Love-at-Arms by Raphael Sabatini

Being a narrative excerpted from the chronicles of Urbino during the dominion of the High and Mighty Messer Guidobaldo da Montefeltro “Le donne, i cavalier’, l’arme, gli amori, Le cortesie, l’audace imprese io canto.” ARIOSTO CONTENTS CHAPTER I. VOX POPULI II. ON A MOUNTAIN PATH III. SACKCLOTH AND MOTLEY IV. MONNA VALENTINA V. GIAN MARIA
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Being a narrative excerpted from the chronicles of Urbino during the dominion of the High and Mighty Messer Guidobaldo da Montefeltro

“Le donne, i cavalier’, l’arme, gli amori, Le cortesie, l’audace imprese io canto.”

ARIOSTO

CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I. VOX POPULI

II. ON A MOUNTAIN PATH

III. SACKCLOTH AND MOTLEY

IV. MONNA VALENTINA

V. GIAN MARIA

VI. THE AMOROUS DUKE

VII. GONZAGA THE INSIDIOUS

VIII. AMONG THE DREGS OF WINE

IX. THE “TRATTA DI CORDE”

X. THE BRAYING OF AN ASS

XI. WANDERING KNIGHTS

XII. THE FOOL’S INQUISITIVENESS

XIII. GIAN MARIA MAKES A VOW

XIV. FORTEMANI DRINKS WATER

XV. THE MERCY OF FRANCESCO

XVI. GONZAGA UNMASKS

XVII. THE ENEMY

XVIII. TREACHERY

XIX. PLOT AND COUNTERPLOT

XX. THE LOVERS

XXI. THE PENITENT

XXII. A REVELATION

XXIII. IN THE ARMOURY TOWER

XXIV. THE INTERRUPTED MASS

XXV. THE CAPITULATION OF ROCCALEONE

CHAPTER I

VOX POPULI

From the valley, borne aloft on the wings of the evening breeze, rose faintly the tolling of an Angelus bell, and in a goat-herd’s hut on the heights above stood six men with heads uncovered and bowed, obeying its summons to evening prayer. A brass lamp, equipped with three beaks, swung from the grimy ceiling, and, with more smoke than flame, shed an indifferent light, and yet a more indifferent smell, throughout the darkening hovel. But it sufficed at least to reveal in the accoutrements and trappings of that company a richness that was the more striking by contrast with the surrounding squalor.

As the last stroke of the Ave Maria faded on the wind that murmured plaintively through the larches of the hillside, they piously crossed themselves, and leisurely resuming their head-gear, they looked at one another with questioning glances. Yet before any could voice the inquiry that was in the minds of all, a knock fell upon the rotten timbers of the door.

“At last!” exclaimed old Fabrizio da Lodi, in a voice charged with relief, whilst a younger man of good shape and gay garments strode to the door in obedience to Fabrizio’s glance, and set it wide.

Across the threshold stepped a tall figure under a wide, featherless hat, and wrapped in a cloak which he loosened as he entered, revealing the very plainest of raiment beneath. A leather hacketon was tightened at the waist by a girdle of hammered steel, from which depended on his left a long sword with ringed, steel quillons, whilst from behind his right hip peeped the hilt of a stout Pistoja dagger. His hose of red cloth vanished into boots of untanned leather, laced in front and turned down at the knees, and completed in him the general appearance of a mercenary in time of peace, in spite of which the six nobles, in that place of paradoxes, bared their heads anew, and stood in attitudes of deferential attention.

He paused a moment to throw off his cloak, of which the young man who had admitted him hastened to relieve him as readily as if he had been born a servitor. He next removed his hat, and allowed it to remain slung from his shoulders, displaying, together with a still youthful countenance of surpassing strength and nobility, a mane of jet-black hair coiffed in a broad net of gold thread–the only article of apparel that might have suggested his station to be higher than at first had seemed.

He stepped briskly to the coarse and grease-stained table, about which the company was standing, and his black eyes ran swiftly over the faces that confronted him.

“Sirs,” he said at last, “I am here. My horse went lame a half-league beyond Sant’ Angelo, and I was constrained to end the journey on foot.”

“Your Excellency will be tired,” cried Fabrizio, with that ready solicitude which is ever at the orders of the great. “A cup of Puglia wine, my lord. Here, Fanfulla,” he called, to the young nobleman who had acted as usher. But the new-comer silenced him and put the matter aside with a gesture.

“Let that wait. Time imports as you little dream. It may well be, illustrious sirs, that had I not come thus I had not come at all.”

“How?” cried one, expressing the wonder that rose in every mind, even as on every countenance some consternation showed. “Are we betrayed?”

“If you are in case to fear betrayal, it may well be, my friends. As I crossed the bridge over the Metauro and took the path that leads hither, my eyes were caught by a crimson light shining from a tangle of bushes by the roadside. That crimson flame was a reflection of the setting sun flashed from the steel cap of a hidden watcher. The path took me nearer, and with my hat so set that it might best conceal my face, I was all eyes. And as I passed the spot where that spy was ambushed, I discerned among the leaves that might so well have screened him, but that the sun had found his helmet out, the evil face of Masuccio Torri.” There was a stir among the listeners, and their consternation increased, whilst one or two changed colour. “For whom did he wait? That was the question that I asked myself, and I found the answer that it was for me. If I was right, he must also know the distance I had come, so that he would not look to see me afoot, nor yet, perhaps, in garments such as these. And so, thanks to all this and to the hat and cloak in which I closely masked myself, he let me pass unchallenged.”

“By the Virgin!” exclaimed Fabrizio hotly, “I’ll swear your conclusions were wrong. In all Italy it was known to no man beyond us six that you were to meet us here, and with my hand upon the Gospels I could swear that not one of us has breathed of it.”

He looked round at his companions as if inviting them to bear out his words, and they were not slow to confirm what he had sworn, in terms as vehement as his own, until in the end the new-comer waved them into silence.

“Nor have I breathed it,” he assured them, “for I respected your injunction, Messer Fabrizio. Still–what did Masuccio there, hidden like a thief, by the roadside? Sirs,” he continued, in a slightly altered tone, “I know not to what end you have bidden me hither, but if aught of treason lurks in your designs, I cry you beware! The Duke has knowledge of it, or at least, suspicion. If that spy was not set to watch for me, why, then, he was set to watch for all, that he may anon inform his master what men were present at this meeting.”

Fabrizio shrugged his shoulders in a contemptuous indifference which was voiced by his neighbour Ferrabraccio.

“Let him be informed,” sneered the latter, a grim smile upon his rugged face. “The knowledge will come to him too late.”

The new-comer threw back his head, and a look that was half wonder, half enlightenment gleamed in the black depths of his imperious eyes. He took a deep breath.

“It would seem, sirs, that I was right,” said he, with a touch of sternness, “and that treason is indeed your business.”

“My Lord of Aquila,” Fabrizio answered him, “we are traitors to a man that we may remain faithful and loyal to a State.”

“What State?” barked the Lord of Aquila contemptuously.

“The Duchy of Babbiano,” came the answer.

“You would be false to the Duke that you may be faithful to the Duchy?” he questioned, scorn running ever stronger in his voice. “Sirs, it is a riddle I’ll not pretend to solve.”

There fell a pause in which they eyed one another, and their glances were almost as the glances of baffled men. They had not looked for such a tone from him, and they questioned with their eyes and minds the wisdom of going further. At last, with a half-sigh, Fabrizio da Lodi turned once more to Aquila.

“Lord Count,” he began, in a calm, impressive voice, “I am an old man; the name I bear and the family from which I spring are honourable alike. You cannot think so vilely of me as to opine that in my old age I should do aught to smirch the fair fame of the one or of the other. To be named a traitor, sir, is to be given a harsh title, and one, I think, that could fit no man less than it fits me or any of these my companions. Will you do me the honour, then, to hear me out, Excellency; and when you have heard me, judge us. Nay, more than judgment we ask of you, Lord Count. We ask for guidance that we may save our country from the ruin that threatens it, and we promise you that we will take no step that has not your sanction–that is not urged by you.”

Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila, eyed the old noble with a glance that had changed whilst he spoke, so that from scornful that it had been, it had now grown full of mild wonder and inquiry. He slightly inclined his head in token of acquiescence.

“I beg that you will speak,” was all he said, and Fabrizio would forthwith have spoken but that Ferrabraccio intervened to demand that Aquila should pass them his knightly word not to betray them in the event of his rejection of the proposals they had to make. When he had given them his promise, and they had seated themselves upon such rude stools as the place afforded, Fabrizio resumed his office of spokesman, and unfolded the business upon which he had invited the Count among them.

In a brief preamble he touched upon the character of Gian Maria Sforza, the reigning Duke of Babbiano–seated upon its throne by his powerful uncle, Lodovico Sforza, Lord of Milan. He exposed the man’s reckless extravagances, his continued self-indulgence, his carelessness in matters of statecraft, and his apparent disinclination to fulfil the duties which his high station imposed upon him. On all this Fabrizio touched with most commendable discretion and restraint, as was demanded by the circumstance that in Francesco del Falco he was addressing the Duke’s own cousin.

“So far, Excellency,” he continued, “you cannot be in ignorance of the general dissatisfaction prevailing among our most illustrious cousin’s subjects. There was the conspiracy of Bacolino, a year ago, which, had it succeeded, would have cast us into the hands of Florence. It failed, but another such might not fail again. The increased disfavour of his Highness may bring more adherents to a fresh conspiracy of this character, and we should be lost as an independent state. And the peril that menaces us is the peril of being so loSt. Not only by defection of our own, but by the force of arms of another. That other is Caesar Borgia. His dominion is spreading like a plague upon the face of this Italy, which he has threatened to eat up like an artichoke–leaf by leaf. Already his greedy eyes are turned upon us, and what power have we–all unready as we are–wherewith successfully to oppose the overwhelming might of the Duke of Valentinois? All this his Highness realises, for we have made it more than clear to him, as we have, too, made clear the remedy. Yet does he seem as indifferent to his danger as to his salvation. His time is spent in orgies, in dancing, in hawking and in shameful dalliance, and if we dare throw out a word of warning, threats and curses are the only answer we receive.”

Da Lodi paused, as if growing conscious that his manner was becoming over-vehement. But of this, his companions, at least, were all unconscious, for they filled the pause with a murmur of angry confirmation. Francesco wrinkled his brow, and sighed.

“I am–alas!–most fully conscious of this danger you speak of. But– what do you expect of me? Why bear me your grievance? I am no statesman.”

“Here is no statesman needed, lord. It is a soldier Babbiano requires; a martial spirit to organise an army against the invasion that must come– that is coming already. In short, Lord Count, we need such a warrior as are you. What man is there in all Italy–or, indeed, what woman or what child–that has not heard of the prowess of the Lord of Aquila? Your knightly deeds in the wars ‘twixt Pisa and Florence, your feats of arms and generalship in the service of the Venetians, are matters for the making of epic song.”

“Messer Fabrizio!” murmured Paolo, seeking to restrain his eulogistic interlocutor, what time a faint tinge crept into his bronzed cheeks. But Da Lodi continued, all unheeding:

“And shall you, my lord, who have borne yourself so valiantly as a condottiero in the service of the stranger, hesitate to employ your skill and valour against the enemies of your own homeland? Not so, Excellency. We know the patriotic soul of Francesco del Falco, and we count upon it.”

“And you do well,” he answered firmly. “When the time comes you shall find me ready. But until then, and touching such preparation as must be made–why do you not address his Highness as you do me?”

A sad smile crossed the noble face of Lodi, whilst Ferrabraccio laughed outright in chill contempt, and with characteristic roughness made answer:

“Shall we speak to him,” he cried, “of knightly deeds, of prowess, and of valour? I would as lief enjoin Roderigo Borgia to fulfil the sacred duties of his Vicarship; I might as profitably sprinkle incense on a dunghill. What we could say to Gian Maria we have said, and since it had been idle to have appealed to him as we have appealed to you, we have shown him yet another way by which Babbiano might be saved and Valentino’s onslaught averted.”

“Ah! And this other way?” inquired the Count, his glance wandering back to Fabrizio.

“An alliance with the house of Urbino,” answered Lodi. “Guidobaldo has two nieces. We have sounded him, and we have found him well disposed towards such a marriage as we suggested. Allied thus to the house of Montefeltro, we should receive not only assistance from Guidobaldo, but also from the lords of Bologna, Perugia, Camerino, and some smaller states whose fortunes are linked already to that of Urbino. Thus we should present to Cesar Borgia a coalition so strong that he would never dare to bring a lance into our territory.”

“I heard some talk of it,” said Paolo. “It would have been a wise step indeed. Pity that the negotiations came to naught!”

“But why did they come to naught? Body of Satan!–why?” roared the impetuous Ferrabraccio, as with his mighty fist he smote the table a blow that well-nigh shattered it. “Because Gian Maria was not in a marrying mood! The girl we proposed to him was beautiful as an angel; but he would not so much as look. There was a woman in Babbiano who—-”

“My lord,” cut in Fabrizio hastily, fearing the lengths to which the other might go, “it is as Ferrabraccio says. His Highness would not marry. And this it is has led us to invite you to meet us here to-night. His Highness will do nothing to save the Duchy, and so we turn to you. The people are with us; in every street of Babbiano are you spoken of openly as the duke they would have govern them and defend their homes. In the sacred name of the people, then,” the old man concluded, rising, and speaking in a voice shaken by emotion, “and with the people’s voice, of which we are but the mouthpiece, we now offer you the crown of Babbiano. Return with us to-night, my lord, and to-morrow, with but twenty spears for escort, we shall ride into Babbiano and proclaim you Duke. Nor need you fear the slightest opposition. One man only of Babbiano–that same Masuccio whom you tell us that you saw to-night– remains faithful to Gian Maria; faithful because he and the fifty Swiss mercenaries at his heels are paid to be so. Up, my lord! Let your own good sense tell you whether an honest man need scruple to depose a prince whose throne knows no defence beyond the hired protection of fifty foreign spears.”

A silence followed that impassioned speech. Lodi remained standing, the others sat, their eager glances turned upon the Count, their ears anxiously alert for his reply. Thus they remained for a brief spell, Aquila himself so still that he scarcely seemed to breathe.

He sat, gripping the arms of his chair, his head fallen forward until his chin rested on his breast, a frown darkening his lofty brow. And whilst they waited for his answer, a mighty battle was fought out within his soul. The power so suddenly, so unexpectedly, thrust within his reach, and offered him if he would but open his hands to grasp it, dazzled him for one little moment. As in a flash he saw himself Lord of Babbiano. He beheld a proud career of knightly deeds that should cause his name and that of Babbiano to ring throughout the length and breadth of Italy. From the obscure state that it was, his patriotism and his skill as a condottiero should render it one of the great Italian powers–the rival of Florence, of Venice or Milan. He had a vision of widened territories, and of neighbouring lords becoming vassals to his might. He saw himself wresting Romagna mile by mile from the sway of the ribald Borgia, hunting him to the death as he was wont to hunt the boar in the marshes of Commachio, or driving him into the very Vatican to seek shelter within his father’s gates–the last strip of soil that he would leave him to lord it over. He dreamt of a Babbiano courted by the great republics, and the honour of its alliance craved by them that they might withstand the onslaughts of French and Spaniard. All this he saw in that fleeting vision of his, and Temptation caught his martial spirit in a grip of steel. And then another picture rose before his eyes. What would he do in times of peace? His was a soul that pined in palaces. He was born to the camp, and not to the vapid air of courts. In exchange for this power that was offered him what must he give? His glorious liberty. Become their lord in many things, to be their slave in more. Nominally to rule, but actually to be ruled, until, should he fail to do his rulers’ will, there would be some night another meeting such as this, in which men would plot to encompass his downfall and to supplant him as he was invited to supplant Gian Maria. Lastly, he bethought him of the man whose power he was bidden to usurp. His own cousin, his father’s sister’s son, in whose veins ran the same blood as in his own.

He raised his head at last, and met those anxious faces on which the fitful light was casting harsh shadows. The pale ghost of a smile hovered for a second on the corners of his stern mouth.

“I thank you, sirs, for the honour you have done me,” he made answer slowly, “an honour of which I fear I am all unworthy.”

In strenuous chorus their voices rose to contradict him.

“At least, then, an honour which I cannot accept.”

There was a moment’s silence, and their faces from eager that they had been, grew downcast to the point of sullenness.

“But why, my lord?” cried old Fabrizio at last, his arms outstretched towards the Count, his voice quivering with intensity. “Santissima Vergine! Why?”

“Because–to give you but one reason out of many–the man you ask me to overthrow and supplant is of my own blood.” And but that his tone was calm they might have held that he rebuked them.

“I had thought,” hazarded seriously the gay Fanfulla, “that with such a man as your Excellency, patriotism and the love of Babbiano would have weighed even more than the ties of blood.”

“And you had thought well, Fanfulla. Did I not say that the reason I gave you was but one of many? Tell me, sirs, what cause have you to believe that I should rule you wisely and well? It so chances that in the crisis now threatening Babbiano a captain is needed for its ruler. But let not this delude you, for there may come a season in the fortunes of the State when such a man might be as unfitted for dominion as is the present Duke in this. What then? A good knight-errant is an indifferent courtier and a bad statesman. Lastly, my friends–since you must know all that is in my heart–there remains the fact that I love myself a little. I love my liberty too well, and I have no mind to stifle in the scented atmosphere of courts. You see I am frank with you. It is my pleasure to roam the world, my harness on my back, free as the blessed wind of heaven. Shall a ducal crown and a cloak of purple—-” He broke off sharply with a laugh. “There, my friends! You have had reasons and to spare. Again I thank you, and deplore that being such as I am, I may not become such as you would have me.”

He sank back in his chair, eyeing them with a glance never so wistful, and after a second’s silence, Da Lodi’s voice implored him, in accents that trembled with pathetic emphasis, to reconsider his resolve. The old man would have proceeded to fresh argument, but Aquila cut him short.

“I have already so well considered it, Messer Fabrizio,” he answered resolutely, “that nothing now could sway me. But this, sirs, I will promise you: I will ride with you to Babbiano, and I will seek to reason with my cousin. More will I do; I will seek at his hands the office of Gonfalonier, and if he grant it me; I will so reorganise our forces, and enter into such alliances with our neighbours as shall ensure, at least in some degree, the safety of our State.”

Still they endeavoured to cajole him, but he held firm against their efforts, until in the end, with a sorrowful mien, Da Lodi thanked him for his promise to use his influence with Gian Maria.

“For this, at least, we thank your Excellency, and on our part we shall exert such power as we still wield in Babbiano to the end that the high office of Gonfalonier be conferred upon you. We had preferred to see you fill with honour a position higher still, and should you later come to consider—-”

“Dismiss your hopes of that,” put in the Count, with a solemn shake of his head. And then, before another word was uttered, young Fanfulla degli Arcipreti leapt of a sudden to his feet, his brows knit, and an expression of alarm spreading upon his comely face. A second he remained thus; then, going swiftly to the door, he opened it, and stood listening, followed by the surprised glances of the assembled company. But it needed not the warning cry with which he turned, to afford them the explanation of his odd behaviour. In the moment’s tense silence that had followed his sudden opening of the door they had caught from without the distant fall of marching feet.

CHAPTER II

ON A MOUNTAIN PATH

“Armed men, my lords!” had been Fanfulla’s cry. “We are betrayed!”

They looked at one another with stern eyes, and with that grimness that takes the place which fear would hold in meaner souls.

Then Aquila rose slowly to his feet, and with him rose the others, looking to their weapons. He softly breathed a name–“Masuccio Torri.”

“Aye,” cried Lodi bitterly, “would that we had heeded your warning! Masuccio it will be, and at his heels his fifty mercenaries.”

“Not less, I’ll swear, by the sound of them,” said Ferrabraccio. “And we but six, without our harness.”

“Seven,” the Count laconically amended, resuming his hat and loosening his sword in its scabbard.

“Not so, my lord,” exclaimed Lodi, laying a hand upon the Count’s arm. “You must not stay with us. You are our only hope–the only hope of Babbiano. If we are indeed betrayed–though by what infernal means I know not–and they have knowledge that six traitors met here to-night to conspire against the throne of Gian Maria, at least, I’ll swear, it is not known that you were to have met us. His Highness may conjecture, but he cannot know for sure, and if you but escape, all may yet he well– saving with us, who matter not. Go, my lord! Remember your promise to seek at your cousin’s hand the gonfalon, and may God and His blessed Saints prosper your Excellency.”

The old man caught the young man’s hand, and bending his head until his face was hidden in his long white hair, he imprinted a kiss of fealty upon it. But Aquila was not so easily to be dismissed.

