here challenge you to prove it upon my body.”
And he crashed the iron glove straight into Cosimo’s face so that the skin was broken, and blood flowed about the mouth, leaving the lower half of the visage crimson, the upper dead-white.
Gonzaga sat on, entirely unmoved, and waited, indifferent to the stir there was amid the Ten. For by the ancient laws of chivalry–however much they might be falling now into desuetude–if Cosimo took up the glove, the matter passed beyond the jurisdiction of the Court, and all men must abide by the issue of the trial by battle.
For a long moment Cosimo hesitated. Then he saw ruin all about him. He– who had come to this court so confidently–had walked into a trap. He saw it now, and saw that the only loophole was the chance this combat offered him. He played the man in the end. He stooped and took up the glove.
“Upon your body, then–God helping me,” he said.
Unable longer to control myself, I sprang to my father’s side. I caught his arm.
“Let me! Father, let me!
He looked into my face and smiled, and the steel-coloured eyes seemed moist and singularly soft.
“My son!” he said, and his voice was gentle and soothing as a woman’s caress.
“My father!” I answered him, a knot in my throat.
“Alas, that I must deny you the first thing you ask me by that name,” he said. “But the challenge is given and accepted. Do you take Bianca to the Duomo and pray that right may be done and God’s will prevail. Gervasio shall go with you.”
And then came an interruption from Gonzaga.
“My lord,” he said, “will you determine when and where this battle is to be fought?”
“Upon the instant,” answered my father, “on the banks of Po with a score of lances to keep the lists.”
Gonzaga looked at Cosimo. “Do you agree to this?”
“It cannot be too soon for me,” replied the quivering Cosimo, black hatred in his glance.
“Be it so, then,” said the Governor, and he rose, the Court rising with him.
My father pressed my hand again. “To the Duomo, Agostino, till I come,” he said, and on that we parted.
My sword was returned to me by Gonzaga’s orders. In so far as it concerned myself the trial was at an end, and I was free.
At Gonzaga’s invitation, very gladly I there and then swore fealty to the Emperor upon his hands, and then, with Bianca and Gervasio, I made my way through the cheering crowd and came out into the sunshine, where my lances, who had already heard the news, set up a great shout at sight of me.
Thus we crossed the square, and went to the Duomo, to render thanks. We knelt at the altar-rail, and Gervasio knelt above us upon the altar’s lowest step.
Somewhere behind us knelt Bianca’s women, who had followed us to the church.
Thus we waited for close upon two hours that were as an eternity.
And kneeling there, the eyes of my soul conned closely the scroll of my young life as it had been unfolded hitherto. I reviewed its beginnings in the greyness of Mondolfo, under the tutelage of my poor, dolorous mother who had striven so fiercely to set my feet upon the ways of sanctity. But my ways had been errant ways, even though, myself, I had sought to walk as she directed. I had strayed and blundered, veered and veered again, a very mockery of what she strove to make me–a strolling saint, indeed, as Cosimo had dubbed me, a wandering mummer when I sought after holiness.
But my strolling, my errantry ended here at last at the steps of this altar, as I knew.
Deeply had I sinned. But deeply and strenuously had I expiated, and the heaviest burden of my expiation had been that endured in the past year at Pagliano beside my gentle Bianca who was another’s wedded wife. That cross of penitence–so singularly condign to my sin–I had borne with fortitude, heartened by the confidence that thus should I win to pardon and that the burden would be mercifully lifted when the expiation was complete. In the lifting of that burden from me I should see a sign that pardon was mine at last, that at last I was accounted worthy of this pure maid through whom I should have won to grace, through whom I had come to learn that Love–God’s greatest gift–is the great sanctifier of man.
That the stroke of that ardently awaited hour was even now impending I did not for a moment doubt.
Behind us, the door opened and steps clanked upon the granite floor.
Fra Gervasio rose very tall and gaunt, his gaze anxious.
He looked, and the anxiety passed. Thankfulness overspread his face. He smiled serenely, tears in his deep-set eyes. Seeing this, I, too, dared to look at last.
Up the aisle came my father very erect and solemn, and behind him followed Falcone with eyes a-twinkle in his weather-beaten face.
“Let the will of Heaven be done,” said my father. And Gervasio came down to pronounce the nuptial blessing over us.