THE BANNER OF THE BULL
The author of “Scaramouche” has no equal among modern Writers in his dramatic and colorful portrayal of the characters and episodes of a bygone day.
THE Secretary of State of the Signory of Florence urged his mule across the bridge that spans the Misa, and drawing rein upon the threshold of the town of Sinigaglia, stood there at gaze. On his right to westward the sun was sinking to the distant hazy line of
the Apennines, casting across the heaven an incendiary glow to blend with that of the flames that rose above the city.
The secretary hesitated. His nature was gentle and almost timid, as becomes a student and a man of thought,
being in his own case in violent contrast to the ruthless directness of his theories. Scanning the scene before him with the wide-set, observant eyes that moved so deliberately in his astute, olive-tinted face, he wondered uneasily how things might have fared with Cesare Borgia. Uproar reached him, completing the tale of violence which was borne to his senses already by the sight of the flames. The uneasy guards at the gate who had watched him closely, mistrusting his hesitation, hailed him at last, demanding
to know his business. He disclosed himself, whereupon they respectfully bade him to pass on and enjoy an ambassador’s immunity.
Thus bidden he conquered his hesitation. touched his mule w ith the spur and pushed on through the slush and snow that had accumulated about the gateway into the borgo. where he found a comparative calm, past the marketplace which was deserted, and on towards the palace.
The clamour, he observed, came all from the eastern quarter of the town, which he knew—for he was a surprisingly well-informed gentleman, this Florentine—to be inhabited by the Venetian traders and the prosperous Jews. Hence he argued logicallyfor he was ever logical that the main issue was decided and that the uproar was that of looting soldiery; and knowing as he did the rigour w ith which looting was forbidden to the followers of the Duke of Valentinois, the only sane conclusion seemed to him to be that notwithstanding all the guile and craft at his command, the Duke had been worsted in the encounter with his mutinous condottieri. And yet in his wisdom and in his knowledge of men Messer Macchiavelli hesitated to accept such a conclusion, however much the facts might seem to thrust it upon him. He guessed something of Cesare Borgia's design in coming to Sinigaglia to make peace with the rebels and settle terms for the future. He knew that the Duke had been prepared for treachery— that he had done no more than pretend to walk into a trap, having taken care first to make himself master of its springs. That in spite of this those springs should have snapped upon him, the secretary could not believe. And yet undoubtedly pillage was toward, and pillage was forbidden by the Duke.
MARVELLING, then, Messer Macchiavelli rode on up the steep street towards the palace. Soon his progress was arrested. The narrow way was thronged and solid with humanity; a great mob surged before the palace.
Upon one of its balconies in the distance he could faintly discern the figure of a man. and since this man was gesticulating. the secretary concluded that he was haranguing the multitude.
Messer Macchiavelli leaned from the saddle to question a rustic on the outskirts of the mob.
"What is the matter. What is happening?” quoth he. "The devil knows,” answered the man addressed. “His Potency the Duke with Messer Vitellozzo and some others went into the palace two hours since. Then comes one of his captains—they say it was Messer da Corella— with soldiery, and they went down into the borgo where they say they have fallen upon the troops of the Lord of Fermo. and the Lord of Fermo is in the palace too, and it is New Year’s Day to-morrow. By the Madonna, an ugly beginning to the new v'ear this, whatever may be happening! They are burning and looting and fighting down there, until they have made the borgo into the likeness of hell, and in the palace the devil knows what may be happening. Gesù Maria! These be dread times, sir. They do say .
Abruptly he checked his loquaciousness under the discomposingly fixed gaze of those sombre, observant eyes. He examined his questioner more closely, noted his sable, clerkly garments heavily trimmed with fur, mistrusted instinctively that crafty, shaven face with its prominent cheek-bones, and bethought him that he were perhaps wiser not to make himself further the mouthpiece of popular rumour.
"But then,” he ended abruptly, therefore, “they say so much that I know not what they say.”
The thin lines of Macchiavelli’s lips lengthened slightly in a smile, as he penetrated the reasons of the man’s sudden reticence. He pressed for no further information, for indeed he needed no more than already he had received. If the duke's men under Corella had fallen upon Oliverotto da Fermo’s troops, then his expectations had been realized, and Cesare Borgia, meeting treachery with treachery, had stricken down the mutinous condottieri.