“Where are your horses?” he demanded.

“Tethered at the back. But who would dare ride them at night adown this precipice?”

“I dare for one,” answered the young man steadily, “and so shall you all dare. A broken neck is the worst that can befall us, and I would as lief break mine on the rocks of Sant’ Angelo as have it broken by the executioner of Babbiano.”

“Bravely said, by the Virgin!” roared Ferrabraccio. “To horse, sirs!”

“But the only way is the way by which they come,” Fanfulla remonstrated. “The rest is sheer cliff.”

“Why, then, my sweet seducer, we’ll go to meet them,” rejoined Ferrabraccio gaily. “They are on foot, and we’ll sweep over them like a mountain torrent. Come, sirs, hasten! They draw nigh.”

“We have but six horses, and we are seven,” another objected.

“I have no horse,” said Francesco, “I’ll follow you afoot.”

“What?” cried Ferrabraccio, who seemed now to have assumed command of the enterprise. “Let our St. Michael bring up the rear! No, no. You, Da Lodi, you are too old for this work.”

“Too old?” blazed the old man, drawing himself up to the full height of what was still a very imposing figure, and his eyes seeming to take fire at this reflection upon his knightly worth. “Were the season other, Ferrabraccio, I could crave leave to show you how much of youth there is still left in me. But—-” He paused. His angry eyes had alighted upon the Count, who stood waiting by the door, and the whole expression of his countenance changed. “You are right, Ferrabraccio, I grow old indeed–a dotard. Take you my horse, and begone.”

“But you?” quoth the Count solicitously.

“I shall remain. If you do your duty well by those hirelings they will not trouble me. It will not occur to them that one was left behind. They will think only of following you after you have cut through them. Go, go, sirs, or all is lost.”

They obeyed him now with a rush that seemed almost to partake of panic. In a frenzied haste Fanfulla and another tore the tetherings loose, and a moment later they were all mounted and ready for that fearful ride. The night was dark, yet not too dark. The sky was cloudless and thickly starred, whilst a minguant moon helped to illumine the way by which they were to go. But on that broken and uncertain mountain path the shadows lay thickly enough to make their venture desperate.

Ferrabraccio claiming a better knowledge than his comrades of the way, placed himself at their head, with the Count beside him. Behind them, two by two, came the four others. They stood on a small ledge in the shadow of the great cliff that loomed on their left. Thence the mountain-side might be scanned–as well as in such a light it was to be discerned. The tramp of feet had now grown louder and nearer, and with it came the clank of armour. In front of them lay the path which sloped, for a hundred yards or more, to the first corner. Below them, on the right, the path again appeared at the point where it jutted out for some half-dozen yards in its zigzag course, and there Fanfulla caught the gleam of steel, reflecting the feeble moonlight. He drew Ferrabraccio’s attention to it, and that stout warrior at once gave the word to start. But Francesco interposed.

“If we do so,” he objected,” we shall come upon them past the corner, and at that corner we shall be forced to slacken speed to avoid being carried over the edge of the cliff. Besides, in such a strait our horses may fail us, and refuse the ground. In any event, we shall not descend upon them with the same force as we shall carry if we wait until they come into a straight line with us. The shadows here will screen us from them meanwhile.”

“You are right, Lord Count. We will wait,” was the ready answer. And what time they waited he grumbled lustily.

“To be caught in such a trap as this! Body of Satan! It was a madness to have met in a hut with but one approach.”

“We might perhaps have retreated down the cliff behind,” said Francesco.

“We might indeed–had we been sparrows or mountain cats. But being men, the way we go is the only way–and a mighty bad way it is. I should like to be buried at Sant’ Angelo, Lord Count,” he continued whimsically. “It will be conveniently near; for once I go over the mountain-side, I’ll swear naught will stop me until I reach the valley–a parcel of broken bones.”

Steady, my friends,” murmured the voice of Aquila. “They come.”

And round that fateful corner they were now swinging into view–a company in steel heads and bodies with partisan on shoulder. A moment they halted now, so that the waiting party almost deemed itself observed. But it soon became clear that the halt was to the end that the stragglers might come up. Masuccio was a man who took no chances; every knave of his fifty would he have before he ventured the assault.

“Now,” murmured the Count, tightening his hat upon his brow, so that it might the better mask his features. Then rising in his stirrups, and raising his sword on high, he let his voice be heard again. But no longer in a whisper. Like a trumpet-call it rang, echoed and re-echoed up the mountain-side.

“Forward! St. Michael and the Virgin!”

That mighty shout, followed as it was by a thunder of hooves, gave pause to the advancing mercenaries. Masuccio’s voice was heard, calling to them to stand firm; bidding them kneel and ward the charge with their pikes; assuring them with curses that they had but to deal with half- dozen men. But the mountain echoes were delusive, and that thunder of descending hooves seemed to them not of a half-dozen but of a regiment. Despite Masuccio’s imprecations the foremost turned, and in that moment the riders were upon them, through them and over them, like the mighty torrent of which Ferrabraccio had spoken.

A dozen Swiss went down beneath that onslaught, and another dozen that had been swept aside and over the precipice were half-way to the valley before that cavalcade met any check. Masuccio’s remaining men strove lustily to stem this human cataract, now that they realised how small was the number of their assailants. They got their partisans to work, and for a few moments the battle raged hot upon that narrow way. The air was charged with the grind and ring of steel, the stamping of men and horses and the shrieks and curses of the maimed.

The Lord of Aquila, ever foremost, fought desperately on. Not only with his sword fought he, but with his horse as well. Rearing the beast on its hind legs, he would swing it round and let it descend where least it was expected, laying about him with his sword at the same time. In vain they sought to bring down his charger with their pikes; so swift and furious was his action, that before their design could be accomplished, he was upon those that meditated it, scattering them out of reach to save their skins.

In this ferocious manner he cleared a way before him, and luck served him so well that what blows were wildly aimed at him as he dashed by went wide of striking him. At last he was all but through the press, and but three men now fronted him. Again his charger reared, snorting, and pawing the air like a cat, and two of the three knaves before him fled incontinently aside. But the third, who was of braver stuff, dropped on one knee and presented his pike at the horse’s belly. Francesco made a wild attempt to save the roan that had served him so gallantly, but he was too late. It came down to impale itself upon that waiting partisan. With a hideous scream the horse sank upon its slayer, crushing him beneath its mighty weight, and hurling its rider forward on to the ground. In an instant he was up and had turned, for all that he was half-stunned by his fall and weakened by the loss of blood from a pike- thrust in the shoulder–of which he had hitherto remained unconscious in the heat of battle. Two mercenaries were bearing down upon him–the same two that had been the last to fall back before him. He braced himself to meet them, thinking that his last hour was indeed come, when Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, who had followed him closely through the press, now descended upon his assailants from behind, and rode them down. Beside the Count he reined up, and stretched down his hand.

“Mount behind me, Excellency,” he urged him.

“There is not time,” answered Francesco, who discerned a half-dozen figures hurrying towards them. “I will cling to your stirrup-leather, thus. Now spur!” And without waiting for Fanfulla to obey him, he caught the horse a blow with the flat of his sword across the hams, which sent it bounding forward. Thus they continued now that perilous descent, Fanfulla riding, and the Count half-running, half-swinging from his stirrup. At last, when they had covered a half-mile in this fashion, and the going had grown easier, they halted that the Count might mount behind his companion, and as they now rode along at an easier pace Francesco realised that he and Fanfulla were the only two that had come through that ugly place. The gallant Ferrabraccio, hero of a hundred strenuous battles, had gone to the ignoble doom which half in jest he had prophesied himself. His horse had played him false at the outset of the charge, and taking fright it had veered aside despite his efforts to control it, until, losing its foothold, man and beast had gone hurtling over the cliff. Amerini, Fanfulla had seen slain, whilst the remaining two, being both unhorsed, would doubtless be the prisoners of Masuccio.

Some three miles beyond Sant’ Angelo, Fanfulla’s weary horse splashed across a ford of the Metauro, and thus, towards the second hour of night, they gained the territory of Urbino, where for the time they might hold themselves safe from all pursuit.

CHAPTER III

SACKCLOTH AND MOTLEY

The fool and the friar had fallen a-quarrelling, and–to the shame of the friar and the glory of the fool be it spoken–their subject of contention was a woman. Now the friar, finding himself no match for the fool in words, and being as broad and stout of girth and limb as the other was puny and misshapen, he had plucked off his sandal that with it he might drive the full force of his arguments through the jester’s skull. At that the fool, being a very coward, had fled incontinently through the trees.

Running, like the fool he was, with his head turned to learn whether the good father followed him, he never saw the figure that lay half-hidden in the bracken, and might never have guessed its presence but that tripping over it he shot forward, with a tinkle of bells, on to his crooked nose.

He sat up with a groan, which was answered by an oath from the man into whose sides he had dug his flying feet. The two looked at one another in surprise, tempered with anger in the one and dismay in the other.

“A good awakening to you, noble sir,” quoth the fool politely; for by the mien and inches of the man he had roused, he thought that courtesy might serve him best.

The other eyed him with interest, as well he might; for an odder figure it would be hard to find in Italy.

Hunched of back, under-sized, and fragile of limb, he was arrayed in doublet, hose and hood, the half of which was black the other crimson, whilst on his shoulders fell from that same hood–which tightly framed his ugly little face–a foliated cape, from every point of which there hung a tiny silver bell that glimmered in the sunlight, and tinkled as he moved. From under bulging brows a pair of bright eyes, set wide as an owl’s, took up the mischievous humour of his prodigious mouth.

“A curse on you and him that sent you,” was the answering greeting he received. Then the man checked his anger and broke into a laugh at sight of the fear that sprang into the jester’s eyes.

“I crave your pardon–most humbly do I crave it, Illustrious,” said the fool, still in fear. “I was pursued.”

“Pursued?” echoed the other, in a tone not free from a sudden uneasiness. “And, pray, by whom?”

“By the very fiend, disguised in the gross flesh and semblance of a Dominican brother.”

“Do you jest?” came the angry question.

“Jest? Had you caught his villainous sandal between your shoulders, as did I, you would know how little I have a mind to jest.”

“Now answer me a plain question, if you have the wit to answer with,” quoth the other, anger ever rising in his voice. “Is there hereabouts a monk?”

“Aye, is there–may a foul plague rot him!–lurking in the bushes yonder. He is over-fat to run, or you had seen him at my heels, arrayed in that panoply of avenging wrath that is the cognisance of the Church Militant.”

“Go bring him hither,” was the short answer.

“Gesù!” gasped the fool, in very real affright. “I’ll not go near him till his anger cools–not if you made me straight and bribed me with the Patrimony of St. Peter.”

The man turned from him impatiently, and rising his voice:

“Fanfulla!” he called over his shoulder, and then, after a moment’s pause, again: “Olá, Fanfulla!”

“I am here, my lord,” came an answering voice from behind a clump of bushes on their right, and almost immediately the very splendid youth who had gone to sleep in its shadow stood up and came round to them. At sight of the fool he paused to take stock of him, what time the fool returned the compliment with wonder-stricken interest. For however much Fanfulla’s raiment might have suffered in yesternight’s affray, it was very gorgeous still, and in the velvet cap upon his head a string of jewels was entwined. Yet not so much by the richness of his trappings was the fool impressed, as by the fact that one so manifestly noble should address by such a title, and in a tone of so much deference, this indifferently apparelled fellow over whom he had stumbled. Then his gaze wandered back to the man who lay supported on his elbow, and he noticed now the gold net in which his hair was coiffed, and which was by no means common to mean folk. His little twinkling eyes turned their attention full upon the face before him, and of a sudden a gleam of recognition entered them. His countenance underwent a change, and from grotesque that it had been, it became more grotesque still in its hasty assumption of reverence.

“My Lord of Aquila!” he murmured, scrambling to his feet.

Scarcely had he got erect when a hand gripped him by the shoulder, and Fanfulla’s dagger flashed before his startled eyes.

“Swear on the cross of this, never to divulge his Excellency’s presence here, or take you the point of it in your foolish heart.”

“I swear, I swear!” he cried, in fearful haste, his hand upon the hilt, which Fanfulla now held towards him.

“Now fetch the priest, good fool,” said the Count, with a smile at the hunchback’s sudden terror. “You have nothing to fear from us.”

When the jester had left them to go upon his errand, Francesco turned to his companion.

“Fanfulla, you are over-cautious,” he said, with an easy smile. “What shall it matter that I am recognised?”

“I would not have it happen for a kingdom while you are so near Sant’ Angelo. The six of us who met last night are doomed–those of us who are not dead already. For me, and for Lodi if he was not taken, there may be safety in flight. Into the territory of Babbiano I shall never again set foot whilst Gian Maria is Duke, unless I be weary of this world. But of the seventh–yourself–you heard old Lodi swear that the secret could not have transpired. Yet should his Highness come to hear of your presence in these parts and in my company, suspicion might set him on the road that leads to knowledge.”

“Ah! And then?”

“Then?” returned the other, eyeing Francesco in surprise. “Why, then, the hopes we found on you–the hopes of every man in Babbiano worthy of the name–would be frustrated. But here comes our friend the fool, and, in his wake, the friar.”

Fra Domenico–so was he very fitly named, this follower of St. Dominic– approached with a solemnity that proceeded rather from his great girth than from any inflated sense of the dignity of his calling. He bowed before Fanfulla until his great crimson face was hidden, and he displayed instead a yellow, shaven crown. It was as if the sun had set, and the moon had risen in its place.

“Are you skilled in medicine?” quoth Fanfulla shortly.

“I have some knowledge, Illustrious.”

“Then see to this gentleman’s wounds.”

“Eh? Dio mio! You are wounded, then?” he began, turning to the Count, and he would have added other questions as pregnant, but that Aquila, drawing aside his hacketon at the shoulder, answered him quickly:

“Here, sir priest.”

His lips pursed in solicitude, the friar would have gone upon his knees, but that Francesco, seeing with what labour the movement must be fraught, rose up at once.

“It is not so bad that I cannot stand,” said he, submitting himself to the monk’s examination.

The latter expressed the opinion that it was nowise dangerous, however much it might be irksome, whereupon the Count invited him to bind it up. To this Fra Domenico replied that he had neither unguents nor linen, but Fanfulla suggested that he might get these things from the convent of Acquasparta, hard by, and proffered to accompany him thither.

This being determined, they departed, leaving the Count in the company of the jester. Francesco spread his cloak, and lay down again, whilst the fool, craving his permission to remain, disposed himself upon his haunches like a Turk.

“Who is your master, fool?” quoth the Count, in an idle spirit.

“There is a man who clothes and feeds me, noble sir, but Folly is my only master.”

“To what end does he do this?”

“Because I pretend to be a greater fool than he, so that by contrast with me he seems unto himself wise, which flatters his conceit. Again, perhaps, because I am so much uglier than he that, again by contrast, he may account himself a prodigy of beauty.”

“Odd, is it not?” the Count humoured him.

“Not half so odd as that the Lord of Aquila should lie here, roughly clad, a wound in his shoulder, talking to a fool.”

Francesco eyed him with a smile.

“Give thanks to God that Fanfulla is not here to hear you, or they had been your last words for pretty though he be, Messer Fanfulla is a very monster of bloodthirstiness. With me it is different. I am a man of very gentle ways, as you may have heard, Messer Buffoon. But see that you forget at once my station and my name, or you may realise how little they need buffoons in the Court of Heaven.”

“My lord, forgive. I shall obey you,” answered the hunchback, with a stricken manner. And then through the glade came a voice–a woman’s voice, wondrous sweet and rich–calling: “Peppino! Peppino!”

“It is my mistress calling me,” quoth the fool, leaping to his feet.

“So that you own a mistress, though Folly be your only master,” laughed the Count. “It would pleasure me to behold the lady whose property you have the honour to be, Ser Peppino.”

“You may behold her if you but turn your head,” Peppino whispered.

Idly, with a smile upon his lips that was almost scornful, the Lord of Aquila turned his eyes in the direction in which the fool was already walking. And on the instant his whole expression changed. The amused scorn was swept from his countenance, and in its place there sat now a look of wonder that was almost awe.

Standing there, on the edge of the clearing, in which he lay, he beheld a woman. He had a vague impression of a slender, shapely height, a fleeting vision of a robe of white damask, a camorra of green velvet, and a choicely wrought girdle of gold. But it was the glory of her peerless face that caught and held his glance in such ecstatic awe; the miracle of her eyes, which, riveted on his, returned his glance with one of mild surprise. A child she almost seemed, despite her height and womanly proportions, so fresh and youthful was her countenance.

Raised on his elbow, he lay there for a spell, and gazed and gazed, his mind running on visions which godly men have had of saints from Paradise.

At last the spell was broken by Peppino’s voice, addressing her, his back servilely bent. Francesco bethought him of the deference due to one so clearly noble, and leaping to his feet, his wound forgotten, he bowed profoundly. A second later he gasped for breath, reeled, and swooning, collapsed supine among the bracken.

CHAPTER IV

MONNA VALENTINA

In after years the Lord of Aquila was wont to aver in all solemnity that it was the sight of her wondrous beauty set up such a disorder in his soul that it overcame his senses, and laid him swooning at her feet. That he, himself, believed it so, it is not ours to doubt, for all that we may be more prone to agree with the opinion afterwards expressed by Fanfulla and the friar–and deeply resented by the Count–that in leaping to his feet in over-violent haste his wound re-opened, and the pain of this, combining with the weak condition that resulted from his loss of blood, had caused his sudden faintness.

“Who is this, Peppe?” she asked the fool, and he, mindful of the oath he had sworn, answered her brazenly that he did not know, adding that it was–as she might see—some poor wounded fellow.

“Wounded?” she echoed, and her glorious eyes grew very pitiful. “And alone?”

“There was a gentleman here, tending him, Madonna; but he is gone with Fra Domenico to the Convent of Acquasparta to seek the necessaries to mend his shoulder.”

“Poor gentleman,” she murmured, approaching the fallen figure. “How came he by his hurt?”

“That, Madonna, is more than I can tell.”

“Can we do nothing for him until his friends return?” was her next question, bending over the Count as she spoke. “Come, Peppino,” she cried, “lend me your aid. Get me water from the brook, yonder.”

The fool looked about him for a vessel, and his eye falling upon the Count’s capacious hat, he snatched it up, and went his errand. When he returned, the lady was kneeling with the unconscious man’s head in her lap. Into the hatful of water that Peppe brought her she dipped a kerchief, and with this she bathed the brow on which his long black hair lay matted and disordered.

“See how he has bled, Peppe,” said she. “His doublet is drenched, and he is bleeding still! Vergine Santa!” she cried, beholding now the ugly wound that gaped in his shoulder, and turning pale at the sight. “Assuredly he will die of it–and he so young, Peppino, and so comely to behold!”

Francesco stirred, and a sigh fluttered through his pallid lips. Then he raised his heavy lids, and their glances met and held each other. And so, eyes that were brown and tender looked down into feverish languid eyes of black, what time her gentle hand held the moist cloth to his aching brow.

“Angel of beauty!” he murmured dreamily, being but half-awake as yet to his position. Then, becoming conscious of her ministrations, “Angel of goodness!” he added, with yet deeper fervour.

She had no answer for him, saving such answer–and in itself it was eloquent enough–as her blushes made, for she was fresh from a convent and all innocent of worldly ways and tricks of gallant speech.

“Do you suffer?” she asked at last.

“Suffer?” quoth he, now waking more and more, and his voice sounding a note of scorn. “Suffer? My head so pillowed and a saint from Heaven ministering to my ills? Nay, I am in no pain, Madonna, but in a joy more sweet than I have ever known.”

“Gesù! What a nimble tongue!” gibed the fool from the background.

“Are you there, too, Master Buffoon?” quoth Francesco. “And Fanfulla? Is he not here? Why, now I bethink me; he went to Acquasparta with the friar.” He thrust his elbow under him for more support.

“You must not move,” said she, thinking that he would essay to rise.

“I would not, lady, if I must,” he answered solemnly. And then, with his eyes upon her face, he boldly asked her name.

“My name,” she answered readily, “is Valentina della Rovere, and I am niece to Guidobaldo of Urbino.”

His brows shot up.

“Do I indeed live,” he questioned, “or do I but dream the memories of some old romancer’s tale, in which a wandering knight is tended thus by a princess?”

“Are you a knight?” she asked, a wonder coming now into her eyes, for even into the seclusion of her convent-life had crept strange stories of these mighty men-at-arms.

“Your knight at least, sweet lady,” answered he, “and ever your poor champion if you will do me so much honour.”