A sudden surge of the crowd drove the Florentine orator and the rustic apart. A roar rose from the throat of the multitude.
Standing in his stirrups, Macchiavelli beheld in the distance before the palace a glitter of arms and the flutter-
ing of bannerols bearing the bull device of the House of Borgia. The lances formed into a double file, and this clove a way through that human press, coming rapidly down the street towards the spot where the secretary’s progress had been arrested.
The crowd was flung violently back like water before the prow of a swift-sailing ship. Men stumbled against one another, each in turn cursing the one who thrust against him, and in a moment all was fierce clamour and seething anger; yet above it all rang the acclaiming shout:
On came the glittering riders, jingling and clanking, and at their head on a powerful black charger rode a splendid figure, all steel from head to foot. His vizor was open, and the pale young face within was set and stern. The beautiful hazel eyes looked neither to right nor left, taking no heed of the acclamations thundering all about him. Yet those eyes saw everything whilst seeming to see nothing. They saw the Florentine orator, and seeing him, they kindled suddenly.
Macchiavelli swept off his bonnet, and bowed to the very withers of his mule to salute the conqueror. The pale young face smiled almost with a certain conscious pride, for the Duke was well pleased to have as it were the very eyes of Florence upon him in such a moment. He drew rein on a level with the envoy.
“O/u, Ser Xiccolo!" he called.
The lances cleared a path speedily, flinging the crowd still farther back, and Messer Macchiavelli walked his mule forward in answer to that summons.
“It is done,” the Duke announced. “I have fulfilled no less than I promised. What it was I promised you will now understand. I made my opportunity, and having made it I employed it—so well that I hold them fast, Vitelli, Oliverotto, Gravina and Giangiordano’s bastard. The other Orsini, Gianpaolo Baglioni and Pétrucci will follow. My net is wide flung, and to the last man they shall pay the price of treachery.”
He paused, waiting for words that should tell him not
what opinion might be Messer Macchiavelli’s own, but what reception such news was likely to receive in Florence. The secretary, however, had all the caution of the astute. He was not addicted to any unnecessary expressions of opinion. His face remained inscrutable. He bowed in silence, as one who accepts a statement without consciousness of the right to comment.
A FROWN flickered between the splendid eyes that were considering
“I have done a very great service to your masters, the Signory of Florence,” he said, almost in a tone of challenge.
“The Signory shall be informed, Magnificent,” was the orator’s evasive answer, “and I shall await the honour of conveying to your potency the Signory’s felicitations.”
“Much has been done,” the Duke resumed. “But much is yet to do, and who shall tell me what?” He looked at Macchiavelli, and his eyes invited counsel.
“Does your potency ask me?” “Indeed,” said the Duke.
The Duke stared; then laughed. “For theory,” he said. “The practice you can leave to me.”
Macchiavelli’s eyes narrowed. “When I speak of theory,” he explained, “I mean an opinion personal to myself— not a pronouncement of the Florentine Secretary.” He leaned a little nearer. “When a prince has enemies,” he said quietly, “he must deal with them in one of two ways; he must either convert them into friends or put it beyond their power to continue his enemies.”
The Duke smiled slowly. “Where learnt you that?” he asked.
“I have watched with admiration your potency’s rise to greatness,” said the Florentine.
“And you have melted down my actions into maxims to govern my future?”
“More, Magnificent, to govern all future princes.”
The Duke looked squarely into that sallow, astute face with its sombre eyes and prominent cheek-bones.
“I sometimes wonder which you are— courtier or philosopher,” he said. “But your advice is timely—either make them friends or put it beyond their power to continue my enemies. I could not again trust them as my friends. You will see that. Therefore . . . . ” He broke off. “But we will talk of this again, when I return. Corella’s troops have got out of hand; they are burning and looting in the borgo, and I go to set a term to it, or else peddling Venice will be in arms to recover the ducats plundered from her shopkeepers. You will find entertainment in the palace. Await me there.”
HE MADE a sign to his lances, wheeled, and rode on briskly about his task, while Macchiavelli in his turn went off in the opposite direction, through the lane opened out for him very readily in the crowd, since all had seen that he was one who enjoyed the exalted honour of the Duke’s acquaintance.