A crimson flush stole now into her cheeks, summoned by his bold words and bolder glances, and her eyes fell. Yet, resentment had no part in her confusion. She found no presumption in his speech, nor aught that a brave knight might not say to the lady who had succoured him in his distress. Peppe, who stood listening and marking the Count’s manner, knowing the knight’s station, was filled now with wonder, now with mockery; yet never interfered.

“What is your name, sir knight?” she asked, after a pause.

His eyes looked troubled, and as they shot beyond her to the fool, they caught on Peppe’s face a grin of sly amusement.

“My name,” he said at last, “is Francesco.” And then, to prevent that she should further question him–“But tell me, Madonna,” he inquired, “how comes a lady of your station here, alone with that poor fraction of a man?” And he indicated the grinning Peppe.

“My people are yonder in the woods, where we have halted for a little space. I am on my way to my uncle’s court, from the Convent of Santa Sofia, and for my escort I have Messer Romeo Gonzaga and twenty spears. So that, you see, I am well protected, without counting Ser Peppe here and the saintly Fra Domenico, my confessor.”

There was a pause, ended at length by Francesco.

“You will be the younger niece of his Highness of Urbino?” said he.

“Not so, Messer Francesco,” she answered readily. “I am the elder.”

At that his brows grew of a sudden dark.

“Can you be she whom they would wed to Gian Maria?” he exclaimed, at which the fool pricked up his ears, whilst she looked at the Count with a gaze that plainly showed how far she was from understanding him.

“You said?” she asked.

“Why, nothing,” he answered, with a sigh, and in that moment a man’s voice came ringing through the wood.

“Madonna! Madonna Valentina!”

Francesco and the lady turned their eyes in the direction whence the voice proceeded, and they beheld a superbly dazzling figure entering the glade. In beauty of person and richness of apparel he was well worthy of the company of Valentina. His doublet was of grey velvet, set off with scales of beaten gold, and revealing a gold-embroidered vest beneath; his bonnet matched his doublet, and was decked by a feather that sparkled with costly gems; his gold-hilted sword was sheathed in a scabbard also of grey velvet set with jewels. His face was comely as a damsel’s, his eyes blue and his hair golden.

“Behold,” announced Peppino gravely, “Italy’s latest translation of the Golden Ass of Apuleius.”

Upon seeing the noble niece of Guidobaldo kneeling there with Francesco’s head still pillowed in her lap, the new-comer cast up his arms in a gesture of dismay.

“Saints in Heaven!” he exclaimed, hurrying towards them. “What occupation have you found? Who is this ugly fellow?”

“Ugly?” was all she answered him, in accents of profound surprise.

“Who is he?” the young man insisted, his tone growing heated. “And what does he here and thus, with you? Gesù! What would his Highness say? How would he deal with me were he to learn of this? Who is the man, Madonna?”

“Why, as you see, Messer Gonzaga,” she answered, with some heat, “a wounded knight.”

“A knight he?” gibed Gonzaga. “A thief more likely, a prowling masnadiero. What is your name?” he roughly asked the Count.

Drawing himself a little away from Valentina, and reclining entirely upon his elbow, Francesco motioned him with a wave of the hand to come no nearer.

“I beg, lady, that you will bid your pretty page stand back a little. I am still faint, and his perfumes overpower me.”

Under the mask of the polite request Gonzaga detected the mocking, contemptuous note, and it gave fuel to his anger.

“I am no page, fool,” he answered, then clapping his hands together, he raised his voice to shout–“Olá, Beltrame! To me!”

“What would you do?” cried the lady, rising to confront him.

“Carry this ruffian in bonds to Urbino, as is my duty.”

“Sir, you may wound your pretty hands in grasping me,” replied the Count, in chill indifference.

“Ah! You would threaten me with violence, vassal?” cried the other, retreating some paces farther as he spoke. Beltrame!” he called again. “Are you never coming? A voice answered him from the thicket, and with a clank of steel a half-dozen men flung themselves into the glade.

“Your orders, sir?” craved he that led them, his eyes wandering to the still prostrate Count.

“Tie me up this dog,” Gonzaga bade him. But before the fellow could move a foot to carry out the order Valentina barred his way.

“You shall not,” she commanded, and so transformed was she from the ingenuous child that lately had talked with him, that Francesco gaped in pure astonishment. “In my uncle’s name, I bid you leave this gentleman where he lies. He is a wounded knight whom I have been pleased to tend– a matter which seems to have aroused Messer Gonzaga’s anger against him.”

Beltrame paused, and looked from Valentina to Gonzaga, undecided.

“Madonna,” said Gonzaga, with assumed humility, “your word is law with us. But I would have you consider that, what I bid Beltrame do is in the interest of his Highness, whose territory is infested by these vagabonding robbers. It is a fact that may not have reached you in your convent retreat, no more than has sufficient knowledge reached you yet– in your incomparable innocence–to distinguish between rogues and honest men. Beltrame, do my bidding.”

Valentina’s foot tapped the ground impatiently, and into her eyes there came a look of anger that heightened her likeness to her martial uncle. But Peppe it was who spoke.

“For all that there seem to be fools enough, already, meddling in this business,” he said, in tones of mock lament, “permit that I join their number, Ser Romeo, and listen to my counsel.”

“Out, fool,” cried Gonzaga, cutting at him with his riding-switch, “we need not your capers.”

“No, but you need my wisdom,” retorted Ser Peppe, as he leapt beyond Gonzaga’s reach. “Hear me, Beltrame! For all that we do not doubt Messer Gonzaga’s keen discrimination in judging ‘twixt a rogue and an honest man, I do promise you, as surely as though I were Fate herself, that if you obey him now and tie up that gentleman, you will yourself be tied up for it, later on, in a yet uglier fashion.”

Beltrame looked alarmed, Gonzaga incredulous. Valentina thanked Peppe with her eyes, thinking that he had but hit upon a subterfuge to serve her wishes, whilst Francesco, who had now risen to his feet, looked on with an amused smile as though the matter concerned him nowise personally. And then, in the very crux of the situation, Fanfulla and Fra Domenico appeared upon the scene.

“You are, well-returned, Fanfulla!” the Count called to him, “This pretty gentleman would have had me bound.”

“Have you bound?” echoed Fanfulla, in angry horror. “Upon what grounds, pray?” he demanded, turning fiercely upon Gonzaga.

Impressed by Fanfulla’s lordly air, Romeo Gonzaga grew amazingly humble for one that but a moment back had been so overbearing.

“It would seem, sir, that my judgment was at fault in esteeming his condition,” he excused himself.

“Your judgment?” returned the hot Fanfulla. “And who bade you judge? Go cut your milk-teeth, boy, and meddle not with men if you would live to be a man yourself some day.”

Valentina smiled, Peppe laughed outright, whilst even Beltrame and his followers grinned, all of which added not a little to Gonzaga’s choler. But scant though his wisdom might be, it was yet enough to dictate prudence.

“The presence of Madonna here restrains me,” he answered, with elaborate dignity. “But should we meet again, I shall make bold to show you what manhood means.”

“Perhaps–if by then you shall have come to it.” And with a shrug Fanfulla turned to give his attention to the Count, whom Fra Domenico was already tending.

Valentina, to relieve the awkwardness of the moment, proposed to Gonzaga that he should get his escort to horse, and have her litter in readiness, so that they might resume their journey as soon as Fra Domenico should have concluded his ministrations.

Gonzaga bowed, and with a vicious glance at the strangers and an angry “Follow me!” to Beltrame and the others, he departed with the men-at-arms at his heels.

Valentina remained with Fanfulla and Peppe, whilst Fra Domenico dressed Francesco’s wound, and, presently, when the task was accomplished, they departed, leaving Fanfulla amid the Count alone. But ere she went she listened to Francesco’s thanks, and suffered him to touch her ivory fingers with his lips.

There was much he might have said but that the presence of the other three restrained him. Yet some little of that much she may have seen reflected in his eyes, for all that day she rode pensive, a fond, wistful smile at the corners of her lips. And although to Gonzaga she manifested no resentment, yet did she twit him touching that mistake of his. Sore in his dignity, he liked her playful mockery little yet he liked the words in which she framed it less.

“How came you into so grievous an error, Ser Romeo?” she asked him, more than once. “How could you deem him a rogue–he with so noble a mien and so beautiful a countenance?” And without heeding the sullenness of his answers, she would lapse with a sigh once more into reflection–a thing that galled Gonzaga more, perhaps, than did her gibes.

CHAPTER V

GIAN MARIA

It was a week after the meeting ‘twixt the niece of Guidobaldo and the Count of Aquila, when the latter–his wound being wellnigh healed–rode one morning under the great archway that was the main entrance to the city of Babbiano. The Captain of the Gate saluted him respectfully as he rode by, and permitted himself to marvel at the pallor of his Excellency’s face. And yet, the cause was not very far to seek. It stood upon four spears, among a noisy flock of circling crows, above that very Gate—called of San Bacolo–and consisted of four detruncated human heads.

The sight of those dead faces grinning horribly, their long, matted hair fluttering like rags in the April breeze, had arrested Francesco’s attention as he drew nigh. But when presently he came nearer and looked with more intentness, a shudder of recognition ran through him, and a great horror filled his soul and paled his cheek. The first of those heads was that of the valiant and well-named Ferrabraccio; the next that of Amerino Amerini; and the other two, those of his captured companions on that night at Sant’ Angelo.

So it would seem that Gian Maria had been busy during the week that was sped, and that there, on the walls of Babbiano, lay rotting the only fruits which that ill-starred conspiracy was likely to bear.

For a second it entered his mind to turn back. But his stout and fearless nature drove him on, all unattended as he was, and in despite of such vague forebodings as beset him. How much, he wondered, might Gian Maria know of his own share in that mountain meeting, and how would it fare with him if his cousin was aware that it had been proposed to the Count of Aquila to supplant him?

He was not long, however, in learning that grounds were wanting for such fears as he had entertained. Gian Maria received him with even more than wonted welcome, for he laid much store by Francesco’s judgment and was in sore need of it at present.

Francesco found him at table, which had been laid for him amidst the treasures of art and learning that enriched the splendid Palace library. It was a place beloved by Gian Maria for the material comforts that it offered him, and so he turned it to a score of vulgar purposes of his own, yet never to that for which it was equipped, being an utter stranger to letters and ignorant as a ploughboy.

Ensconced in a great chair of crimson leather, at a board overladen with choice viands and sparkling with crystal flagons and with vessels and dishes of gold and enamel, Francesco found his cousin, and the air that had been heavy once with the scholarly smell of parchments and musty tomes was saturated now with pungent odours of the table.

In stature Gian Maria was short and inclining, young though he was, to corpulency. His face was round and pale and flabby; his eyes blue and beady; his mouth sensual and cruel. He was dressed in a suit of lilac velvet, trimmed with lynx fur, and slashed, Spanish fashion, in the sleeves, to show the shirt of fine Rheims linen underneath. About his neck hung a gold chain, bearing an Agnus Dei, which contained a relic of the True Cross–for Gian Maria pushed his devoutness to great lengths.

His welcome of Francesco was more effusive than its wont. He bade the two servants who attended him to lay a plate for his illustrious cousin, and when Aquila shortly yet courteously declined, with the assurance that he had dined already, the Duke insisted that, at least, he should drink a Cup of Malvasia. When out of a vessel of beaten gold they had filled a goblet for the Count, his Highness bade the servants go, and relaxed–if, indeed, so much may be said of one who never knew much dignity–before his visitor.

“I hear,” said Aquila, when the first compliments were spent, “strange stories of a conspiracy in your Duchy, and on the walls at the Gate of San Bacolo I beheld four heads, of men whom I have known and honoured.”

“And who dishonoured themselves ere their heads were made a banquet for the crows. There, Francesco!” He shuddered, and crossed himself. “It is unlucky to speak of the dead at table.”

“Let us speak, then, of their offence alone,” persisted Francesco subtly. “In what did it lie?

“In what?” returned the Duke amusedly. His voice was thin and inclining to shrillness. “It is more than I can say. Masuccio knew. But the dog would not disclose his secret nor the names of the conspirators until his task should be accomplished and he had taken them at the treason he knew they had gathered to ripen. But,” he continued, an olive poised ‘twixt thumb and forefinger, “it seems they were not to be captured as easily as he thought. He told me the traitors numbered six, and that they were to meet a seventh there. The men who returned from the venture tell me too, and without shame, that there were but some six or seven that beset them. Yet they gave the Swiss trouble enough, and killed some nine of them besides a half-score of more or less grievously wounded, whilst they but slew two of their assailants and captured another two. Those were the four heads you saw at the Porta San Bacolo.”

“And Masuccio?” inquired Francesco. “Has he not told you since who were those others that escaped?”

His Highness paused to masticate the olive.

“Why, there lies the difficulty,” said he at length. “The dog is dead. He was killed in the affray. May he rot in hell for his obstinate reticence. No, no!” he checked himself hastily. “He’s dead, and the secret of this treason, as well as the names of the traitors, have perished with him. Yet I am a clement man, Francesco, and sorely though that dog has wronged me by his silence, I thank Heaven for the grace to say–God rest his vile soul!”

The Count flung himself into a chair, as much to dissemble such signs of relief as might show upon his face, as because he wished to sit.

“But surely Masuccio left you some information!” he exclaimed.

“The very scantiest,” returned Gian Maria, in chagrined accents. “It was ever the way of that secretive vassal. Damn him! He frankly told me that if I knew, I would talk. Heard you ever of such insufferable insolence to a prince? All that he would let me learn was that there was a conspiracy afoot to supplant me, and that he was going to capture the conspirators, together with the man whom they were inviting to take my place. Ponder it, Francesco! Such are the murderous plans my loving subjects form for my undoing–I who rule them with a rod of gold, the most clement, just and generous prince in Italy. Cristo buono! Do you marvel that I lost patience and had their hideous heads set upon spears?”

“But did you not say that two of these conspirators were brought back captive?”

The Duke nodded, his mouth too full for words.

“Then, at their trial, what transpired?”

“Trial? There was no trial.” Gian Maria chewed vigorously for a moment. “I tell you I was so heated with anger at this base ingratitude, that I had not even the wit to have the names of their associates tortured out of them. Within a half-hour of their arrival in Babbiano, the heads of these men whom it had pleased Heaven to deliver up to me were where you saw them to-day.”

“You sent them thus to their death?” gasped Francesco, rising to his feet and eyeing his cousin with mingled wonder and anger. “You sent men of such families as these to the headsman, without a trial? I think, Gian Maria, that you must be mad if so rashly you can shed such blood as this.”

The Duke sank back in his chair to gape at his impetuous cousin. Then, in sullen anger: “To whom do you speak?” he demanded.

“To a tyrant who calls himself the most clement, just and generous prince in Italy, and who lacks the wisdom to see that he is undermining with his own hands, and by his own rash actions, a throne that is already tottering. Can you not think that this might mean a revolution? It amounts to murder, and though dukes resort to it freely enough in Italy, it is not openly and defiantly wrought, as is this.”

Anger there was in the Duke’s soul, but there was still more fear–so much, that it shouldered the anger aside.

“I have provided against rebellion,” he announced, with an ease that he vainly strove to feel. “I have given the command of my guards to Martino Armstadt, and he has engaged for me a company of five hundred Swiss lanzknechte that were lately in the pay of the Baglioni of Perugia.”

“And you deem this security?” rejoined Francesco, with a smile of scorn. “To hedge your throne with foreign spears commanded by a foreigner?”

“This and God’s grace,” was the pious answer.

“Bah!” answered Francesco, impatient at the hypocrisy. “Win the hearts of your people. Let that be your buckler.”

“Hush!” whispered Gian Maria. “You blaspheme. Does not every act of my self-sacrificing life point to such an aim? I live for my people. But, by my soul, they ask too much when they ask that I should die for them. If I serve those who plot against my life, as I have served these men you speak of, who shall blame me? I tell you, Francesco, I wish I might have those others who escaped, that I might do as much by them. By the living God, I do! And as for the man who was to have supplanted me—-” He paused, a deadly smile on his sensual mouth completing the sentence more effectively than lay within the power of words. “Who could it have been?” he mused. “I’ve vowed that if Heaven will grant me that I discover him, I’ll burn a candle to Santa Fosca every Saturday for a twelvemonth and go fasting on the Vigil of the Dead. Who–who could it have been, Franceschino?”

“How should I know?” returned Francesco, evading the question.

“You know so much, Checco mio. Your mind is so quick to fathom matters of this kind. Think you, now, it might have been the Duca Valentino?”

Francesco shook his head.

“When Caesar Borgia comes he will know no need to resort to such poor means. He will come in arms to reduce you by his might.”

“God and the saints protect me!” gasped the Duke. “You talk of it as if he were already marching.”

“Then I talk of it advisedly. The event is none so remote as you would make yourself believe. Listen, Gian Maria! I have not ridden from Aquila for just the pleasure of passing the time of day with you. Fabrizio da Lodi and Fanfulla degli Arcipreti have been with me of late.”

“With you?” cried the Duke, his little eyes narrowing themselves as they glanced up at his cousin. “With you–­eh?” He shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms before him. “Pish! See into what errors even so clear a mind as mine may fall. Do you know, Francesco, that marking their absence since that conspiracy was laid, I had a half-suspicion they were connected with it.” And he devoted his attention to a honeycomb.

“You have not in all your Duchy two hearts more faithful to Babbiano,” was the equivocal reply. “It was on the matter of this very peril that threatens you that they came to me.”

“Ah!” Gian Maria’s white face grew interested.

And now the Count of Aquila talked to the Duke of Babbiano much as Fabrizio da Lodi had talked to the Count that night at Sant’ Angelo. He spoke of the danger that threatened from the Borgia, of the utter lack of preparation, and of Gian Maria’s contempt of the counsels given him. He alluded to the discontent rife among his subjects at this state of things, and to the urgent need to set them right. When he had done, the Duke sat silent a while, his eyes bent thoughtfully upon his platter, on which the food lay now unheeded.

“An easy thing, is it not, Francesco, to say to a man: this is wrong, and that is wrong. But who is there, pray, to set it right for me?”

“That, if you will say but the word, I will attempt to do.”

“You?” cried the Duke, and far from manifesting satisfaction at having one offer himself to undertake to right this very crooked business, Gian Maria’s face reflected an incredulous anger and some little scorn. “And how, my marvellous cousin, would you set about it?” he inquired, a sneer lurking in his tone.

“I would place such matters as the levying of money by taxation in the hands of Messer Despuglio, and at whatever sacrifice to your own extravagance, I would see that for months to come the bulk of these moneys is applied to the levying and arming of suitable men. I have some skill as a condottiero–leastways, so more than one foreign prince has been forced to acknowledge. I will lead your army when I have raised it, and I will enter into alliances for you with our neighbouring States, who, seeing us armed, will deem us a power worthy of their alliance. And so, what man can do to stem the impending flood of this invasion, that will I do to defend your Duchy. Make me your gonfalonier, and in a month I will tell you whether it lies in my power or not to save your State.”

The eyes of Gian Maria had narrowed more and more whilst Francesco spoke, and into his shallow face had crept an evil, suspicious look. As the Count ceased, he gave vent to a subdued laugh, bitter with mockery.

“Make you my gonfalonier?” he muttered, in consummate amusement. “And since when has Babbiano been a republic–or is it your aim to make it one, and establish yourself as its chief magistrate?”

“If you misapprehend me so—-” began Francesco, but his cousin interrupted him with heightening scorn.

“Misapprehend you, Messer Franceschino? No, no. I understand you but too well.” He rose suddenly from his interrupted meal, and came a step nearer his cousin. “I hear rumours of this growing love my people are manifesting for the Count of Aquila, and I have let them go unheeded. That rogue Masuccio warned me ere he died, and I answered him with my whip across his face. But I am by no means sure that I have been proceeding wisely. I had a dream two nights ago—- But let that be! When it so happens that in any State there is a man whom the people prefer to him who rules them, and when it so happens that this man is of as good blood and high birth as are you, he becomes a danger to him that sits the throne. I need scarce remind you,” he added, with a horrid grin, “of how the Borgias deal with such individuals, nor need I add that a Sforza may see fit to emulate those very conclusive measures of precaution. The family of Sforza has bred as yet no fools, nor shall I prove myself the first by placing in another’s hands the power to make himself my master. You see, my gentle cousin, how transparent your aims become under my eyes. I am keen of vision, Franceschino, keen of vision!” He tapped his nose and chuckled a malicious appreciation of his own acute perceptions.

Francesco regarded him with an eye of stony scorn. He might have answered, had he been so disposed, that the Duchy of Babbiano was his to take whenever he pleased. He might have told him that, and defied him. But he went more slowly than did this man of a family that bred no fools.

“Do you know me, then, so little, Gian Maria,” said he, not without bitterness, “that you think I hunger for so empty a thing as this ducal pomp you clutch so fearfully? I tell you, man, that I prefer my liberty to an imperial throne. But I waste breath with you. Yet, some day, when your crown shall have passed from you and your power have been engulfed in the Borgia’s rapacious maw, remember my offer which might have saved you and which with insults you disregarded, as you disregarded the advice your older counsellors gave you.”

Gian Maria shrugged his fat shoulders.

“If by that other advice you mean the counsel that I should take Guidobaldo’s niece to wife, you may give ease unto your patriotic soul. I have consented to enter into this alliance. And now,” he ended, with another of his infernal chuckles, “you see how little I need dread this terrible son of Pope Alexander. Allied with Urbino and the other States that are its friends, I can defy the might of Caesar Borgia. I shall sleep tranquil of nights beside my beauteous bride, secure in the protection her uncle’s armies will afford me, and never needing so much as my valiant cousin’s aid as my gonfalonier.”

The Count of Aquila changed colour despite himself, and the Duke’s suspicious eyes were as quick to observe it as was his mind to misinterpret its meaning. He registered a vow to set a watch on this solicitous cousin who offered so readily to bear his gonfalon.

“I felicitate you, at least,” said Francesco gravely, “upon the wisdom of that step. Had I known of it I had not troubled you with other proposals for the safety of your State. But, may I ask you, Gian Maria, what influences led you to a course which, hitherto, you have so obstinately refused to follow?”

The Duke shrugged his shoulders.

“They plagued me so,” he lamented, with a grimace, “that in the end I consented. I could withstand Lodi and the others, but when my mother joined them with her prayers–I should say, her commands–and pointed out again my peril to me, I gave way. After all a man must wed. And since in my station he need not let his marriage weigh too much upon him, I resolved on it for the sake of security and peace.”

Since it was the salvation of Babbiano that he aimed at, the Count of Aquila should have rejoiced at Gian Maria’s wise resolve, and no other consideration should have tempered so encompassing a thing as that joy of his should have been. Yet, when later he left his cousin’s presence, the only feeling that he carried with him was a deep and bitter resentment against the Fate that willed such things, blent with a sorrowing pity for the girl that was to wed his cousin and a growing hatred for the cousin who made him pity her.

CHAPTER VI

THE AMOROUS DUKE

From a window of the Palace of Babbiano the Lord of Aquila watched the amazing bustle in the courtyard below, and at his side stood Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, whom he had summoned from Perugia with assurances that, Masuccio being dead, no peril now menaced him.

It was a week after that interview at which Gian Maria had made known his intentions to his cousin, and his Highness was now upon the point of setting out for Urbino, to perform the comedy of wooing the Lady Valentina. This was the explanation of that scurrying of servitors and pages, that parading of men-at-arms, and that stamping of horses and mules in the quadrangle below. Francesco watched the scene with a smile of some bitterness, his companion with one of supreme satisfaction.

“Praised be Heaven for having brought his Highness at last to a sense of his duty,” remarked the courtier.

“It has often happened to me,” said Francesco, disregarding his companion’s words, “to malign the Fates for having brought me into the world a count. But in the future I shall give them thanks, for I see how much worse it might have been–I might have been born a prince, with a duchy to rule over. I might have been as that poor man, my cousin, a creature whose life is all pomp and no real dignity, all merry­making and no real mirth–loveless, isolated and vain.”

“But,” cried the amazed Fanfulla, “assuredly there are compensations?”

“You see that bustle. You know what it portends. What compensation can there be for that?”

“It is a question you should be the last to ask, my lord. You have seen the niece of Guidobaldo, and having seen her, can you still ask what compensation does this marriage offer Gian Maria?”

“Do you, then, not understand?” returned Aquila, with a wan smile. “Do you not see the tragedy of it? Is it nothing that two States, having found that this marriage would be mutually advantageous, have determined that it shall take place? That meanwhile the chief actors–the victims, I might almost call them–have no opportunity of selecting for themselves. Gian Maria goes about it resignedly. He will tell you that he has always known that some day he must wed and do his best to beget a son. He held out long enough against this alliance, but now that necessity is driving him at last, he goes about it much as he would go about any other State affair–a coronation, a banquet, or a ball. Can you wonder now that I would not accept the throne of Babbiano when it was offered me? I tell you, Fanfulla, that were I at present in my cousin’s shoes, I would cast crown and purple at whomsoever had a fancy for them ere they crushed the life out of me and left me a poor puppet. Sooner than endure that hollow mockery of a life I would become a peasant or a vassal; I would delve the earth and lead a humble life, but lead it in my own way, and thank God for the freedom of it; choose my own comrades; live as I list, where I list; love as I list, where I list, and die when God pleases with the knowledge that my life had not been altogether barren. And that poor girl, Fanfulla! Think of her. She is to be joined in loveless union to such a gross, unfeeling clod as Gian Maria. Have you no pity for her?”

Fanfulla sighed, his brow clouded.

“I am not so dull but that I can see why you should reason thus to-day,” said he. “These thoughts have come to you since you have seen her.”

Franceseo sighed deeply.

“Who knows?” he made answer wistfully. “In the few moments that we talked together, in the little time that I beheld her, it may be that she dealt me a wound far deeper than the one to which she so mercifully sought to minister.”

Now for all that in what the Lord of Aquila said touching the projected union there was a deal of justice, yet when he asserted that the chief actors were to have no opportunity of selecting for themselves, he said too much. That opportunity they were to have. It occurred three days later at Urbino, when the Duke and Valentina were brought together at the banquet of welcome given by Guidobaldo to his intended nephew-in-law. The sight of her resplendent beauty came as a joyful shock to Gian Maria, and filled him with as much impatience to possess her as did his own gross ugliness render him offensive in her eyes. Averse had she been to this wedding from the moment that it had been broached to her. The sight of Gian Maria completed her loathing of the part assigned her, and in her heart she registered a vow that sooner than become the Duchess of Babbiano, she would return to her Convent of Santa Sofia and take the veil.

Gian Maria sat beside her at the banquet, and in the intervals of eating –which absorbed him mightily–he whispered compliments at which she shuddered and turned pale. The more strenuously did he strive to please, in his gross and clumsy fashion, the more did he succeed in repelling and disgusting her, until, in the end, with all his fatuousness, he came to deem her oddly cold. Of this, anon, he made complaint to that magnificent prince, her uncle. But Guidobaldo scoffed at his qualms.

“Do you account my niece a peasant girl?” he asked. “Would you have her smirk and squirm at every piece of flattery you utter? So that she weds your Highness what shall the rest signify?”

“I would she loved me a little,” complained Gian Maria foolishly.

Guidobaldo looked him over with an eye that smiled inscrutably, and it may have crossed his mind that this coarse, white-faced Duke was too ambitious.

“I doubt not that she will,” he answered, in tones as inscrutable as his glance. “So that you woo with grace and ardour, what woman could withstand your Highness? Be not put off by such modesty as becomes a maid.”

Those words of Guidobaldo’s breathed new courage into him. Nor ever after could he think that her coldness was other than a cloak, a sort of maidenly garment behind which modesty bade her conceal the inclinations of her heart. Reasoning thus, and having in support of it his wondrous fatuity, it so befell that the more she shunned and avoided him, the more did he gather conviction of the intensity of her affection; the more loathing she betrayed, the more proof did it afford him of the consuming quality of her passion. In the end, he went even so far as to applaud and esteem in her this very maidenly conduct.

There were hunting-parties, hawking-parties, water-parties, banquets, comedies, balls, and revels of every description, and for a week all went well at Urbino. Then, as suddenly as if a cannon had been fired upon the Palace, the festivities were interrupted. The news that an envoy of Caesar Borgia’s was at Babbiano with a message from his master came like a cold douche upon Gian Maria. It was borne to him in a letter from Fabrizio da Lodi, imploring his immediate return to treat with this plenipotentiary of Valentino’s.

No longer did he disregard the peril that threatened him from the all- conquering Borgia, no longer deem exaggerated by his advisers the cause for fear. This sudden presence of Valentino’s messenger, coming, too, at a time when it would almost seem as if the impending union with Urbino had spurred the Borgia to act before the alliance was established, filled him with apprehension.

In one of the princely chambers that had been set aside for his use during his visit to Urbino he discussed the tragic news with the two nobles who had accompanied him–Alvaro de Alvari and Gismondo Santi–and both of them, whilst urging him to take the advice of Lodi and return at once, urged him, too, to establish his betrothal ere he left.

“Bring the matter to an issue at once, your Highness,” said Santi, “and thus you will go back to Babbiano well-armed to meet the Duca Valentino’s messenger.”

Readily accepting this advice, Gian Maria went in quest of Guidobaldo, and laid before him his proposals, together with the news which had arrived and which was the cause of the haste he now manifested. Guidobaldo listened gravely. In its way the news affected him as well, for he feared the might of Caesar Borgia as much as any man in Italy, and he was, by virtue of it, the readier to hasten forward an alliance which should bring another of the neighbouring states into the powerful coalition he was forming.

“It shall be as you wish,” answered him the gracious Lord of Urbino, “and the betrothal shall be proclaimed to-day, so that you can hear news of it to Valentino’s messenger. When you have heard this envoy, deliver him an answer of such defiance or such caution as you please. Then return in ten days’ time to Urbino, and all shall be ready for the nuptials. But, first of all, go you and tell Monna Valentina.”

Confident of success, Gian Maria obeyed his host, and went in quest of the lady. He gained her ante-chamber, and thence he despatched an idling page to request of her the honour of an audience.

As the youth passed through the door that led to the room beyond, Gian Maria caught for a moment the accents of an exquisite male voice singing a love-song to the accompaniment of a lute.

“Una donna più bella assai che ‘l sole…

came the words of Petrarch, and he heard them still, though muffled, for a moment or two after the boy had gone. Then it ceased abruptly, and a pause followed, at the end of which the page returned. Raising the portière of blue and gold, he invited Gian Maria to enter.

It was a room that spoke with eloquence of the wealth and refinement of Montefeltro, from the gilding and ultramarine of the vaulted ceiling with its carved frieze of delicately inlaid woodwork, to the priceless tapestries beneath it. Above a crimson prie-dieu hung a silver crucifix, the exquisite workmanship of the famous Anichino of Ferrara. Yonder stood an inlaid cabinet, surmounted by a crystal mirror and some wonders of Murano glass. There was a picture by Mantegna, some costly cameos and delicate enamels, an abundance of books, a dulcimer which a fair-haired page was examining with inquisitive eyes, and by a window on the right stood a very handsome harp that Guidobaldo had bought his niece in Venice.

In that choice apartment of hers the Duke found Valentina surrounded by her ladies, Peppe the fool, a couple of pages, and a half-dozen gentlemen of her uncle’s court. One of these–that same Gonzaga who had escorted her from the Convent of Santa Sofia–most splendidly arrayed in white taby, his vest and doublet rich with gold, sat upon a low stool, idly fingering the lute in his lap, from which Gian Maria inferred that his had been the voice that had reached him in the ante-chamber.

At the Duke’s advent they all rose saving Valentina and received him with a ceremony that somewhat chilled his ardour. He advanced; then halted clumsily, and in a clumsy manner framed a request that he might speak with her alone. In a tired, long-suffering way she dismissed that court of hers, and Gian Maria stood waiting until the last of them had passed out through the tall windows that abutted on to a delightful terrace, where, in the midst of a green square, a marble fountain flashed and glimmered in the sunlight.

“Lady,” he said, when they were at last alone, “I have news from Babbiano that demands my instant return.” And he approached her by another step.

In truth he was a dull-witted fellow or else too blinded by fatuity to see and interpret aright the sudden sparkle in her eye, the sudden, unmistakable expression of relief that spread itself upon her face.

“My lord,” she answered, in a low, collected voice, “we shall grieve at your departure.”

Fool of a Duke that he was! Blind, crass and most fatuous of wooers! Had he been bred in courts and his ears attuned to words that meant nothing, that were but the empty echoes of what should have been meant; was he so new to courtesies in which the heart had no share, that those words of Valentina’s must bring him down upon his knees beside her, to take her dainty fingers in his fat hands, and to become transformed into a boorish lover of the most outrageous type?

“Shall you so?” he lisped, his glance growing mighty amorous. “Shall you indeed grieve?”

She rose abruptly to her feet.

“I beg that your Highness will rise,” she enjoined him coldly, a coldness which changed swiftly to alarm as her endeavours to release her hand proved vain. For despite her struggles he held on stoutly. This was mere coyness, he assured himself, mere maidenly artifice which he must bear with until he had overcome it for all time.

“My lord, I implore you!” she continued. “Bethink you of where you are– of who you are.”

“Here will I stay until the crack of doom,” he answered, with an odd mixture of humour, ardour and ferocity, “unless you consent to listen to me.”

“I am ready to listen, my lord,” she answered, without veiling a repugnance that he lacked the wit to see. “But it is not necessary that you should hold my hand, nor fitting that you should kneel.”

“Not fitting?” he exclaimed. “Lady, you do not apprehend me rightly. Is it not fitting that all of us–be we princes or vassals–shall kneel sometimes?”

“At your prayers, my lord, yes, most fitting.”

“And is not a man at his prayers when he woos? What fitter shrine in all the world than his mistress’s feet?”

“Release me,” she commanded, still struggling. “Your Highness grows tiresome and ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous?”

His great, sensual mouth fell open. His white cheeks grew mottled, and his little eyes looked up with a mighty evil gleam in their cruel blue. A moment he stayed so, then he rose up. He released her hands as she had bidden him, but he clutched her arms instead, which was yet worse.

“Valentina,” he said, in a voice that was far from steady, “why do you use me thus unkindly?”

“But I do not,” she protested wearily, drawing back with a shudder from the white face that was so near her own, inspiring her with a loathing she could not repress. “I would not have your Highness look foolish, and you cannot conceive how—-”

“Can you conceive how deeply, how passionately I love you?” he broke in, his grasp tightening.

“My lord, you are hurting me!”

“And are you not hurting me?” he snarled. “What is a pinched arm when compared with such wounds as your eyes are dealing me? Are you not—-”

She had twisted from his grasp, and in a bound she had reached the window-door through which her attendants had passed.

“Valentina!” he cried, as he sprang after her, and it was more like the growl of a beast than the cry of a lover. He caught her, and with scant ceremony he dragged her back into the room.

At this, her latent loathing, contempt and indignation rose up in arms. Never had she heard tell of a woman of her rank being used in this fashion. She abhorred him, yet she had spared him the humiliation of hearing it from her lips, intending to fight for her liberty with her uncle. But now, since he handled her as though she had been a serving- wench; since he appeared to know nothing of the deference due to her, nothing of the delicacies of people well-born and well-bred, she would endure his odious love-making no further. Since he elected to pursue his wooing like a clown, the high-spirited daughter of Urbino promised herself that in like fashion would she deal with him.

Swinging herself free from his grasp a second time, she caught him a stinging buffet on the ducal cheek which–so greatly did it take him by surprise–all but sent him sprawling.

“Madonna!” he panted. “This indignity to me!”

“And what indignities have not I suffered at your hands?” she retorted, with a fierceness of glance before which he recoiled. And as she now towered before him, a beautiful embodiment of wrath, he knew not whether he loved her more than he feared her, yet the desire to possess her and to tame her was strong within him.

“Am I a baggage of your camps,” she questioned furiously, “to be so handled by you? Do you forget that I am the niece of Guidobaldo, a lady of the house of Rovere, and that from my cradle I have known naught but the respect of all men, be they born never so high? That to such by my birth I have the right? Must I tell you in plain words, sir, that though born to a throne, your manners are those of a groom? And must I tell you, ere you will realise it, that no man to whom with my own lips I have not given the right, shall set hands upon me as you have done?”

Her eyes flashed, her voice rose, and higher raged the storm; and Gian Maria was so tossed and shattered by it that he could but humbly sue for pardon.

“What shall it signify that I am a Duke,” he pleaded timidly, “since I am become a lover? What is a Duke then? He is but a man, and as the meanest of his subjects his love must take expression. For what does love know of rank?”

She was moving towards the window again, and for all that he dared not a second time arrest her by force, he sought by words to do so.

“Madonna,” he exclaimed, “I implore you to hear me. In another hour I shall be in the saddle, on my way to Babbiano.”

“That, sir,” she answered him, “is the best news I have heard since your coming.” And without waiting for his reply, she stepped through the open window on to the terrace.

For a second he hesitated, a sense of angry humiliation oppressing his wits. Then he started to follow her; but as he reached the window the little crook-backed figure of Ser Peppe stood suddenly before him with a tinkle of bells, and a mocking grin illumining his face.

“Out of the way, fool,” growled the angry Duke. But the odd figure in its motley of red and black continued where it stood.

“If it is Madonna Valentina you seek,” said he, “behold her yonder.”

And Gian Maria, following the indication of Peppe’s lean finger, saw that she had rejoined her ladies and that thus his opportunity of speaking with her was at an end. He turned his shoulder upon the jester, and moved ponderously towards the door by which he had originally entered the room. It had been well for Ser Peppe had he let him go. But the fool, who loved his mistress dearly, and had many of the instincts of the faithful dog, loving where she loved and hating where she hated, could not repress the desire to send a gibe after the retreating figure, and inflict another wound in that much wounded spirit.

“You find it a hard road to Madonna’s heart, Magnificent,” he called after him. “Where your wisdom is blind be aided by the keen eyes of folly.”

The Duke stood still. A man more dignified would have left that treacherous tongue unheeded. But Dignity and Gian Maria were strangers. He turned, and eyed the figure that now followed him into the room.

“You have knowledge to sell,” he guessed contemptuously.

“Knowledge I have–a vast store–but none for sale, Lord Duke. Such as imports you I will bestow if you ask me, for no more than the joy of beholding you smile.”

“Say on,” the Duke bade him, without relaxing the grimness that tightened his flabby face.

Peppe bowed.

“It were an easy thing, most High and Mighty, to win the love of Madonna if—-” He paused dramatically.

“Yes, yes. E dunque! If—-?”

“If you had the noble countenance, the splendid height, the shapely limbs, the courtly speech and princely manner of one I wot of.”

“Are you deriding me?” the Duke questioned, unbelieving.

“Ah, no, Highness! I do but tell you how it were possible that my lady might come to love you. Had you those glorious attributes of him I speak of, and of whom she dreams, it might be easy. But since God fashioned you such as you are–gross of countenance, fat and stunted of shape, boorish of—-”

With a roar the infuriated Duke was upon him. But the fool, as nimble of legs as he was of tongue, eluded the vicious grasp of those fat hands, and leaping through the window, ran to the shelter of his mistress’s petticoats.

CHAPTER VII

GONZAGA THE INSIDIOUS

Well indeed had it been for Ser Peppe had he restrained his malicious mood and curbed the mocking speech that had been as vinegar to Gian Maria’s wounds. For when Gian Maria was sore he was wont to be vindictive, and on the present occasion he was something even more.

There abode with him the memory of the fool’s words, and the suggestion that in the heart of Valentina was framed the image of some other man. Now, loving her, in his own coarse way, and as he understood love, the rejected Duke waxed furiously jealous of this other at whose existence Peppe had hinted. This unknown stood in his path to Valentina, and to clear that path it suggested itself to Gian Maria that the simplest method was to remove the obstacle. But first he must discover it, and to this he thought, with a grim smile, the fool might–willy-nilly–help him.

He returned to his own apartments, and whilst the preparations for his departure were toward, he bade Alvaro summon Martin Armstadt–the captain of his guard. To the latter his orders were short and secret.

“Take four men,” he bade him, “and remain in Urbino after I am gone. Discover the haunts of Peppe the fool. Seize him, and bring him after me. See that you do it diligently, and let no suspicion of your task arise.”

The bravo–he was little better, for all that he commanded the guards of the Duke of Babbiano–bowed, and answered in his foreign, guttural voice that his Highness should be obeyed.

Thereafter Gian Maria made shift to depart. He took his leave of Guidobaldo, promising to return within a few days for the nuptials, and leaving an impression upon the mind of his host that his interview with Valentina had been very different from the actual.

It was from Valentina herself that Guidobaldo was to learn, after Gian Maria’s departure, the true nature of that interview, and what had passed between his niece and his guest. She sought him out in his closet, whither he had repaired, driven thither by the demon of gout that already inhabited his body, and was wont to urge him at times to isolate himself from his court. She found him reclining upon a couch, seeking distraction in a volume of the prose works of Piccinino. He was a handsome man, of excellent shape, scarce thirty years of age. His face was pale, and there were dark circles round his eyes, and lines of pain about his strong mouth.