The Florentine made his way to the palace as he had been bidden, and thence he indited his famous letter to the Signory of Florence, in which he announced these happenings to his masters. He informed them of the manner adopted by Cesare Borgia to turn the tables upon those who had not kept faith with him, he told them how his master-stroke had resulted in the seizure of the three Orsini, of Vitellozzo Vitelli, and Oliverotto, Lord of Fermo, and he concluded with the opinion: “I greatly doubt if any of them will be alive by morning.”
Anon he was to realize that for all his penetration he had failed to plumb to its full depth the craft and guile of Cesare Borgia. So astute an observer should have perceived that to have wrung the necks of the Orsini out of hand would have been to spread consternation and alarm in the lair of the bear in Rome, and that being alarmed the powerful Cardinal Orsini, his brother Guillo and his nephew Matteo (with whom we are more particularly concerned) might seek safety in flight, and in that safety concert reprisals.
Macchiavelli’s failure to foresee the course which such considerations must dictate to Cesare is another proof of how much the Duke was the Florentine's master in statecraft.
The Lords of Fermo and Castello were dealt with as
Macchiavelli expected. They were formally judged, found guilty of treason against their overlord, and strangled that same night—back to back, with the same rope, it is said—in the Palace of the Prefecture of Sinigaglia, whereafter their bodies were ceremoniously borne to the Misericordia Hospital. But the Orsini did not share just yet the fate of their fellow-traitors. They were accorded another ten days of life, until, that is, Cesare had received advices from Rome that the Cardinal Orsini and the rest of the Orsini brood were safely captured. Thereupon at Assisi—whither the Duke had removed himself by then, Gravina and Paolo Orsini were delivered over to the strangler.
THE Duke’s net had been wide-flung, as he told Macchiavelli on that evening in Sinigaglia. Yet four there were who had escaped its meshes: Gianpaolo Baglioni, prevented from waiting upon the Duke in Sinigaglia by an illness which had proved less fatal to him than had their health to his associates; Pandolfo Pétrucci, Tyrant of Siena—the only one of them all who seems to have had the wit to mistrust the Duke’s intentions—who armed at all points had taken refuge behind the ramparts of his city, there to wait upon events; Fabio Orsini, who had gone after Pétrucci; and Matteo Orsini, the latter’s cousin and the cardinal’s nephew, who had vanished no man knew whither.
The Duke set himself the task of hunting down the first three, whose whereabouts were known to him. Matteo mattered less, and could be left until later.
“But I swear to God,” Cesare informed Fra Serafino, the minorité friar who discharged the functions of secretary in the absence of the moon-faced Agabito. “I swear to God, that there is no hole in Italy into which I shall not pursue him.”
THIS was at Assisi on the very day that he ordered the strangling of Gravina and Giangiordano’s bastard. On that same evening came one of his spies with information that Matteo Orsini was in hiding at Pievano, the castle of his distant kinsman Almerico—an Orsini this last, too aged and too inactive to be worthy the Duke’s attention, a studious man, living almost in seclusion with his books and his daughter, untouched by ambition, asking but to be left in peace, undisturbed by all the strife and bloodshed that were afflicting Italy.
The Duke was housed in the Rocca Maggiore, that grey embattled fortress crowning the steep hill above the city, and from the height of its scarred and rugged slopes dominating the Umbrian plain. He received the messenger in a vast stone-flagged chamber that was very bare and chill. A great fire roared in the cavernous fireplace, shedding an orange glow upon the empty spaces and driving the shadows before it to seek refuge in the groins of the ceiling overhead. Yet the Duke, pacing thoughtfully back and forth whilst the messenger related what he had discovered, was tightly wrapped for greater warmth in a scarlet mantle lined with lynx fur. Fra Serafino occupied an oaken writing pulpit near one of the windows, and sat cutting a quill, apparently lost in his task, yet missing no word of what was being said.
The messenger was intelligent, and he had been diligent. Not content with learning that Matteo Orsini was believed to be at Pievano, he had scoured the borgo for scraps of gossip, anticipating out of his own knowledge the very question which the Duke now asked him— though not directly—and seeing to it that he came equipped with a ready answer.
“This, then, is mere gossip,” Cesare, sneered. “ ‘It is said’ that Matteo Orsini is at Pievano. I am sick to death of ‘It is said,’ and all his family. I have known him long, and never found him other than a liar.”
“But the tale, may it please your potency, has its probabilities,” said the messenger.