He sat up at her advent, and setting his book upon the table beside him, he listened to her angry complaints.

At first, the courtly Montefeltro inclined to anger upon learning of the roughness with which Gian Maria had borne himself. But presently he smiled.

“When all is said, I see in this no great cause for indignation,” he assured her. “I acknowledge that it may lack the formality that should attend the addresses of a man in the Duke’s position to a lady in yours. But since he is to wed you, and that soon, why be angered at that he seeks to pay his court like any other man?”

“I have talked in vain, then,” she answered petulantly, “and I am misunderstood. I do not intend to wed this ducal clod you have chosen to be my husband.”

Guidobaldo stared at her with brows raised, and wonder in his fine eyes. Then he shrugged his shoulders a trifle wearily. This handsome and well- beloved Guidobaldo was very much a prince, so schooled to princely ways as to sometimes forget that he was a man.

“We forgive much to the impetuousness of youth,” said he, very coldly. “But there are bounds to the endurance of every one of us. As your uncle and your prince, I claim a double duty from you, and you owe a double allegiance to my wishes. By my twofold authority I have commanded you to wed with Gian Maria.”

The princess in her was all forgotten, and it was just the woman who answered him, in a voice of protest:

“But, Highness, I do not love him.”

A shade of impatience crossed his lofty face.

“I do not remember,” he made answer wearily, “that I loved your aunt. Yet we were wed, and through habit came to love each other and to be happy together.”

“I can understand that Monna Elizabetta should have come to love you,” she returned. “You are not as Gian Maria. You were not fat and ugly, stupid and cruel, as is he.”

It was an appeal that might have won its way to a man’s heart through the ever-ready channel of his vanity. But it did not so with Guidobaldo. He only shook his head.

“The matter is not one that I will argue. It were unworthy in us both. Princes, my child, are not as ordinary folk.”

“In what are they different?” she flashed back at him. “Do they not hunger and thirst as ordinary folk? Are they not subject to the same ills; do they not experience the same joys? Are they not born, and do they not die, just as ordinary folk? In what, then, lies this difference that forbids them to mate as ordinary folk?”

Guidobaldo tossed his arms to Heaven, his eyes full of a consternation that clearly defied utterance. The violence of his gesture drew a gasp of pain from him. At last, when he had mastered it:

“They are different,” said he, “in that their lives are not their own to dispose of as they will. They belong to the State which they were born to govern, and in nothing else does this become of so much importance as in their mating. It behoves them to contract such alliances as shall redound to the advantage of their people.” A toss of her auburn head was Valentina’s interpolation, but her uncle continued relentlessly in his cold, formal tones–such tones as those in which he might have addressed an assembly of his captains:

“In the present instance we are threatened–Babbiano and Urbino–by a common foe. And whilst divided, neither of us could withstand him, united, we shall combine to his overthrow. Therefore does this alliance become necessary–imperative.”

I do not apprehend the necessity,” she answered, in a voice that breathed defiance. “If such an alliance as you speak of is desirable, why may it not be made a purely political one–such a one, for instance, as now binds Perugia and Camerino to you? What need to bring me into question?”

“A little knowledge of history would afford you an answer. Such political alliances are daily made, and daily broken when more profit offers in another quarter. But cemented by marriage, the tie, whilst continuing political, becomes also one of blood. In the case of Urbino and Babbiano it enters also into consideration that I have no son. It might well be, Valentina,” he pursued, with a calculating coldness that revolted her, “that a son of yours would yet more strongly link the two duchies. In time both might become united under him into one great power that might vie successfully with any in Italy. Now leave me, child. As you see, I am suffering, and when it is thus with me, and this evil tyrant has me in its clutches, I prefer to be alone.”

There was a pause, and whilst his eyes were upon hers, hers were upon the ground in avoidance of his glance. A frown marred her white brow, her lips were set and her hands clenched. Pity for his physical ills fought a while with pity for her own mental torment. At last she threw back her beautiful head, and the manner of that action was instinct with insubordination.

“It grieves me to harass your Highness in such a season,” she assured him, “but I must beg your indulgence. These things may be as you say. Your plans may be the noblest that were ever conceived, since to their consummation would be entailed the sacrifice of your own flesh and blood –in the person of your niece. But I will have no part in them. It may be that I lack a like nobility of soul; it may be that I am all unworthy of the high station to which I was born, through no fault of my own. And so, my lord,” she ended, her voice, her face, her gesture, all imparting an irrevocable finality to her words, “I will not wed this Duke of Babbiano–no, not to cement alliances with a hundred duchies.”

“Valentina!” he exclaimed, roused out of his wonted calm. “Do you forget that you are my niece?”

“Since you appear to have forgotten it.”

“These woman’s whims—-” he began, when she interrupted him.

“Perhaps they will serve to remind you that I am a woman, and perhaps if you remember that, you may consider how very natural it is that, being a woman, I should refuse to wed for–for political ends.”

“To your chamber,” he commanded, now thoroughly aroused. “And on your knees beg Heaven’s grace to help you to see your duty, since no words of mine prevail.”

“Oh, that the Duchess were returned from Mantua,” she sighed. “The good Monna Elizabetta might melt you to some pity.”

“Monna Elizabetta is too dutiful herself to do aught but urge you to dutifulness. There, child,” he added, in a more wheedling tone, “set aside this disobedient mood, which is unlike you and becomes you ill. You shall be wed with a splendour and magnificence that will set every princess in Italy green with envy. Your dowry is set at fifty thousand ducats, and Giuliano della Rovere shall pronounce the benediction. Already I have sent orders to Ferrara, to the incomparable Anichino, for the majestate girdle; I will send to Venice for gold leaf and—-”

“But do you not heed me that I will not wed?” she broke in with passionate calm, her face white, her bosom heaving.

He rose, leaning heavily upon a gold-headed cane, and looked at her a moment without speaking, his brows contracted. Then:

“Your betrothal to Gian Maria is proclaimed,” he announced in a voice cold with finality. “I have passed my word to the Duke, and your marriage shall take place so soon as he returns. Now go. Such scenes as these are wearisome to a sick man, and they are undignified.”

“But, your Highness,” she began, an imploring note now taking the place that lately had been held by defiance.

“Go!” he blazed, stamping his foot, and then to save his dignity–for he feared that she might still remain–he himself turned on his heel and passed from the apartment.

Left to herself, she stood there a moment, allowed a sigh to escape her, and brushed an angry tear from her brown eyes. Then, with a sudden movement that seemed to imply suppression of her mood, she walked to the door by which she entered, and left the chamber.

She went down the long gallery, whose walls glowed with the new frescoes from the wonder-working brush of Andrea Mantegna; she crossed her ante- chamber and gained the very room where some hours ago she had received the insult of Gian Maria’s odious advances. She passed through the now empty room, and stepped out on to the terrace that overlooked the paradise-like gardens of the Palace.

Close by the fountain stood a white marble seat, over which, earlier that day, one of her women had thrown a cloak of crimson velvet. There she now sat herself to think out the monstrous situation that beset her. The air was warm and balmy and heavy with the scent of flowers from the garden below. The splashing of the fountain seemed to soothe her, and for a little while her eyes were upon that gleaming water, which rose high in a crystal column, then broke and fell, a shower of glittering jewels, into the broad marble basin. Then, her eyes growing tired, they strayed to the marble balustrade, where a peacock strode with overweening dignity; they passed on to the gardens below, gay with early blossoms, in their stately frames of tall, boxwood hedges, and flanked by myrtles and tall cypresses standing gaunt and black against the deep saffron of the vesper sky.

Saving the splashing of the fountain, and the occasional harsh scream of the peacock, all was at peace, as if by contrast with the tumult that raged in Valentina’s soul. Then another sound broke the stillness–a soft step, crunching the gravel of the walk. She turned, and behind her stood the magnificent Gonzaga, a smile that at once reflected pleasure and surprise upon his handsome face.

“Alone, Madonna?” he said, in accents of mild wonder, his fingers softly stirring the strings of the lute he carried, and without which he seldom appeared about the Court.

“As you see,” she answered, and her tone was the tone of one whose thoughts are taken up with other things.

Her glance moved away from him again, and in a moment it seemed as if she had forgotten his presence, so absorbed grew the expression of her face.

But Gonzaga was not easily discouraged. Patience was the one virtue that Valentina more than any woman–and there had been many in his young life –had inculcated into a soul that in the main was anything but virtuous. He came a step nearer, and leant lightly against the edge of her seat, his shapely legs crossed, his graceful body inclining ever so slightly towards her.

“You are pensive, Madonna,” he murmured, in his rich, caressing voice.

“Why then,” she reproved him, but in a mild tone, “do you intrude upon my thoughts?”

“Because they seem sad thoughts, Madonna.” he answered, glibly, “and I were a poor friend did I not seek to rouse you out of them.”

“You are that, Gonzaga?” she questioned, without looking at him. “You are my friend?”

He seemed to quiver and then draw himself upright, whilst across his face there swept a shade of something that may have been good or bad or partly both. Then he leant down until his head came very near her own.

“Your friend?” quoth he. “Ah, more than your friend. Count me your very slave, Madonna.”

She looked at him now, and in his countenance she saw a reflection of the ardour that had spoken in his voice. In his eyes there was a glance of burning intensity. She drew away from him, and at first he accounted himself repulsed, but pointing to the space she had left:

“Sit here beside me, Gonzaga,” she said quietly, and he, scarce crediting his own good fortune that so much favour should be showered upon him, obeyed her in a half-timid fashion that was at odd variance with his late bold words.

He laughed lightly, perhaps to cover the embarrassment that beset him, and dropping his jewelled cap, he flung one white-cased leg over the other and took his lute in his lap, his fingers again wandering to the strings.

“I have a new song, Madonna,” he announced, with a gaiety that was obviously forced. “It is in ottava rima, a faint echo of the immortal Niccolo Correggio, composed in honour of one whose description is beyond the flight of human song.”

“Yet you sing of her?”

“It is no better than an acknowledgment of the impossibility to sing of her. Thus—-” And striking a chord or two, he began, a mezza voce:

“Quando sorriderán’ in ciel
Gli occhi tuoi ai santi–”

She laid a hand upon his arm to stay him.

“Not now, Gonzaga,” she begged, “I am in no humour for your song, sweet though I doubt not that it be.”

A shade of disappointment and ruffled vanity crossed his face. Women had been wont to listen greedily to his strambotti, enthralled by the cunning of the words and the seductive sweetness of his voice.

“Ah, never look so glum,” she cried, smiling now at his crestfallen air. “If I have not hearkened now, I will again. Forgive me, good Gonzaga,” she begged him, with a sweetness no man could have resisted. And then a sigh fluttered from her lips; a sound that was like a sob came after it, and her hand closed upon his arm.

“They are breaking my heart, my friend. Oh, that you had left me at peace in the Convent of Santa Sofia!”

He turned to her, all solicitude and gentleness, to inquire the reason of her outburst.

“It is this odious alliance into which they seek to force me with that man from Babbiano. I have told Guidobaldo that I will not wed this Duke. But as profitably might I tell Fate that I will not die. The one is as unheeding as the other.”

Gonzaga sighed profoundly, in sympathy, but said nothing.

Here was a grief to which he could not minister, a grievance that he could do nothing to remove. She turned from him with a gesture of impatience.

“You sigh,” she exclaimed, “and you bewail the cruelty of the fate in store for me. But you can do nothing for me. You are all words, Gonzaga. You can call yourself more than my friend–my very slave. Yet, when I need your help, what do you offer me? A sigh!”

“Madonna, you are unjust,” he was quick to answer, with some heat. “I did not dream–I did not dare to dream–that it was my help you sought. My sympathy, I believed, was all that you invited, and so, lest I should seem presumptuous, it was all I offered. But if my help you need; if you seek a means to evade this alliance that you rightly describe as odious, such help as it lies in a man’s power to render shall you have from me.”

He spoke almost fiercely and with a certain grim confidence, for all that as yet no plan had formed itself in his mind.

Indeed, had a course been clear to him, there had been perhaps less confidence in his tone, for, after all, he was not by nature a man of action, and his character was the very reverse of valiant. Yet so excellent an actor was he as to deceive even himself by his acting, and in this suggestion of some vague fine deeds that he would do, he felt himself stirred by a sudden martial ardour, and capable of all. He was stirred, too, by the passion with which Valentina’s beauty filled him–a passion that went nearer to making a man of him than Nature had succeeded in doing.

That now, in the hour of her need, she should turn so readily to him for assistance, he accepted as proof that she was not deaf to the voice of this great love he bore her, but of which he never yet had dared to show a sign. The passing jelousy that he had entertained for that wounded knight they had met at Acquasparta was laid to rest by her present attitude towards him, the knight, himself forgotten.

As for Valentina, she listened to his ready speech and earnest tone with growing wonder both at him and at herself. Her own words had been little more than a petulant outburst. Of actually finding a way to elude her uncle’s wishes she had no thought–unless it lay in carrying out that threat of hers to take the veil. Now, however, that Gonzaga spoke so bravely of doing what man could do to help her to evade that marriage, the thought of active resistance took an inviting shape.

A timid hope–a hope that was afraid of being shattered before it grew to any strength–peeped now from the wondering eyes she turned on her companion.

“Is there a way, Gonzaga?” she asked, after a pause.

Now during that pause his mind had been very busy. Something of a poet, he was blessed with wits of a certain quickness, and was a man of very ready fancy. Like an inspiration an idea had come to him; out of this had sprung another, and yet another, until a chain of events by which the frustration of the schemes of Babbiano and Urbino might be accomplished, was complete.

“I think,” he said slowly, his eyes upon the ground, “that I know a way.”

Her glance was now eager, her lip tremulous, and her face a little pale. She leant towards him.

“Tell me,” she besought him feverishly.

He set his lute on the seat beside him, and his eyes looked round in apprehensive survey.

“Not here,” he muttered. “There are too many ears in the Palace of Urbino. Will it please you to walk in the gardens? I will tell you there.”

They rose together, so ready was her assent. They looked at each other for a second. Then, side by side, they passed down the wide marble steps that led from the terrace to the box-flanked walks of the gardens. Here, among the lengthening shadows, they paced in silence for a while, what time Gonzaga sought for words in which to propound his plan. At length, grown impatient, Valentina urged him with a question.

“What I counsel, Madonna,” he answered her, “is open defiance.”

“Such a course I am already pursuing. But whither will it lead me?”

“I do not mean the mere defiance of words–mere protestations that you will not wed Gian Maria. Listen, Madonna! The Castle of Roccaleone is your property. It is perhaps the stoutest fortress in all Italy, to-day. Lightly garrisoned and well-provisioned it might withstand a year’s siege.”

She turned to him, having guessed already the proposal in his mind, and for all that at first her eyes looked startled, yet presently they kindled to a light of daring that augured well for a very stout adventure. It was a wildly romantic notion, this of Gonzaga’s, worthy of a poet’s perfervid brain, and yet it attracted her by its unprecedented flavour.

“Could it be done?” she wondered, her eyes sparkling at the anticipation of such a deed.

“It could, indeed it could,” he answered, with an eagerness no whit less than her own. “Immure yourself in Roccaleone, and thence hurl defiance at Urbino and Babbiano, refusing to surrender until they grant your terms–that you are to marry as you list.”

“And you will help me in this?” she questioned, her mind–in its innocence–inclining more and more to the mad project.

“With all my strength and wit,” he answered, readily and gallantly. “I will so victual the place that it shall be able to stand siege for a whole year, should the need arise, and I will find you the men to arm it –a score will, I should think, be ample for our needs, since it is mainly upon the natural strength of the place that we rely.”

“And then,” said she, “I shall need a captain.”

Gonzaga made her a low bow.

“If you will honour me with the office, Madonna, I shall serve you loyally whilst I have life.”

A smile quivered for a second on her lips, but was gone ere the courtier had straightened himself from his bow, for far was it from her wishes to wound his spirit. But the notion of this scented fop in the role of captain, ruling a handful of rough mercenaries, and directing the operations for the resistance of an assiduous siege, touched her with its ludicrous note. Yet, if she refused him this, it was more than likely he would deem himself offended, and refuse to advance their plans. It crossed her mind–in the full confidence of youth–that if he should fail her when the hour of action came, she was of stout enough heart to aid herself. And so she consented, whereat again he bowed, this time in gratitude. And then a sudden thought occurred to her, and with it came dismay.

“But for all this, Gonzaga–for the men and the victualling–money will be needed.”

“If you will let my friendship be proven also in that—-” he began.

But she interrupted him, struck suddenly with a solution to the riddle.

“No, no!” she exclaimed. His face fell a little. He had hoped to place her in his debt in every possible way, yet here was one in which she raised a barrier. Upon her head she wore a fret of gold, so richly laced with pearls as to be worth a prince’s ransom. This she now made haste to unfasten with fingers that excitement set a-tremble. “There!” she cried, holding it out to him. “Turn that to money, my friend. It should yield you ducats enough for this enterprise.”

It next occurred to her that she could not go alone into that castle with just Gonzaga and the men he was about to enrol. His answer came with a promptness that showed he had considered, also, that.

“By no means,” he answered her. “When the time comes you must select such of your ladies–say three or four–as appear suitable and have your trust. You may take a priest as well, a page or two, and a few servants.”

Thus, in the gloaming, amid the shadows of that old Italian garden, was the plot laid by which Valentina was to escape alliance with his Highness of Babbiano. But there was more than that in it, although that was all that Valentina saw. It was, too, a plot by which she might become the wife of Messer Romeo Gonzaga.

He was an exiled member of that famous Mantua family, which has bred some scoundrels and one saint. With the money which, at parting, a doting mother had bestowed upon him, he was cutting a brave figure at the Urbino court, where he was tolerated by virtue of his kinship with Guidobaldo’s Duchess, Monna Elizabetta. But his means were running low, and it behoved him to turn his attention to such quarters as might yield him profit. Being poor-spirited, and–since his tastes had not inclined that way–untrained in arms, it would have been futile for him to have sought the career common to adventurers of his age. Yet an adventurer at heart he was, and since the fields of Mars were little suited to his nature, he had long pondered upon the possibilities afforded him by the lists of Cupid. Guidobaldo–purely out of consideration for Monna Elizabetta–had shown him a high degree of favour, and upon this he had been vain enough to found great hopes–for Guidobaldo had two nieces. High had these hopes run when he was chosen to escort the lovely Valentina della Rovere from the Convent of Santa Sofia to her uncle’s court. But of late they had withered, since he had learnt what were her uncle’s plans for this lady’s future. And now, by her own action, and by the plot into which she had entered with him, they rose once more.

To thwart Guidobaldo might prove a dangerous thing, and his life might pay the forfeit if his schemes miscarried–clement and merciful though Guidobaldo was. But if they succeeded, and if by love or by force he could bring Valentina to wed him, he was tolerably confident that Guidobaldo, seeing matters had gone too far–since Gian Maria would certainly refuse to wed Gonzaga’s widow–would let them be. To this end no plan could be more propitious than that into which he had lured her. Guidobaldo might besiege them in Roccaleone and might eventually reduce them by force of arms–a circumstance, however, which, despite his words, he deemed extremely remote. But if only he could wed Valentina before they capitulated, he thought that he would have little cause to fear any consequences of Guidobaldo’s wrath. After all, in so far as birth and family were concerned, Romeo Gonzaga was nowise the inferior of his Highness of Urbino. Guidobaldo had yet another niece, and he might cement with her the desired alliance with Babbiano.

Alone in the gardens of the Palace, Gonzaga paced after night had fallen, and with his eyes to the stars that began to fleck the violet sky, he smiled a smile of cunning gratification. He bethought him how well advised had been his suggestion that they should take a priest to Roccaleone. Unless his prophetic sense led him deeply into error, they would find work for that priest before the castle was surrendered.

CHAPTER VIII

AMONG THE DREGS OF WINE

And so it befell that whilst by Guidobaldo’s orders the preparations for Valentina’s nuptials went forward with feverish haste–whilst painters, carvers, and artificers in gold and silver applied themselves to their hurried tasks; whilst messengers raced to Venice for gold leaf and ultramarine for the wedding-chests whilst the nuptial bed was being brought from Rome and the chariot from Ferrara; whilst costly stuffs were being collected, and the wedding-garments fashioned–the magnificent Romeo Gonzaga was, on his side, as diligently contriving to render vain all that toil of preparation.