The Duke halted in his pacing. He stood before the flaming logs, and put out a hand to its genial warmth—a hand so delicate and slender that you would never have supposed its tapering fingers to possess a strength that could snap a horseshoe. Standing thus, the leaping firelight playing over his scarlet cloak, he seemed himself a thing of fire. He threw back his tawny young head, and his lovely eyes lost their dreamy thoughtfulness as they fastened now upon the messenger.
“Probabilities?” said he. “Discover them.”
The messenger was prepared to do so.
“The Count Almerico has a daughter,” he said promptly. “It is the common talk of Pievano that this lady—Madonna Fulvia she is called—and Ser Matteo are to be married. The kinship between them is none so close as to forbid it. The old count approves, loving Ser Matteo as a son. And so, where else in Italy should Ser Matteo be safer than with those who love him? Then, too, Pievano is remote, its lord is a man of books, taking no part in worldly turbulence; therefore Pievano, being of all places the last in which one would think of looking for Ser Matteo is the likeliest to which he would run for shelter. Thus circumstances confirm the rumour of his presence there.”
The Duke considered the fellow in silence for a moment, weighing what he said.
“You reason well,” he admitted at length, and the messenger bowed himself double, overwhelmed by so much commendation. “You have leave to go. Bid them tell Messer da Corella to attend me.”
The man bowed again, stepped softly to the door and vanished. As the heavy curtain quivered to rest, Cesare sauntered across to one of the windows and stared out upon the bleak landscape stretching for miles before him in the cold light of that January afternoon. Above the distant blue-grey mass of the Apennines the brooding sky was slashed with gold. The River Chiagi winding its way to the Tiber lay like a silver ribbon upon the dull green plain. Cesare stared before him a while seeing nothing of all this. Then abruptly he turned to Fra Serafino, who was now testing the quill he had cut. “What is to be done to take this fellow?” he asked.
It was his way to seek advice of all men, yet never following any but such as jumped with his own wishes. And where no man’s advice consorted with his own notions, he acted upon his own notions none the less.
The gaunt-faced monk looked up, almost startled by the suddenness of the question. Knowing the Duke’s way, and knowing that Corella had been sent for, Fra Serafino put two and two together, and presented the Duke with what he conceived to be the total sum.
“Send ten lances to fetch him from Pievano,” he replied.
“Ten lances—fifty men....
Hum! And if Pievano were to throw up its bridges, and resist?”
“Send another twenty lances and a gun,” said Agabito.
The Duke considered him, smiling faintly.
“You prove to me that you know nothing of Pievano, and still less of men. Fra Serafino. I wonder do you know anything of w omen?”
“God forbid!” ejaculated the monk, utterly scandalized.
“Then are you worthless as a counsellor in this,” was the Dukels conclusion. “I had hoped you could have imagined yourself a woman for a moment.”
“Imagine myself a woman?” quoth Fra Serafino, his deep-set eyes staring.
“That you might tell me what manner of man would be likeliest to delude you. You see, Pievano is a rabbit warren. You might conceal an army there, how much more easily a single man. And I do not intend to alarm the Count Almerico into sending to earth a guest whom we are not absolutely sure that he is harbouring. You see the difficulty, I trust? To resolve it I shall need a man of little heart and less conscience; a scoundrel who is swayed by nothing but his own ambition, who cares for nothing but his own advancement; and it is an inevitable condition that he should be of an exterior that is pleasing to a woman and likely to command her confidence.
Now where shall I find me such a paragon?”
But Fra Serafino had no answer. He was lost in an amazed consideration of the crooked underground ways by which Cesare burrowed to his ends. And then Corella clanked in, booted, bearded, stalwart and stiff, the very type of the condottiero.
' I 'HE Duke turned, and considered him in silence at long length. In the end he shook his head.
“No,” he said, “you are not the man. You are too much the soldier, too little the courtier, too much the swordsman, too little the lute-player, and I think that you are almost ugly. If you were a woman, Fra Serafino, should you not consider him an ugly fellow?”
“I am not a woman, Magnificent...”
“That is all too evident,” the Duke deplored.
“And I do not know what I should think if I were a woman. Probably I should not think at all, for I do not believe that women think.”
“Misogynist,” said the Duke.
“God be thanked,” said Fra Serafino devoutly.