On the evening of the third day of his conspiring he sat in the room allotted to him in the Palace of Urbino, and matured his plans. And so well pleased was he with his self-communion that, as he sat at his window, there was a contented smile upon his lips.

He allowed his glance to stray adown the slopes of that arid waste of rocks, to the River Metauro, winding its way to the sea, through fertile plains, and gleaming here silver and yonder gold in the evening light. Not quite so complacently would he have smiled had he deemed the enterprise upon which he was engaging to be of that warlike character which he had represented to Valentina. He did not want for cunning, nor for judgment of the working of human minds, and he very reasonably opined that once the Lady Valentina immured herself in Roccaleone and sent word to her uncle that she would not wed Gian Maria, nor return to the Court of Urbino until he passed her his ducal word that she should hear no more of the union, the Duke would be the first to capitulate.

He contended that this might not happen at once–nor did he wish it to; messages would pass, and Guidobaldo would seek by cajolery to win back his niece. This she would resist, and, in the end her uncle would see the impassable nature of the situation, and agree to her terms that it might be ended. That it should come to arms, and that Guidobaldo should move to besiege Roccaleone, he did not for a moment believe–for what manner of ridicule would he not draw upon himself from the neighbouring States? At the worst, even if a siege there was, it would never be carried out with the rigour of ordinary warfare; there would be no assaults, no bombarding; it would be a simple investment, with the object of intercepting resources, so as to starve the garrison into submission– for they would never dream of such victualling as Gonzaga was preparing.

Thus communed Gonzaga with himself, and the smile enlivening the corners of his weak mouth grew more thoughtful. He dreamed great dreams that evening; he had wondrous visions of a future princely power that should come to be his own by virtue of this alliance that he was so skilfully encompassing–a fool in a fool’s paradise, with his folly for only company.

But for all that, his dreams were wondrous sweet to indulge and his visions truly alluring to contemplate. There were plans to be formed and means to be devised for the flight to Roccaleone. There were calculations to be made; the estimating of victuals, arms, and men; and once these calculations were complete, there were all these things to be obtained. The victuals he had already provided for, whilst of arms he had no need to think; Roccaleone should be well stocked with them. But the finding of the men gave him some concern. He had decided to enrol a score, which was surely the smallest number with which he could make a fair show of being martially in earnest. But even though the number was modest, where was he to find twenty fellows who reeked so little of their lives as to embark upon such an enterprise–even if lured by generous pay–and thereby incur the ducal displeasure of Guidobaido?

He dressed himself with sober rigour for once in his foppish life, and descended, after night had fallen, to a tavern in a poor street behind the Duomo, hoping that there, among the dregs of wine, he might find what he required.

By great good fortune he chanced upon an old freebooting captain, who once had been a meaner sort of condottiero, but who was sorely reduced by bad fortune and bad wine.

The tavern was a dingy, cut-throat place, which the delicate Gonzaga had not entered without a tremor, invoking the saints’ protection, and crossing himself ere he set foot across the threshold. Some pieces of goat were being cooked on the embers, in a great fireplace at the end of the room farthest from the door. Before this, Ser Luciano–the taverner –squatted on his heels and fanned so diligently that a cloud of ashes rose ceiling high and spread itself, together with the noisome smoke, throughout the squalid chamber. A brass lamp swung from the ceiling, and shone freely through that smoke, as shines the moon through an evening mist. So foully stank the place that at first Gonzaga was moved to get him thence. Only the reflection that nowhere in Urbino was he as likely as here to find the thing he sought, impelled him to stifle his natural squeamishness and remain. He slipped upon some grease, and barely saved himself from measuring his length upon that filthy floor, a matter which provoked a malicious guffaw from a tattered giant who watched with interest his mincing advent.

Perspiring, and with nerves unstrung, the courtier picked his way to a table by the wall, and seated himself upon the coarse deal bench before it, praying that he might be left its sole occupant.

On the opposite wall hung a blackened crucifix and a small holy-water stoup that had been dry for a generation, and was now a receptacle for dust and a withered sprig of rosemary. Immediately beneath this–in the company of a couple of tatterdemalions worthy of him–sat the giant who had mocked his escape from falling, and as Gonzaga took his seat he heard the fellow’s voice, guttural, bottle-thickened and contentious.

“And this wine, Luciano? Sangue della Madonna! Will you bring it before dropping dead, pig?”

Gonzaga shuddered and would have crossed himself again for protection against what seemed a very devil incarnate, but that the ruffian’s blood- shot eye was set upon him in a stony stare.

“I come, cavaliere, I come,” cried the timid host, leaping to his feet, and leaving the goat to burn while he ministered to the giant’s unquenchable thirst.

The title caused Gonzaga to start, and he bent his eyes again on the man’s face. He found it villainous of expression, inflamed and blotched; the hair hung matted about a bullet head, and the eyes glared fiercely from either side of a pendulous nose. Of the knightly rank by which the taverner addressed him the fellow bore no outward signs. Arms he carried, it is true; a sword and dagger at his belt, whilst beside him on the table stood a rusty steel-cap. But these warlike tools served only to give him the appearance of a roving masnadiero or a cut-throat for hire. Presently abandoning the comtemplation of Gonzaga he turned to his companions, and across to the listener floated a coarse and boasting tale of a plunderous warfare in Sicily ten years agone. Gonzaga became excited. It seemed indeed as if this were man who might be useful to him. He made pretence to sip the wine Luciano had brought him, and listened avidly to that swashbuckling story, from which it appeared that this knave had once been better circumstanced and something of a leader. Intently he listened, and wondered whether such men as he boasted he had led in that campaign were still to be found and could be brought together.

At the end of perhaps a half-hour the two companions of that thirsty giant rose and took their leave of him. They cast a passing glance upon Gonzaga, and were gone.

A little while he hesitated. The ruffian seemed to have lapsed into a reverie, or else he slept with open eyes. Calling up his courage the gallant rose at last and moved across the room. All unversed in tavern ways was the magnificent Gonzaga, and he who at court, in ballroom or in antechamber, was a very mirror of all the graces of a courtier, felt awkward here and ill at ease.

At length, summoning his wits to his aid:

“Good sir,” said he, with some timidity, “will you do me the honour to share a flagon with me?

The ruffian’s eye, which but a moment back had looked vacuous and melancholy, now quickened until it seemed ablaze. He raised his bloodshot orbs and boldly encountered Gonzaga’s uneasy glance. His lips fell apart with an anticipatory smack, his back stiffened, and his head was raised until his chin took on so haughty a tilt that Gonzaga feared his proffered hospitality was on the point of suffering a scornful rejection.

“Will I share a flagon?” gasped the fellow, as, being the sinner that he was and knew himself to be, he might have gasped: “Will I go to Heaven?” “Will I–will I—-?” He paused, and pursed his lips. His eyebrows were puckered and his expression grew mighty cunning as again he took stock of this pretty fellow who offered flagons of wine to down-at-heel adventurers like himself. He had all but asked what was to be required of him in exchange for this, when suddenly he bethought him–with the knavish philosophy adversity had taught him–that were he told for what it was intended that the wine should bribe him, and did the business suit him not, he should, in the confession of it, lose the wine; whilst did he but hold his peace until he had drunk, it would be his thereafter to please himself about the business when it came to be proposed.

He composed his rugged features into the rude semblance of a smile.

“Sweet young sir,” he murmured, “sweet, gentle and most illustrious lord, I would share a hogshead with such a nobleman as you.”

“I am to take it that you will drink?” quoth Gonzaga, who had scarce known what to make of the man’s last words.

“Body of Bacchus! Yes. I’ll drink with you gentile signorino, until your purse be empty or the world run dry.” And he leered a mixture of mockery and satisfaction.

Gonzaga, still half uncertain of his ground, called the taverner and bade him bring a flagon of his best. While Luciano was about the fetching of the wine, constraint sat upon that oddly discordant pair.

“It is a chill night,” commented Gonzaga presently, seating himself opposite his swashbuckler.

“Young sir, your wits have lost their edge. The night is warm.

“I said,” spluttered Gonzaga, who was unused to contradiction from his inferiors, and wished now to assert himself, “that the night is chill.”

“You lied, then,” returned the other, with a fresh leer, “for, as I answered you, the night is warm. Piaghe di Cristo! I am an ill man to contradict, my pretty gallant, and if I say the night is warm, warm it shall be though there be snow on Mount Vesuvius.”

The courtier turned pink at that, and but for the arrival of the taverner with the wine, it is possible he might have done an unconscionable rashness. At sight of the red liquor the fury died out of the ruffler’s face.

“A long life, a long thirst, a long purse, and a short memory!” was his toast, into whose cryptic meaning Gonzaga made no attempt to pry. As the fellow set down his cup, and with his sleeve removed the moisture from his unshorn mouth, “May I not learn,” he inquired, “whose hospitality I have the honour of enjoying?”

“Heard you ever of Romeo Gonzaga?”

“Of Gonzaga, yes; though of Romeo Gonzaga never. Are you he?”

Gonzaga bowed his head.

“A noble family yours,” returned the swashbuckler, in a tone that implied his own to be as good. “Let me name myself to you. I am Ercole Fortemani,” he said, with the proud air of one who announced himself an emperor.

“A formidable name,” said Gonzaga, in accents of surprise, “and it bears a noble sound.”

The great fellow turned on him in a sudden anger.

“Why that astonishment?” he blazed. “I tell you my name is both noble and formidable, and you shall find me as formidable as I am noble. Diavolo! Seems it incredible?”

“Said I so?” protested Gonzaga.

“You had been dead by now if you had, Messer Gonzaga. But you thought so, and I may take leave to show you how bold a man it needs to think so without suffering.”

Ruffled as a turkey-cock, wounded in his pride and in his vanity, Ercole hastened to enlighten Gonzaga on his personality.

“Learn, sir,” he announced, “that I am Captain Ercole Fortemani. I held that rank in the army of the Pope. I have served the Pisans and the noble Baglioni of Perugia with honour and distinction. I have commanded a hundred lances of Gianinoni’s famous free-company. I have fought with the French against the Spaniards, and with the Spaniards against the French, and I have served the Borgia, who is plotting against both. I have trailed a pike in the emperor’s following, and I have held the rank of captain, too, in the army of the King of Naples. Now, young sir, you have learned something of me, and if my name is not written in letters of fire from one end of Italy to the other, it is–Body of God!–because the hands that hired me to the work garnered the glory of my deeds.”

“A noble record,” said Gonzaga, who had credulously absorbed that catalogue of lies, “a very noble record.”

“Not so,” the other contradicted, for the lust of contradiction that was a part of him. “A great record, if you will, to commend me to hireling service. But you may not call the service of a hireling noble.”

“It is a matter we will not quarrel over,” said Gonzaga soothingly. The man’s ferocity was terrific.

“Who says that we shall not?” he demanded. “Who will baulk me if I have a mind to quarrel over it? Answer me!” and he half rose from his seat, moved by the anger into which he was lashing himself. “But patience!” he broke off, subsiding on a sudden. “I take it, it was not out of regard for my fine eyes, nor drawn by the elegance of my apparel”–and he raised a corner of his tattered cloak–” nor yet because you wish to throw a main with me, that you have sought my acquaintance, and called for this wine. You require service of me?”

“You have guessed it.”

“A prodigious discernment, by the Host!” He seemed to incline rather tediously to irony. Then his face grew stern, and he lowered his voice until it was no more than a growling whisper. “Heed me, Messer Gonzaga. If the service you require be the slitting of a gullet or some kindred foul business, which my seeming neediness leads you to suppose me ripe for, let me counsel you, as you value your own skin, to leave the service unmentioned, and get you gone.”

In hasty, frantic, fearful protest were Gonzaga’s hands outspread.

“Sir, sir–I–I could not have thought it of you,” he spluttered, with warmth, much of which was genuine, for it rejoiced him to see some scruples still shining in the foul heap of this man’s rascally existence. A knave whose knavery knew no limits would hardly have suited his ends. “I do need a service, but it is no dark-corner work. It is a considerable enterprise, and one in which, I think, you should prove the very man I need.”

“Let me know more,” quoth Ercole grandiloquently.

“I need first your word that should the undertaking prove unsuited to you, or beyond you, you will respect the matter, and keep it secret.”

“Body of Satan! No corpse was ever half so dumb as I shall be.”

“Excellent! Can you find me a score of stout fellows to form a bodyguard and a garrison, who, in return for good quarters–perchance for some weeks–and payment at four times the ordinary mercenaries’ rate, will be willing to take some risk, and chance even a brush with the Duke’s forces?”

Ercole blew out his mottled cheeks until Gonzaga feared that he would burst them.

“It’s outlawry!” he roared, when he had found his voice. “Outlawry, or I’m a fool.”

“Why, yes,” confessed Gonzaga. “It is outlaw matter of a kind. But the risk is slender.”

“Can you tell me no more?”

“I dare not.”

Ercole emptied his wine-cup at a draught and splashed the dregs on to the floor. Then, setting down the empty vessel, he sat steeped in thought awhile. Growing impatient:

“Well,” cried Gonzaga at last, “can you help me? Can you find the men?”

“If you were to tell me more of the nature of this service you require, I might find a hundred with ease.”

“As I have said–I need but a score.”

Ercole looked mighty grave, and thoughtfully rubbed his long nose.

“It might be done,” said he, after a pause. “But we shall have to look for desperate knaves; men who are already under a ban, and to whom it will matter little to have another item added to their indebtedness to the law should they fall into its talons. How soon shall you require this forlorn company?”

“By to-morrow night.”

“I wonder—-” mused Ercole. He was counting on his fingers, and appeared to have lapsed into mental calculations. “I could get half-a- score or a dozen within a couple of hours. But a score—-” Again he paused, and again he fell to thinking. At last, more briskly: “Let us hear what pay you offer me, to thrust myself thus blindfolded into this business of yours as leader of the company you require?” he asked suddenly.

Gonzaga’s face fell at that. Then he suddenly stiffened, and put on an expression of haughtiness.

“It is my intent to lead this company myself,” he loftily informed the ruffler.

“Body of God!” gasped Ercole, upon whose mind intruded a grotesque picture of such a company as he would assemble, being led by this mincing carpet-knight. Then recollecting himself: “If that be so,” said he, “you had best, yourself, enrol it. Felicissima notte!” And he waved him a farewell across the table.

Here was a poser for Gonzaga. How was he to go about such a business as that? It was beyond his powers. Thus much he protested frankly.

“Now attend to me, young sir,” was the other’s answer. “The matter stands thus: If I can repair to certain friends of mine with the information that an affair is afoot, the particulars of which I may not give them, but in which I am to lead them myself, sharing such risk as there may be, I do not doubt but that by this time to-morrow I can have a score of them enrolled–such is their confidence in Ercole Fortemani. But if I take them to enter a service unknown, under a leader equally unknown, the forming of such a company would be a mighty tedious matter.”

This was an argument to the force of which Gonzaga could not remain insensible. After a moment’s consideration, he offered Ercole fifty gold florins in earnest of good faith and the promise of pay, thereafter, at the rate of twenty gold florins a month for as long as he should need his services and Ercole, who in all his free-lancing days had never earned the tenth of such a sum, was ready to fall upon this most noble gentleman’s neck, and weep for very joy and brotherly affection.

The matter being settled, Gonzaga produced a heavy bag which gave forth a jangle mighty pleasant to the ears of Fortemani, and let it drop with a chink upon the table.

“There are a hundred florins for the equipment of this company. I do not wish to have a regiment of out-at-elbow tatterdemalions at my heels.” And his eye swept in an uncomplimentary manner over Ercole’s apparel. “See that you dress them fittingly.”

“It shall be done, Magnificent,” answered Ercole, with a show of such respect as he had not hitherto manifested. “And arms?”

“Give them pikes and arquebuses, if you will; but nothing more. The place we are bound for is well stocked with armour–but even that may not be required.”

“May not be required?” echoed the more and more astonished swashbuckler. Were they to be paid on so lordly a scale, clothed and fed, to induce them upon a business that might carry no fighting with it? Surely he had never sold himself into a more likely or promising service, and that night he dreamt in his sleep that he was become a gentleman’s steward, and that at his heels marched an endless company of lacqueys in flamboyant liveries. On the morrow he awoke to the persuasion that at last, of a truth, was his fortune made, and that hereafter there would be no more pike­trailing for his war-worn old arms.

Conscientiously he set about enrolling the company, for, in his way, this Ercole Fortemani was a conscientious man–boisterous and unruly if you will; a rogue, in his way, with scant respect for property; not above cogging dice or even filching a purse upon occasion when hard driven by necessity–for all that he was gently born and had held honourable employment; a drunkard by long habit, and a swaggering brawler upon the merest provocation. But for all that, riotous and dishonest though he might be in the general commerce of life, yet to the hand that hired him he strove–not always successfully, perhaps, but, at least, always earnestly–to be loyal.

CHAPTER IX

THE “TRATTA DI CORDE”

Whilst the bustle of preparation went on briskly in Urbino, Gian Maria, on his side, was rapidly disposing of affairs in Babbiano, that he might return to the nuptials for which he was impatient. But he had chanced upon a deeper tangle than he had reckoned with, and more to do than he had looked for.

On the day of his departure from Urbino, he had ridden as far as Cagli, and halted at the house of the noble Messer Valdicampo. This had been placed at his disposal, and there he proposed to lie the night. They had supped–the Duke, de’ Alvari, Gismondo Santi, Messér Valdicampo, his wife and two daughters, and a couple of friends, potential citizens of Cagli, whom he had invited, that they might witness the honour that was being done his house. It waxed late, and the torpor that ensues upon the generous gratification of appetite was settling upon the company when Armstadt–Gian Maria’s Swiss captain–entered and approached his master with the air of a man who is the bearer of news. He halted a pace or two from the Duke’s high-backed chair, and stood eyeing Gian Maria in stupid patience.

“Well, fool?” growled the Duke, turning his head.

The Swiss approached another step. “They have brought him, Highness,” he said in a confidential whisper.

“Am I a wizard that I must read your thoughts?” hectored Gian Maria. “Who has brought whom?”

Armstadt eyed the company in hesitation. Then, stepping close to the Duke, he murmured in his ear:

“The men I left behind have brought the fool–Ser Peppe.”

A sudden brightening of the eye showed that Gian Maria understood. Without apology to the board, he turned and whispered back to his captain to have the fellow taken to his chamber, there to await him. “Let a couple of your knaves be in attendance, and do you come too, Martino.”

Martin bowed, and withdrew, whereupon Gian Maria found grace to crave his host’s pardon, with the explanation that the man had brought him news he had been expecting. Valdicampo, who for the honour of having a Duke sleep beneath his roof would have stomached improprieties far more flagrant, belittled the matter and dismissed it. And presently Gian Maria rose with the announcement that he had far to journey on the morrow, and so, with his host’s good leave, would be abed.

Valdicampo, himself, then played the part of chamberlain, and taking up one of the large candle branches, he lighted the Duke to his apartments. He would have carried his good offices, and his candles, as far as Gian Maria’s very bed-chamber, but that in the ante-room his Highness, as politely as might be, bade him set down the lights and leave him.

The Duke remained standing for a moment, deliberating whether to afford knowledge to Alvari and Santi–who had followed him and stood awaiting his commands–of what he was about to do. In the end he decided that he would act alone and upon his sole discretion. So he dismissed them.

When they had gone and he was quite alone, he clapped his hands together, and in answer to that summons the door of his bedroom opened, revealing Martin Armstadt on the threshold.

“He is there?” inquired the Duke.

“Awaiting your Highness,” answered the Swiss, and he held the door for Gian Maria to enter.

The bedchamber apportioned the Duke in the Palazzo Valdicampo was a noble and lofty room, in the midst of which loomed the great carved bed of honour, with its upright pillars and funereal canopy.

On the overmantel stood two five-armed sconces with lighted tapers. Yet Gian Maria did not seem to deem that there was light enough for such purpose as he entertained, for he bade Martin fetch him the candelabra that had been left behind. Then he turned his attention to the group standing by the window, where the light from the overmantel fell full upon it.

This consisted of three men, two being mercenaries of Armstadt’s guard, in corselet and morion, and the third, who stood captive between, the unfortunate Ser Peppe. The fool’s face was paler than its wont, whilst the usual roguery had passed from his eyes and his mouth, fear having taken possession of its room. He met the Duke’s cruel glance with one of alarm and piteous entreaty.

Having assured himself that Peppe had no weapons, and that his arms were pinioned behind him, Gian Maria bade the two guards withdraw, but hold themselves in readiness in the ante-chamber with Armstadt. Then he turned to Peppe with a scowl on his low brow.

“You are not so merry as you were this morning, fool,” he scoffed.