The Duke returned to the consideration of his captain. “No,” he said again. “The essence of success is to choose the right tools for the work in hand: and you are not the tool for this, Michele. I want a handsome, greedy, unscrupulous scoundrel, who can both ply a sword and lisp a sonnet. Where shall I find one answering that description. Ferra.. 'a Isola would have been the very man, but poor Ferrante died of one of his own jests.” “What is the task, Magnificent?” ventured Corella. “I’ll tell that to the man I send to do it, when I have found him. Is Ramirez here?” he asked suddenly.
“He is at Urbino, my lord,” Corella answered. “But there is Pantaleone degli Uberti, who seems in some way such a man as you describe.”
The Duke considered. “Send him hither,” he said shortly and Corella bowed stiffly, and departed on that errand.
Cesare paced slowly back to the fire, and stood warming himself until Pantaleone came—a tall, handsome fellow this, with sleek black hair and bold black eyes, martial at once in bearing and in apparel yet with a certain foppishness not unbecoming to his youth.
The interview was short. “From information that I have received,” said Cesare, “I will wager a thousand ducats to a horseshoe that Matteo Orsini is with his uncle at Pievano. I offer that thousand ducats for his head. Go and earn it.”
Pantaleone was taken aback. He blinked his bold black eyes.
“What men shall I take?” he stammered.
“What men you please. But understand the thing is not to be done by force. At the first show of it, Matteo, if he is there, will go to earth like a mole, and not all your questing shall discover him. This is an affair for wits, not lances. There is a woman at Pievano who loves MatteQ, or whom Matteo loves... But you will see for yourself what opportunities there are, and you will use them. Corella thinks you have the wit to accomplish such a task. Afford me proof of it, and I will make your fortune.” He waved his hand in dismissal, and Pantaleone stifled a hundred questions that were bubbling in his mind, and departed.
Fra Serafino stroked his lean nose thoughtfully with his quill.
“I would not trust that fellow with a woman, nor a woman with that fellow,” he delivered himself. “He is too full in the lips.”
“That,” said Cesare, “is why I chose him.”
“In a woman’s hands he will be so much wax,” the monk continued.
“I am stiffening him with a thousand ducats,” said the Duke.
But the friar’s pessimism was nothing lessened. “A woman’s arts can melt gold until'it runs,” said he.
The Duke looked at him a moment. “You know too much about women, Fra Serafino,” he said, and under that rebuke the monkish secretary shuddered and fell silent.
DANTALEONE DEGLI *UBERTI arrived at Pievano on the wings of a snowstorm that swept across the Perugian foothills, and he arrived alone. Within a couple of leagues of the little town he had parted company with the ten knaves he had brought with him from Assisi. He gave them orders to break up into groups of twos and threes and thus follow him to Pievano, each group seeking different quarters and pretending no acquaintance with the others. He concerted signals by which at need he could rally them to himself, and arranged that of the group of three who were to take up their quarters at the Osteria del Toro one at least should remain constantly at the inn where at any moment Pantaleone could find him.
Messer Pantaleone, you see, was a man of method.
He bade them, further, dissemble their true estate, and, himself adopting this course which he imposed upon his followers, he staggered some hours later over the drawbridge into the courtyard of the citadel on foot, a bedraggled, foot-sore man who seemed to be upon the point of utter exhaustion. Admitted by a groom, he reeled into the presence of the Lord Almerico Orsini and gasped out as if with his last breath an urgent prayer for sanctuary.
“I am a hunted man, my lord.” he lied. That bloody despot t alentino clamours for this poor life of mine to swell his hecatomb.” The old Lord of Pievano’s white hands clawed the carved ebony arms of his great
chair. From under shaggy brows his piercing dark eyes were bent upon this visitor. He knew well what was the hecatomb to which Messer Pantaleone referred; no need for him to ask; absorbed though he might be in his studies and removed in mind, as in body, from all worldly turbulence, yet. being an Orsini, it was not in human nature that he should remain ignorant of and indifferent to the shedding of Orsini blood. And since here was a man who. as it seemed, was come straight from the scene of strife, he was to be welcomed as one bringing news of matters closely touching the Lord of Pievano.
Yet it was as characteristic of old Almerico Orsini as it was anomalous in his day—when life was cheap and the misfortunes of others troubled men but little—that his first thought should be for this stranger's condition. Seeing him so piteously bedraggled, so white and haggard, swaying like a drunkard where he stood and breathing with obvious difficulty — in short, a man who had reached the uttermost limits of endurance—the Lord Almerico made a swift sign to the groom who had admitted him. The lackey thrust forward a rushseated chair, and into this Messer Pantaleone sank limply yet gratefully, dropping his sodden cap upon the marbled floor and loosening his great red cloak so that his soldier’s leather harness was revealed.
HE LOOKED at the Lord Almerico with a
faint smile that seemed to express his thanks, and then his bold eyes, seeming very weary now under their heavy drooping lids, passed on to the lady who stood beside her father’s chair. She was a girl, no more, of a willowy, virginal slenderness, very simply clad in a winecoloured gown cut square across her white young breast, and caught about her slender waist by a silver girdle with a beryl clasp. Her blue-black hair was held in a clump behind by a net of golden cord; her eyes, of a blue so deep that they seemed almost black, considered him piteously from out of her pale face.
Thus Messer Pantaleone first beheld her, and since his taste in women was of the rude sort that craves for swelling amplitudes of form, his questing glance passed on without reluctance to rake the shadows of that noble chamber, looking for another who was not present.
“Why are you come to me?” Almerico asked him with Inscrutable simplicity.
“Why?” Messer Pantaleone blinked as though the oddness of the question afforded him surprise. “Because you are an Orsini, and because my cause is the cause of the Orsini." He proceeded to explain himself. “Paolo Orsini was my friend.”
"Was?" The question came sharply from Madonna Fulvia.
Pantaleone fetched a deep sigh, and sank together like a man in the uttermost depths of dejection. “I see you have not heard. Yet I should have thought that by now such evil news had travelled o’er the face of all Italy. Paolo was strangled yesterday at Assisi, and with him was strangled, too, the Duke of Gravina.”
The old man uttered a sharp cry. He half-rose from his »eat. supporting himself upon trembling arms; then, bereft of strength, he sank back again.
"God’s curse upon me who am the bearer of ill-tidings,” growled the crafty Pantaleone savagely.
But the old man, recovering from his momentary collapse under the shock of that newrs, reproved him for his words, whilst Monna Fulvia stood immobile and rigid in a grief that was after all impersonal, for, although they were her kinsmen, she had known neither of those whose death this fugitive announced.
"That is not yet all,” Pantaleone pursued, as if defending himself against the Lord Almerico’s reproof. “From Rome comes new3 that the Cardinal is in a dungeon of Sant’ Angelo, that Giangiordano is taken, together with Santacroce and I know not whom besides. We know what mercy the Borgia will display. The Pope and his bastard will never rest as long as in the House of Orsini one stone remains upon another.”
“Then will he never rest indeed,” said Monna Fulvia proudly.
"I pray so, Madonna, devoutly do I pray it—I who was Paolo Orsini's friend and who to my undying shame have served the Borgia tyrant with him. For that—because Valentino knows that if I served him it was but because I served Orsini and that I am to be reckoned as of the Orsini’s family—I am now proscribed and hunted, and if I am taken I shall perish as Paolo and Gravina perished and as men say that Matteo Orsini perished too.”
TN NOTHING perhaps does the craft of the man appear so starkly a3 in this probing statement. As he spoke these words he watched father and daughter closely, seeming but to consider them with eyes of concern and pity. He saw the sudden movement of astonishment that neither could repress. Then came the girl’s question, laden with a sudden and betraying eagerness.
“Do men say that?” she cried, her eyes kindling and her bosom quickening in her faint excitement.
"It is the common talk,” said that swindler sorrowfully. "I pray God and the saints it be untrue.”
"Indeed . . Almerico began gravely, as if to reassure him, and then caution supervening, he abruptly checked. Unworldly and guileless though he might be, yet some knowledge of his fellow-man had come to him with his years, and this fugitive inspired him with little trust, awakening in him an unusual caution. Obeying it, lie altered the tone and current of his phrase. “I thank you, sir, for that prayer.”
But Pantaleone accounted himself answered, concluded that Cesare Borgia’s suspicions were correct, and that Matteo Orsini was in hiding here at Pievano or hereabouts. He reasoned syllogistically. The woman who loved Matteo Orsini would not have received
the news of his death with such equanimity had she not been positively assured that he was living. Such assurance in such times nothing short of the man’s presence at Pievano could afford. The very eagerness with \Vhich she had received the rumour Pantaleone had invented of Matteo Orsini’s death showed how welcome would be a tale that might diminish the hunt for that proscribed fugitive.