Peppino squirmed a little, but his nature, schooled by the long habit of jest, prompted a bold whimsicality in his reply.

“The circumstances are scarcely as propitious–to me. Your Highness, though, seems in excellent good­humour.”

Gian Maria looked at him angrily a moment. He was a slow-witted man, and he could devise no ready answer, no such cutting gibe as it would have pleasured him to administer. He walked leisurely to the fire-place, and leant his elbow on the overmantel.

“Your humour led you into saying some things for which I should be merciful if I had you whipped.”

“And, by the same reasoning, charitable if you had me hanged,” returned the fool dryly, a pale smile on his lips.

“Ah! You acknowledge it?” cried Gian Maria, never seeing the irony intended. “But I am a very clement prince, fool.”

“Proverbially clement,” the jester protested, but he did not succeed this time in excluding the sarcasm from his voice.

Gian Maria shot him a furious glance.

“Are you mocking me, animal? Keep your venomous tongue in bounds, or I’ll have you deprived of it.”

Peppe’s face turned grey at the threat, as well it might–for what should such a one as he do in the world without a tongue?

Seeing him dumb and stricken, the Duke continued:

“Now, for all that you deserve a hanging for your insolence, I am willing that you should come by no hurt so that you answer truthfully such questions as I have for you.”

Peppino’s grotesque figure was doubled in a bow.

“I await your questions, glorious lord,” he answered.

“You spoke—-” the Duke hesitated a moment, writhing inwardly at the memory of the exact words in which the fool had spoken. “You spoke this morning of one whom the Lady Valentina had met.”

The fear seemed to increase on the jester’s face. “Yes,” he answered, in a choking voice.

“Where did she meet this knight you spoke of, and in such wondrous words of praise described to me?”

“In the woods at Acquasparta, where the river Metauro is no better than a brook. Some two leagues this side of Sant’ Angelo.”

“Sant’ Angelo!” echoed Gian Maria, starting at the very mention of the place where the late conspiracy against him had been hatched. “And when was this?”

“On the Wednesday before Easter, as Monna Valentina was journeying from Santa Sofia to Urbino.”

No word spake the Duke in answer. He stood still, his head bowed, and his thoughts running again on that conspiracy. The mountain fight in which Masuccio had been killed had taken place on the Tuesday night, and the conviction–scant though the evidence might be–grew upon him that this man was one of the conspirators who had escaped.

“How came your lady to speak with this man–was he known to her?” he inquired at last.

“No, Highness; but he was wounded, and so aroused her compassion. She sought to minister to his hurt.”

“Wounded?” cried Gian Maria, in a shout. “Now, by God, it is as I suspected. I’ll swear he got that wound the night before at Sant’ Angelo. What was his name, fool? Tell me that, and you shall go free.”

For just a second the hunchback seemed to hesitate. He stood in awesome fear of Gian Maria, of whose cruelties some ghastly tales were told. But in greater fear he stood of the eternal damnation he might earn did he break the oath he had plighted not to divulge that knight’s identity.

“Alas!” he sighed, “I would it might be mine to earn my freedom at so light a price; yet it is one that ignorance will not let me pay. I do not know his name.”

The Duke looked at him searchingly and suspiciously.

Dull though he was by nature, eagerness seemed now to have set a cunning edge upon his wits, and suspicion had led him to observe the fool’s momentary hesitation.

“Of what appearance was he? Describe him to me. How was he dressed? What was the manner of his face?”

“Again, Lord Duke, I cannot answer you. I had but the most fleeting glimpse of him.”

The Duke’s sallow countenance grew very evil-looking, and an ugly smile twisted his lip and laid bare his strong white teeth.

“So fleeting that no memory of him is left you?” quoth he.

“Precisely, Highness.”

“You lie, you filth,” Gian Maria thundered in a towering rage. “It was but this morning that you said his height was splendid, his countenance noble, his manner princely, his speech courtly, and–I know not what besides. Yet now you tell me–you tell me–that your glimpse of him was so fleeting that you cannot describe him. You know his name, rogue, and I will have it from you, or else—-”

“Indeed, indeed, most noble lord, be not incensed—-” the fool began, in fearful protestation. But the Duke interrupted him.

“Incensed?” he echoed, his eyes dilating in a sort of horror at the notion. “Do you dare impute to me the mortal sin of choler? I am not incensed; there is no anger in me.” He crossed himself, as if to exorcise the evil mood if it indeed existed, and devotedly bowing his head and folding his hands–“Libera me a malo, Domine!” he murmured audibly. Then, with a greater fierceness than before–“Now,” he demanded, “will you tell me his name?”

“I would I could,” the terrified hunchback began. But at that the Duke turned from him with a shrug of angry impatience, and clapping his hands together:

“Olá! Martino!” he called. Instantly the door opened, and the Swiss appeared. “Bring in your men and your rope.”

The captain turned on his heel, and simultaneously the fool cast himself at Gian Maria’s feet.

“Mercy, your Highness!” he wailed. “Do not have me hanged. I am—-”

“We are not going to hang you,” the Duke broke in coldly. “Dead you would indeed be dumb, and avail us nothing. We want you alive, Messer Peppino–alive and talkative; we find you very reserved for a fool. But we hope to make you speak.”

On his knees, Peppe raised his wild eyes to Heaven.

“Mother of the Afflicted,” he prayed, at which the Duke broke into a contemptuous laugh.

“What has the Heavenly Mother to do with such filth as you? Make your appeals to me. I am the more immediate arbiter of your fate. Tell me the name of that man you met in the woods, and all may yet be well with you.”

Peppino knelt in silence, a cold sweat gathering on his pale brow, and a horrid fear tightening at his heart and throat.

And yet greater than this horror they were preparing for him was the horror of losing his immortal soul by a breach of the solemn oath he had sworn. Gian Maria turned from him, at last, to his bravi, who now entered silently and with the air of men who knew the work expected of them. Martino mounted the bed, and swung for an instant from the framework of the canopy.

“It will hold, Highness,” he announced.

Gian Maria bade him, since that was so, remove the velvet hangings, whilst he despatched one of the men to see that the ante-chamber door was closed, so that no cry should penetrate to the apartments of the Valdicampo household.

In a few seconds all was ready, and Peppino was rudely lifted from his knees and from the prayers he had been pattering to the Virgin to lend him strength in this hour of need.

“For the last time, sir fool,” quoth the Duke, “will you tell us his name?”

“Highness, I cannot,” answered Peppe, for all that terror was freezing his very blood.

A light of satisfaction gleamed now in Gian Maria’s eyes.

“So you know it!” he exclaimed. “You no longer protest your ignorance, but only that you cannot tell me. Up with him, Martino.”

In a last pitiable struggle against the inevitable, the fool broke from his guards, and flung himself towards the door. One of the burly Swiss caught him by the neck in a grip that made him cry out with pain. Gian Maria eyed him with a sinister smile, and Martin proceeded to fasten one end of the rope to his pinioned wrists. Then they led him, shivering to the great bed. The other end of the cord was passed over one of the bared arms of the canopy-frame. This end was grasped by the two men-at- arms. Martin stood beside the prisoner. The Duke flung himself into a great carved chair, an air of relish now investing his round, pale face.

“You know what is about to befall you,” he said, in tones of chilling indifference. “Will you speak before we begin?”

“My lord,” said the fool, in a voice that terror was throttling, “you are a good Christian, a loyal son of Mother Church, and a believer in the eternal fires of hell?”

A frown settled on Gian Maria’s brow. Was the fool about to intimidate him with talk of supernatural vengeance?

“Thus,” Peppe continued, “you will perhaps be merciful when I confess my position. I made most solemn oath to the man I met at Acquasparta on that luckless day, that I would never reveal his identity. What am I to do? If I keep my oath, you will torture me to death perhaps. If I break it, I shall be damned eternally. Have mercy, noble lord, since now you know how I am placed.”

The smile broadened on Gian Maria’s face, and the cruelty of his mouth and eyes seemed intensified by it. The fool had told him that which he would have given much to learn. He had told him that this man whose name he sought, had so feared that his presence that day at Acquasparta should become known, that he had bound the fool by oath not to divulge the secret of it. Of what he had before suspected he was now assured. The man in question was one of the conspirators; probably the very chief of them. Nothing short of the fool’s death under torture would now restrain him from learning the name of that unknown who had done him the double injury of conspiring against him, and–if the fool were to be believed– of capturing the heart of Valentina.

“For the damnation of your soul I shall not be called to answer,” he said at last. “Care enough have I to save my own–for temptations are many and this poor flesh is weak. But it is this man’s name I need, and–by the five wounds of Lucia of Viterbo!–I will have it. Will you speak?”

Something like a sob shook the poor fool’s deformed frame. But that was all. With bowed head he preserved a stubborn silence. The Duke made a sign to the men, and instantly the two of them threw their weight upon the rope, hoisting Peppe by his wrists until he was at the height of the canopy itself. That done, they paused, and turned their eyes upon the Duke for further orders. Again Gian Maria called upon the fool to answer his questions; but Peppe, a writhing, misshapen mass from which two wriggling legs depended, maintained a stubborn silence.

“Let him go,” snarled Gian Maria, out of patience. The men released the rope, and allowed some three feet of it to run through their hands. Then they grasped it again, so that Peppe’s sudden fall was as suddenly arrested by a jerk that almost wrenched his arms from their sockets. A shriek broke from him at that exquisite torture, and he was dragged once more to the full height of the canopy.

“Will you speak now?” asked Gian Maria coldly, amusedly almost. But still the fool was silent, his nether lip caught so tightly in his teeth that the blood trickled from it adown his chin. Again the Duke gave the signal, and again they let him go. This time they allowed him a longer drop, so that the wrench with which they arrested it was more severe than had been the first.

Peppe felt his bones starting from their joints, and it was as if a burning iron were searing him at shoulder, elbow and wrist.

“Merciful God!” he screamed. “Oh, have pity, noble lord.”

But the noble lord had him hoisted anew to the canopy. Writhing there in the extremity of his anguish, the poor hunchback poured forth from frothing lips a stream of curses and imprecations, invoking Heaven and hell to strike his tormentors dead.

But the Duke, from whose demeanour it might be inferred that he was inured to the effect produced by this form of torture, looked on with a cruel smile, as of one who watches the progress of events towards the end that he desires and has planned. He was less patient, and his signal came more quickly now. For a third time the fool was dropped, and drawn up, now, a short three feet from the ground.

This time he did not so much as scream. He hung there, dangling at the rope’s end, his mouth all bloody, his face ghastly in its glistening pallor, and of his eyes naught showing save the whites. He hung there, and moaned piteously and incessantly. Martin glanced questioningly at Gian Maria, and his eyes very plainly inquired whether they had not better cease. But Gian Maria paid no heed to him.

“Will that suffice you?” he asked the fool. “Will you speak now?”

But the fool’s only answer was a moan, whereupon again, at the Duke’s relentless signal, he was swung aloft. But at the terror of a fourth drop, more fearful than any of its three predecessors, he awoke very suddenly to the impossible horror of his position. That this agony would endure until he died or fainted, he was assured. And since he seemed incapable of either fainting or dying, suffer more he could not. What was heaven or hell to him then that the thought of either could efface the horror of this torture and strengthen him to continue to endure the agony of it? He could endure no more–no, not to save a dozen souls if he had had them:

“I’ll speak,” he screamed. “Let me down, and you shall have his name, Lord Duke.”

“Pronounce it first, or the manner of your descent shall be as the others.”

Peppe passed his tongue over his bleeding lips, hung still and spoke.

“It was your cousin,” he panted, ” Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila.”

The Duke stared at him a moment, with startled countenance and mouth agape.

“You are telling me the truth, animal?” he demanded, in a quivering voice. “It was the Count of Aquila who was wounded and whom Monna Valentina tended?”

“I swear it,” answered the fool. “Now, in the name of God and His blessed saints, let me down.”

For a moment yet he was held there, awaiting Gian Maria’s signal. The Duke continued to eye him with that same astonished look, what time he turned over in his mind the news he had gathered. Then conviction of the truth sank into his mind. It was the Lord of Aquila who was the idol of the Babbianians. What, then, more natural than that the conspirators should have sought to place him on the throne they proposed to wrest from Gian Maria? He dubbed himself a fool that he had not guessed so much before.

“Let him down,” he curtly bade his men. “Then take him hence, and let him go with God. He has served his purpose.”

Gently they lowered him, but when his feet touched the ground he was unable to stand. His legs doubled under him, and he lay–a little crook- backed heap–upon the rushes of the floor. His senses had deserted him.

At a sign from Armstadt the two men picked him up and carried him out between them.

Gian Maria moved across the room to a tapestried prie­dieu, and knelt down before an ivory crucifix to render thanks to God for the signal light of grace, by which He had vouchsafed to show the Duke his enemy.

Thereafter, drawing from the breast of his doublet a chaplet of gold and amber beads, he piously discharged his nightly devotions.

CHAPTER X

THE BRAYING OF AN ASS

When on the morrow, towards the twenty-second hour, the High and Mighty Gian Maria Sforza rode into his capital at Babbiano, he found the city in violent turmoil, occasioned, as he rightly guessed, by the ominous presence of Caesar Borgia’s envoy.

A dense and sullen crowd met him at the Porta Romana, and preserved a profound silence as he rode into the city, accompanied by Alvari and Santi, and surrounded by his escort of twenty spears in full armour. There was a threat in that silence more ominous than any vociferations, and very white was the Duke’s face as he darted scowls of impotent anger this way and that. But there was worse to come. As they rode up the Borgo dell’ Annunziata the crowd thickened, and the silence was now replaced by a storm of hooting and angry cries. The people became menacing, and by Armstadt’s orders–the Duke was by now too paralysed with fear to issue any–the men-at-arms lowered their pikes in order to open a way, whilst one or two of the populace, who were thrust too near the cavalcade by the surging human tide, went down and were trampled under foot.

Satirical voices asked the Duke derisively was he wed, and where might be his uncle-in-law’s spears that were to protect them against the Borgia. Some demanded to know whither the last outrageous levy of taxes was gone, and where was the army it should have served to raise. To this, others replied for the Duke, suggesting a score of vile uses to which the money had been put.

Then, of a sudden, a cry of “Murderer!” arose, followed by angry demands that he should restore life to the valiant Ferrabraccio, to Amerini, the people’s friend, and to those others whom he had lately butchered, or else follow them in death. Lastly the name of the Count of Aquila rang wildly in his ears, provoking a storm of “Evviva! Live Francesco del Falco!” and one persistent voice, sounding loudly above the others, styled him already “il Duca Francesco.” At that the blood mounted to Gian Maria’s brain, and a wave of anger beat back the fear from his heart. He rose in his stirrups, his eyes ablaze with the jealous wrath that possessed him.

“Ser Martino!” he roared hoarsely to his captain. “Couch lances and go through them at the gallop!”

The burly Swiss hesitated, brave man though he was. Alvaro de’ Alvari and Gismondo Santi looked at each other in alarm, and the intrepid old statesman, in whose heart no pang of fear had been awakened by the rabble’s threatening bay, changed colour as he heard that order given.

“Highness,” he implored the Duke, “You cannot mean this.”

“Not mean it?” flashed back Gian Maria, his eye travelling from Santi to the hesitating captain. “Fool!” he blazed at the latter. “Brute beast, for what do you wait? Did you not hear me?”

Without a second’s delay the captain now raised his sword, and his deep, guttural voice barked an order to his men which brought their lances below the horizontal. The mob, too, had heard that fierce command, and awakening to their peril, those nearest the cavalcade would have fallen back but that the others, pressing tightly from behind, held them in the death-tide that now swept by with clattering arms and hoarse cries.

Shrieks filled the air where lately threats had been loudly tossed. But some there were in that crowd that would be no passive witnesses of this butchery. Half the stones of the borgo went after that cavalcade, and fell in a persistent shower upon them, rattling like giant hail upon their armour, dinting many a steel-cap to its wearer’s sore discomfort. The Duke himself was struck twice, and on Santi’s unprotected scalp an ugly wound was opened from which the blood flowed in profusion to dye his snowy locks.

In this undignified manner they reached, at last, the Palazzo Ducale, leaving a trail of dead and maimed to mark the way by which they had come.

In a white heat of passion Gian Maria sought his apartments, and came not forth again until, some two hours later, the presence was announced him of the emissary from Caesar Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, who sought an audience.

Still beside himself, and boiling with wrath at the indignities he had received, Gian Maria–in no mood for an interview that would have demanded coolness and presence of mind from a keener brain than his– received the envoy, a gloomy, priestly-faced Spaniard, in the throne-room of the Palace. The Duke was attended by Alvari, Santi, and Fabrizio da Lodi, whilst his mother, Caterina Colonna, occupied a chair of crimson velvet on which the Sforza lion was wrought in gold.

The interview was brief, and marked by a rudeness at its close that contrasted sharply with the ceremoniousness of its inception. It soon became clear that the ambassador’s true mission was to pick a quarrel with Babbiano on his master’s behalf, to the end that the Borgia might be afforded a sound pretext for invading the Duchy. He demanded, at first politely and calmly, and later–when denied–with arrogant insistance, that Gian Maria should provide the Duke of Valentinois with a hundred lances–equivalent to five hundred men–as some contribution on his part towards the stand which Caesar Borgia meant to make against the impending French invasion.

Gian Maria never heeded the restraining words which Lodi whispered in his ear, urging him to temporise, and to put off this messenger until the alliance with the house of Urbino should be complete and their position strengthened sufficiently to permit them to brave the anger of Caesar Borgia. But neither this nor the wrathful, meaning glances which his cunning mother bent upon him served to curb him. He obeyed only the voice of his headstrong mood, never dreaming of the consequences with which he might be visited.

“You will bear to the Duca Valentino this message from me,” he said, in conclusion. “You will tell him that what lances I have in Babbiano I intend to keep, that with them I may defend my own frontiers against his briganding advances. Messer da Lodi,” he added, turning to Fabrizio and without so much as waiting to see if the envoy had anything further to say, “let this gentleman be reconducted to his quarters, and see that he has safe conduct hence until he is out of our Duchy.”

When the envoy, crimson of face and threatening of eye, had withdrawn under Lodi’s escort, Monna Caterina rose, the very incarnation of outraged patience, and poured her bitter invective upon her rash son’s head.

“Fool!” she stormed at him. “There goes your Duchy–in the hollow of that man’s hand.” Then she laughed in bitterness. “After all, in casting it from you, perhaps you have chosen the wiser course, for, as truly as there is a God in Heaven, you are utterly unfitted to retain it.”

“My lady mother,” he answered her, with such dignity as he could muster from the wretched heap in which his wits now seemed to lie, “you will be well advised to devote yourself to your woman’s tasks, and not to interfere in a man’s work.”

“Man’s work!” she sneered. “And you perform it like a petulant boy or a peevish woman.”

“I perform it, Madonna, as best seems to me, for it happens that I am Duke of Babbiano,” he answered sullenly. “I do not fear any Pope’s son that ever stepped. The alliance with Urbino is all but completed. Let that be established, and if Valentino shows his teeth–by God we’ll show ours.”

“Aye, but with this difference, that his are a wolf’s teeth, and yours a lamb’s. Besides, this alliance with Urbino is all incomplete as yet. You had been better advised to have sent away the envoy with some indefinite promise that would have afforded you respite enough in which to seal matters with the house of Montefeltro. As it is, your days are numbered. Upon that message you have sent him Caesar will act at once. For my own part, I have no mind to fall a prey to the invader, and I shall leave Babbiano, and seek refuge in Naples. And if a last word of advice I may offer you, it is that you do the same.”

Gian Maria rose and came down from the dais, eyeing her in a sort of dull amazement. Then he looked, as if for help, to Alvari, to Santi, and lastly to Lodi, who had returned while Caterina was speaking. But no word said any of them, and grave were the eyes of all.

“Poor-spirited are you all!” he sneered. Then his face grew dark and his tone concentrated. “Not so am I,” he assured them, “if in the past I may have seemed it sometimes. I am aroused at length, sirs. I heard a voice in the streets of Babbiano to-day, and I saw a sight that has put a fire into my veins. This good-tempered, soft, indulgent Duke you knew is gone. The lion is awake at last, and you shall see such things as you had not dreamt of.”

They regarded him now with eyes in which the gravity was increased by a light of fearsome wonder and inquiry. Was his mind giving way under the prodigious strain that had been set upon it that day? If not madness, what else did that wild boasting argue?