Wearing outwardly his mask of dejection, Messer Pantaleone’s treacherous heart rejoiced in this assurance that he was hot upon the trail, and that soon Matteo Orsini and a thousand ducats would be his.
But now he had to submit to questionings from his host. Almerico’s mistrust demanded to know more of him.
“You are from Assisi?” he inquired.
“From the Lord Duke of Valentinois’s camp there,” answered the emissary.
“And you fled incontinently when they strangled Paolo and Gravina?”
“Not so.” Messer Pantaleone saw the trap. In a game of wits he was a match for any ten such recluse students as the Lord of Pievano. “That, as I have said, was yesterday—before Cesare Borgia had proof of my devotion to the Orsini. But for that same devotion and the need to act on it, I might have remained a captain in the tyrant’s service. But it happened that I knew of Valentino’s designs upon Pétrucci at Siena. I attempted to send a letter of warning to Pétrucci. That letter was intercepted, and I had but time to get to horse before the hangman’s grooms should come to fetch me. I rode that beast to death a league from here, My notion was to get to Siena and Pétrucci; but, being unhorsed and in hourly danger of capture, I bethought me that I would turn aside and seek sanctuary here. Yet, my lord,” he ended, rising with elaborate show of physical pain and difficulty, “if so be you think that by my presence I shall draw down upon you Valentino’s vengeful justice, then ...” He gathered his cloak about him, like a man about to take his leave.
“A moment, sir—a moment,” said Almerico, hesitating and he put forth a hand to stay the soldier.
“What matters Valentino?” cried the girl, and quick anger blazed in her eyes, transmuting them into fiery sapphires. “Who fears him? We were base indeed did we let you suffer for your generous impulse, sir, to turn you hence who have been our kinsman’s friend. While there is a roof on Pievano you may sleep tranquilly under it.”
DON ALMERICO shifted in his chair and grunted as she brought that impulsive speech to its conclusion. His daughter went too fast, he thought. Whilst himself he should have been reluctant to have driven out this man who came in quest of sanctuary, yet Monna Fulvia outstripped him altogether in the matter of hospitality.
He spread a white transparent hand to the blazing logs, and with the other stroked his shaven chin cogitating. Then, looking squarely at the stranger:
“What is your name, sir?” he asked him bluntly.
“I am called Pantaleone degli Uberti,” said the adventurer, who had enough worldly wisdom never to make use of lies where truth could be employed with safety.
“An honorable name,” the old man murmured, nodding as to himself. “Well, well! I will leave it, sir, to your discretion not to tarry at Pievano longer than need be. I think not of myself.” He shrugged and smiled deprecatingly, a smile of singular charm that illumined as with a light of lingering youth within the venerable old face. “I am too old to weigh the paltry sum of life remaining me against a service due to an honourable man. But there is
this child to consider, and the risk of your discovery here....”
But at that she interrupted him, breaking in with the impulsiveness of her generous youth and womanly compassion.
“Who runs great risks may disregard such lesser ones,” she cried, whereat Ser Pantaleone became all ears.
“By the Host! not so,” her father answered. “We dare add nothing at present to draw attention upon ourselves. You see. ...”
He checked under the suddenly tightened curb of reawakening caution, and his eyes flashed keenly upon his visitor.
But Pantaleone’s face was dull and wooden, a mask betraying nothing of his inward satisfaction. For his quick wits had without difficulty completed the Lord of Pievano’s broken sentence, and found it confirming the assurance he had already formed of Matteo Orsini’s presence there.
SEEING himself scanned with mistrust, he chose that moment to stagger where he stood. He reeled sideways, one hand to his brow, the other groping feebly for support. Thus he crashed against a bronze table that stood near him, sent it slithering a yard or so along the marble tiles, and, missing its resistance, he fell heavily beside it and lay at full stretch upon the floor.
“I am spent,” he groaned.
They sprang to him at once—all three: Almerico, his daughter and the groom, who had remained in the background awaiting his dismissal. And whilst her father went down on his old joints to lend immediate aid, Madonna Fulvia issued orders briskly to the gaping lackey.
“Fetch Mario, quickly,” she commanded. “Bid them bring wine and vinegar and napkins. Run!”