“Are you all dumb?” he asked them, his eyes feverish. “Or do you deem that I promise more than is mine to fulfil. You shall judge, and soon. To-morrow, my lady mother, whilst you journey south, as you have told us, I go north again, hack to Urbino. Not a day will I now waste. Within the week, sirs, by God’s grace, I shall be wed. That will give us Urbino for a buckler, and with Urbino comes Perugia and Camerino. But more than that. There is a princely dowry comes to us with the Lady Valentina. How think you will I spend it? To the last florin it shall go to the arming of men. I will hire me every free condotta in Italy. I will raise me such an army as has never before been seen at any one time, and with this I shall seek out the Duca Valentino. I’ll not sit here at home awaiting the pleasure of his coming, but I’ll out to meet him, and with that army I shall descend upon him as a thunderbolt out of Heaven. Aye, my lady mother,” he laughed in his madness, “the lamb shall hunt the wolf, and rend it so that it shall never stand again to prey on other lambs. This will I do, my friends, and there shall be such fighting as has not been seen since the long-dead days of Castracani.”

They stared at him, scarce believing now that he was sane, and marvelling deeply whence had sprung this sudden martial fervour in one whose nature was more indolent than active, more timid than warlike. And yet the reason was not far to seek, had they but cared to follow the line of thought to which he, himself, had given them the clue when he referred to the voice he had heard, and the sights he had seen in the streets of Babbiano. The voice was the voice that had acclaimed his cousin Francesco Duke. That it was through that a fierce jealousy had fired him. This man had robbed him at once of the love of his people and of Valentina, and thereby had set in his heart the burning desire to outdo him and to prove wrong in their preference both his people and Valentina. He was like a gamer who risks all on a single throw, and his stake was to be the dowry of his bride, the game a tilt with the forces of the Borgia. If he won he came out covered with glory, and not only the saviour of his people and the champion of their liberty, but a glorious figure that all Italy–or, at least, that part of it that had known the iron heel of Valentino–should revere. Thus would he set himself right, and thus crush from their minds the memory of his rebellious cousin with whom he was about to deal.

His mother turned to him now, and her words were words of caution, prayers that he should adventure on naught so vast and appalling to her woman’s mind, without due thought and argument in council. A servant entered at that moment, and approached the Duke.

“Madonna,” Gian Maria announced, breaking in upon her earnest words, “I am fully resolved upon my course. If you will but delay a moment and resume your seat, you shall witness the first scene of this great drama that I am preparing.” Then turning to the waiting servant: “Your message?” he demanded.

“Captain Armstadt has returned, Highness, and has brought his Excellency.”

“Fetch lights and then admit them,” he commanded briefly. “To your places, sirs, and you, my mother. I am about to sit in judgment.”

Amazed and uncomprehending, they obeyed his wild gestures, and resumed their places by the throne even as he walked back to the dais and sat himself upon the ducal chair. Servants entered, bearing great candelabra of beaten gold which they set on table and overmantel. They withdrew, and when the doors opened again, a clank of mail, reaching them from without, increased the astonishment of the company.

This rose yet higher, and left them cold and speechless, when into the chamber stepped the Count of Aquila with a man-at-arms on either side of him, marking him a prisoner. With a swift, comprehensive glance that took in the entire group about the throne–and without manifesting the slightest surprise at Lodi’s presence–Francesco stood still and awaited his cousin’s words.

He was elegantly dressed, but without lavishness, and if he had the air of a great lord, it was rather derived from the distinction of his face and carriage. He was without arms, and bareheaded save for the gold coif he always wore, which seemed to accentuate the lustrous blackness of his hair. His face was impassive, and the glance as that of a man rather weary of the entertainment provided him.

There was an oppressive silence of some moments, during which his cousin regarded him with an eye that glittered oddly. At last Gian Maria broke into speech, his voice shrill with excitement.

“Know you of any reason,” he demanded, “why your head should not be flaunted on a spear among those others on the Gate of San Bacolo?”

Francesco’s eyebrows shot up in justifiable astonishment.

“I know of many,” he answered, with a smile, an answer which by its simplicity seemed to nonplus the Duke.

“Let us hear some of them,” he challenged presently.

“Nay, let us hear, rather, some reason why my poor head should be so harshly dealt with. When a man is rudely taken, as I have been, it is a custom, which perhaps your Highness will follow, to afford him some reason for the outrage.”

“You smooth-tongued traitor,” quoth the Duke, with infinite malice, made angrier by his cousin’s dignity. “You choicely-spoken villain! You would learn why you have been taken? Tell me, sir, what did you at Acquasparta on the morning of the Wednesday before Easter?”

The Count’s impassive face remained inscrutable, a mask of patient wonder. By the sudden clenching of his hands alone did he betray how that thrust had smitten him, and his hands none there remarked. Fabrizio da Lodi, standing behind the Duke, went pale to the lips.

“I do not recall that I did anything there of much account,” he answered. “I breathed the good spring air in the woods.”

“And nothing else?” sneered Gian Maria.

“I can bethink me of little else that signifies. I met a lady there with whom I had some talk, a friar, a fool, a popinjay, and some soldiers. But,”–he shifted abruptly, his tone growing haughty–“whatever I did, I did as best seemed to me, and I have yet to learn that the Count of Aquila must give account of what he does and where he does it. You have not told me yet, sir, by what right, or fancied right, you hold me prisoner.”

“Have I not, indeed? See you no link between your offence and your presence near Sant’ Angelo on that day?”

“If I am to apprehend that you have had me brought here with this indignity to set me riddles for your amusement, I am enlightened and yet amazed. I am no court buffoon.”

“Words, words,” snapped the Duke. “Do not think to beguile me with them.” With a short laugh he turned from Francesco to those upon the dais. “You will be marvelling, sirs, and you, my lady mother, upon what grounds I have had this traitor seized. You shall learn. On the night of the Tuesday before Easter seven traitors met at Sant’ Angelo to plot my overthrow. Of those, the heads of four may be seen on the walls of Babbiano now; the other three made off, but there stands one of them–the one that was to have occupied this throne after they had unseated me.”

The eyes of all were now upon the young Count, whilst his own glance strayed to the face of Lodi, on which there was written a consternation so great that it must have betrayed him had the Duke but chanced to look his way. A pause ensued which none present dared to break. Gian Maria seemed to await an answer from Francesco; but Francesco stood impassively regarding him, and made no sign that he would speak. At length, unable longer to endure the silence:

“E dunque?” cried the Duke. “Have you no answer?”

“I would submit,” returned Francesco, “that I have heard no question. I heard a wild statement, extravagant and mad, the accusation of one demented, a charge of which no proofs can be forthcoming, else I take it you had not withheld them. I ask you, sirs, and you, Madonna,” he continued, turning to the others, “has his Highness said anything to which an answer can by any means be necessary?”

“Is it proofs you lack?” cried Gian Maria, but less confidently than hitherto, and, so, less fiercely. A doubt had arisen in his mind born of this strange calm on the part of Francesco–a calm that to Gian Maria’s perceptions seemed hardly the garb of guilt, but belonged rather to one who is assured that no peril threatens him. “Is it proofs you lack?” quoth the Duke again, and then with the air of a man launching an unanswerable question: “How came you by the wound you had that day in the woods?”

A smile quivered on Francesco’s face, and was gone.

“I asked for proofs, not questions,” he protested wearily. “What shall it prove if I had a hundred wounds?”

“Prove?” echoed the Duke, less and less confident of his ground, fearing already that he had perhaps gone too fast and too far upon the road of his suspicions. “It proves to me, when coupled with your presence there, that you were in the fight the night before.”

Francesco stirred at that. He sighed and smiled at once. Then assuming a tone of brisk command:

“Bid these men begone,” he said, pointing to his guards. “Then hear me scatter your foul suspicions as the hurricane scatters the leaves in autumn.”

Gian Maria stared at him in stupefaction. That overwhelming assurance, that lofty, dignified bearing which made such a noble contrast with his own coarse hectoring, were gradually undermining more and more his confidence. With a wave of his hand he motioned the soldiers to withdraw, obeying almost unconsciously the master-mind of his cousin by which he was as unconsciously being swayed.

“Now, Highness,” said Francesco, as soon as the men were gone, “before I refute the charge you make, let me clearly understand it. From the expressions you have used I gather it to be this: A conspiracy was laid a little time ago at Sant’ Angelo which had for object to supplant you on the throne of Babbiano and set me in your place. You charge me with having had in that conspiracy a part–the part assigned to me. It is so, is it not?”

Gian Maria nodded.

“You have put it very clearly,” he sneered. “If you can make out your innocence as clearly, I shall be satisfied that I have wronged you.”

“That this conspiracy took place we will accept as proven, although to the people of Babbiano the proof may have seemed scant. A man, since dead, had told your Highness that such a plot was being hatched. Hardly, perhaps, in itself, evidence enough to warrant setting the heads of four very valiant gentlemen on spears, but no doubt your Highness had other proofs to which the rest of us had no access.”

Gian Maria shivered at the words. He recalled what Francesco had said on the occasion of their last talk upon this very subject; he remembered the manner of his own reception that day in Babbiano.

“We must be content that it is so,” calmly pursued Francesco. “Indeed, your Highness’s action in the matter leaves no doubt. We will accept, then, that such a plot was laid, but that I had a part in it, that I was the man chosen to take your place–need I prove the idleness of such a charge?”

“You need, in truth. By God! you need, if you would save your head.”

The Count stood in an easy posture, his hands clasped behind his back, and smiled up at his cousin’s pale face and scowling brow.

“How mysterious are the ways of your justice, Cousin,” he murmured, with infinite relish; “what a wondrous equity invests your methods! You have me dragged here by force, and sitting there, you say to me: ‘Prove that you have not conspired against me, or the headsman shall have you!’ By my faith! Soloman was a foolish prattler when compared with you.”

Gian Maria smote the gilded arm of his chair a blow for which he was to find his hand blackened on the morrow.

“Prove it!” he screamed, like a child in a pet. “Prove it, prove it, prove it!”

“And have my words not already proven it?” quoth the Count, in a voice of such mild wonder and gentle protest that it left Gian Maria gasping.

Then the Duke made a hasty gesture of impatience.

“Messer Alvari,” he said, in a voice of concentrated rage, “I think you had best recall the guard.”

“Wait!” the Count compelled him, raising his hand. And now it was seen that the easy insouciance was gone from his face: the smile had vanished, and in its place there was a look of lofty and contemptuous wrath. “I will repeat my words. You have dragged me here before you by force, and, sitting there on the throne of Babbiano, you say: ‘Prove that you have not conspired against me if you would save your head.'” A second he paused, and noted the puzzled look with which all regarded him.

“Is this a parable?” sneered the uncomprehending Duke.

“You have said it,” flashed back Francesco. “A parable it is. And if you consider it, does it not afford you proof enough?” he asked, a note of triumph in his voice. “Do not our relative positions irrefutably show the baselessness of this your charge? Should I stand here and you sit there if what you allege against me were true?” He laughed almost savagely, and his eyes flashed scornfully upon the Duke. “If more plainly still you need it, Gian Maria, I tell you that had I plotted to occupy your tottering throne, I should be on it now, not standing here defending myself against a foolish charge. But can you doubt it? Did you learn no lesson as you rode into Babbiano to-day? Did you not hear them acclaim me and groan at you. And yet,” he ended, with a lofty pity, “you tell me that I plotted. Why, if I desired your throne, my only need would be to unfurl my banner in the streets of your capital, and within the hour Gian Maria would be Duke no more. Have I proved my innocence, Highness?” he ended quietly, sadly almost. “Are you convinced how little is my need for plots?”

But the Duke had no answer for him. Speechless, and in a sort of dazed horror, he sat and scowled before him at his cousin’s handsome face, what time the others watched him furtively, in silence, trembling for the young man who, here, in his grasp, had dared say such things to him. Presently he covered his face with his hands, and sat so, as one deeply in thought, a little while. At last he withdrew them slowly and presented a countenance that passion and chagrin had strangely ravaged in so little time. He turned to Santi, who stood nearest.

“The guard,” he said hoarsely, with a wave of the hand, and Santi went, none daring to utter a word. They waited thus an odd group, all very grave save one, and he the one that had most cause for gravity. Then the captain re-entered, followed by his two men, and Gian Maria waved a hand towards the prisoner.

“Take him away,” he muttered harshly, his face ghastly, and passion shaking him like an aspen. “Take him away, and await my orders in the ante-chamber.”

“If it is farewell, Cousin,” said Francesco, “may I hope that you will send a priest to me? I have lived a faithful Christian.”

Gian Maria returned him no answer, but his baleful eye was upon Martino. Reading the significance of that glance, the captain touched Francesco lightly on the arm. A moment the Count stood, looking from the Duke to the soldiers; a second his glance rested on those assembled there; then, with a light raising of his shoulders, he turned on his heel, and with his head high passed out of the ducal chamber.

And silence continued after he was gone until Caterina Colonna broke it with a laugh that grated on Gian Maria’s now very tender nerves.

“You promised bravely,” she mocked him, “to play the lion. But so far, we have only heard the braying of an ass.”

CHAPTER XI

WANDERING KNIGHTS

That taunt of his mother’s stirred Gian Maria. He rose from his ducal chair and descended from the dais on which it stood, possessed by a tempestuous mood that would not brook him to sit still.

“The braying of an ass?” he muttered, facing Caterina. Then he laughed unpleasantly. “The jaw-bone of an ass did sore execution on one occasion, Madonna, and it may again. A little patience, and you shall see.” Next, and with a brisker air, he addressed the four silent courtiers, “You heard him, sirs,” he exclaimed, “How do you say that I shall deal with such a traitor?” He waited some seconds for an answer, and it seemed to anger him that none came. “Have you, then, no counsel for me?” he demanded harshly.

“I had not thought,” said Lodi hardily, “that this was a case in which your Highness needed counsel. You were drawn to conclude that the Lord of Aquila was a traitor, but from what we have all heard, your Highness should now see that he is not.”

“Should I so?” the Duke returned, standing still and fixing upon Fabrizio an eye that was dull as a snake’s. “Messer da Lodi, your loyalty is a thing that has given signs of wavering of late. Now, if by the grace of God and His blessed saints I have ruled as a merciful prince who errs too much upon the side of clemency, I would enjoin you not to try that clemency too far. I am but a man, after all.”

He turned from the fearless front presented by the old statesman, to face the troubled glances of the others.

“Your silence, sirs, tells me that in this matter your judgement runs parallel with mine. And you are wise, for in such a case there can be but one course. My cousin has uttered words to-day which no man has ever said to a prince and lived. Nor shall we make exception to that rule. My Lord of Aquila’s head must pay the price of his temerity.”

“My son,” cried Caterina, in a voice of horror. Gian Maria faced her in a passion, his countenance grown mottled.

“I have said it,” he growled. “I will not sleep until he dies.”

“Yet never may you wake again,” she answered. And with that preamble she launched upon his head the bitterest criticism he had ever heard. By stinging epithets and contemptuous words, she sought to make him see the folly of what he meditated. Was he indeed tired of ruling Babbiano? If that were so, she told him, he had but to wait for Caesar Borgia’s coming. He need not precipitate matters by a deed that must lead to a revolt, a rising of the people to avenge their idol.

“You have given me but added reasons,” he answered her stoutly. “There is no room in my Duchy for a man whose death, if it pleased me to encompass it, would be avenged upon me by my own people.”

“Then send him from your dominions,” she urged. “Banish him, and all may be well. But if you slay him, I should not count your life worth a day’s purchase.”

This advice was sound, and in the end they prevailed upon him to adopt it. But it was not done save at the cost of endless prayers on the part of those courtiers, and the persuasions of Caterina’s biting scorn and prophecies of the fate that surely awaited him did he touch the life of one so well­beloved. At last, against his will, he sullenly consented that the banishment of his cousin should content him. But it was with infinite bitterness and regret that he passed his word, for his jealousy was of a quality that nothing short of Francesco’s death could have appeased. Certain it is that nothing but the fear of the consequences, which his mother had instilled into his heart, could have swayed him to be satisfied that the Count of Aquila should be banished.

He sent for Martino and bade him return the Count his sword, and he entrusted the message of exile to Fabrizio da Lodi, charging him to apprise Francesco that he was allowed twenty-four hours’ grace in which to take himself beyond the dominions of Gian Maria Sforza.

That done–and with an exceedingly ill grace–the Duke turned on his heel, and with a sullen brow he left the ducal chamber, and passed, unattended, to his own apartments.

Rejoicing, Fabrizio da Lodi went his errand, which he discharged with certain additions that might have cost him his head had knowledge of them come to Gian Maria. In fact, he seized the opportunity to again press upon Francesco the throne of Babbiano.

“The hour is very ripe,” he urged the Count, “and the people love you as surely prince was never loved. It is in their interests that I plead. You are their only hope. Will you not come to them?”

If for a moment Francesco hesitated, it was rather in consideration of the manner in which the crown was offered than in consequence of any allurement that the offer may have had for him. Once–that night at Sant’ Angelo–he had known temptation, and for a moment had listened to the seductions in the voice that invited him to power. But not so now. A thought he gave to the people who had such faith in him, and showered upon him such admiring love, and whom, as a matter of reciprocity, he wished well, and would have served in any capacity but this. He shook his head, and with a smile of regret declined the offer.

“Have patience, old friend,” he added. “I am not of the stuff that goes to make good princes, although you think it. It is a bondage into which I would not sell myself. A man’s life for me, Fabrizio–a free life that is not directed by councillors and at the mercy of the rabble.”

Fabrizio’s face grew sad. He sighed profoundly, yet since it might not be well for him that he should remain over-long in talk with one who, in the Duke’s eyes, was attainted with treason, he had not leisure to insist with persuasions, which, after all, he clearly saw must in the end prove barren.

“What was the salvation of the people of Babbiano,” he murmured, “was also your Excellency’s, since did you adopt the course I urge there would be no need to go in banishment.”

“Why, this exile suits me excellently well,” returned Francesco. “Idle have I been over-long, and the wish to roam is in my veins again. I’ll see the world once more, and when I weary of my vagrancy I can withdraw to my lands of Aquila, and in that corner of Tuscany, too mean to draw a conqueror’s eye, none will molest me, and I shall rest. Babbiano, my friend, shall know me no more after to-night. When I am gone, and the people realise that they may not have what they would, they may rest content perhaps with what they may.” And he waved a hand in the direction of the doors leading to the ducal chamber. With that he took his leave of his old friend, and, carrying in his hand the sword and dagger which Captain Armstadt had returned to him, he repaired briskly to the northern wing of the Palace, in which he had his lodging.

In the ante-room he dismissed those of his servants who had been taken from the ranks of the Duke’s people, and bade his own Tuscan followers, Zaccaria and Lanciotto, see to the packing of his effects, and make all ready to set out within the hour.

He was no coward, but he had no wish to die just yet if it might be honourably avoided. Life had some sweets to offer Francesco del Falco, and this spurred him to hasten, for he well knew his cousin’s unscrupulous ways. He was aware that Gian Maria had been forced by weight of argument to let him go, and he shrewdly feared that did he linger, his cousin might veer round again, and without pausing to seek advice a second time, have him disposed of out of hand and reckless of consequences.

Whilst Lanciotto was left busy in the ante-room the Count passed into his bedchamber attended by Zaccaria, to make in his raiment such changes as were expedient. But scarce had he begun when he was interrupted by the arrival of Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, whom Lanciotto ushered in. Francesco’s face lighted at sight of his friend, and he held out his hand.

“What is it that has happened?” cried the young gallant, adding that which showed his question to be unnecessary, for from Fabrizio da Lodi he had had the whole story of what was befallen. He sat himself upon the bed, and utterly disregarding the presence of Zaccaria–whom he knew to be faithful–he attempted to persuade the Count where Fabrizio had failed. But Paolo cut him short ere he had gone very far.

“Have done with that,” he said, and for all that he said it with a laugh, determination sounded sturdy in his accents. “I am a knight-errant, not a prince, and I’ll not be converted from one to the other. It were making a helot of a free man, and you do not love me, Fanfulla, if you drive this argument further. Do you think me sad, cast down, at the prospect of this banishment? Why, boy, the blood runs swifter through my veins since I heard the sentence. It frees me from Babbiano in an hour when perhaps my duty–the reciprocation of the people’s love–might otherwise have held me here, and it gives me liberty to go forth, my good Fanfulla, in quest of such adventure as I chose to follow.” He threw out his arms, and displayed his splendid teeth in a hearty laugh.

Fanfulla eyed him, infected by the boisterous gladness of his mood.

“Why, true indeed, my lord,” he acknowledged, “you are too fine a bird to sing in a cage. But to go knight-erranting—-” He paused, and spread his hands in protest. “There are no longer dragons holding princesses captive.”