Pantaleone raised his lolling head and supported it against Almerico’s knee. He opened dull eyes, and babbled incoherent excuses for thus discomposing them. This manifestation of concern for them at such a moment touched them profoundly when coupled with his condition; it melted the old Orsini’s lingering mistrust as snow upon the hills is melted by the April suns. The man’s extremity was dire and obvious—and what could have produced it but the tribulations of which he told?
CAME Mario—a short, sturdy fellow with a face that was the colour of clay, and so ridged and pitted by smallpox that it seemed no more than a hideous mask, a grotesque simulacrum of a human countenance. He was nominally the castellan of Pievano; in effect he was many things, a factotum including in his manifold accomplishments the arts of chirurgeon, horse-leech, and barber. He was rigidly honest, faithful, self-sufficient, and ignorant.
In his wake now as acolytes came a groom, Monna Fulvia’s own woman, and Raffaele the page. Among them they bore flasks and flagons, napkins and a silver basin. With the others they made a group about Ser Pantaleone, whilst Mario went down on one knee beside him and fumbled his pulse, his countenance grave and oracular.
This pulse-feeling was a piece of impressive mummery, no more. For whatever irregularity Mario had discovered there, his prescription would have varied nothing. Finding no irregularity whatever, it still varied nothing.
“Exhaustion. Ha!” he diagnosed. “A little bloodletting will revive him. I’ll ease him of some six ounces, and all will be well.” He rose. “Vincenzo, lend a hand, and we’ll carry him to bed. You, Raffaele, light the way for us.”
So Mario and the groom lifted up our gentleman between them. The page took up one of the gilt candlesticks that stood taller than himself upon the floor, and went ahead. The rear was brought up by Virginia, the waiting-maid, and thus in some sort of state was Messer Pantaleone degli Uberti carried to bed and established at Pievano.
PANTALEONE awoke refreshed upon the morrow, none the worse for the loss of the six ounces of blood upon which Mario’s chirurgy had insisted and to which he himself had been forced to submit that he might play out his part.
He found his room suffused with the pale sunshine of a January morning and fragrant with the subtle, refreshing perfume of lemon verbena steeped in potent vinegar; he found it occupied by the page Raffaele, a graceful stripling with a lovely impudent face and smooth hair that was the colour of buttercups.
“For lack of a man to serve you they have sent me,” the page explained himself.
Pantaleone considered the supple figure in its suit of green that fitted it like a skin.
“And what are you?” he wondered. “A lizard?”
“I am glad to see you are mending,” said the boy. “Impudence, they tell me, is a sign of health.”
“And they tell it you often, I’ve no doubt, and find you healthy in excess,” said Pantaleone, smiling grimly.
“Gesù!” said the boy, with uplifted eyes. “I’ll bear news of your complete recovery to my lord.”
“Stay,” Pantaleone bade him, desiring to have a certain matter explained. “Since you were sent to serve, give me first to eat. I may be an indifferent Christian, seeing that I have in a sense been in the service of the Pope; but I find it difficult to fast in Lent and impossible in any other season. There is a bowl yonder, steaming. Let it be employed in the service for which it was designed.”
Raffaele fetched the bowl which contained a measure of broth, and with it a platter bearing a small wheaten loaf. He also fetched a silver basin with water and a napkin. But these Pantaleone waved impatiently away. He had been reared in camps, not courts, and was out of sympathy with the affectations of mincing fellows who carry washing to excess.
HE DRANK a portion of the soup noisily, broke bread and munched it, considered the page gravely, and set out upon his quest of the information which he conceived was to be gathered.
“For lack of men they sent you to me,” he said, pondering. “How come they to lack men at Pievano? The Lord Almerico is a great and potent lord, such as should not want for lackeys. Whence, then, this lack of men?” The boy perched himself upon the bed. “Whence are you, Messer Pantaleone?” he inquired.
“I? I am from Perugia,” said the condottiero.
“And is it not known in Perugia that the Lord Almerico is above all things a man of peace—of peace and books. He is more concerned with Seneca than with any tyrant in Italy.”
“With whom?” asked Pantaleone.
"With Seneca,” the boy repeated, rather impatiently. “Who is he?” quoth Pantaleone, staring.
“A philosopher,” said Raffaele. “My lord loves all philosophers.”
“Then he will love me,” said Pantaleone, and drank the remainder of his broth. “But you haven’t answered my question.”
“I have, indeed. I conveyed to you that my lord keeps here no such family as might be expected in one of his estate.
There are but four grooms in his service.”
“Even so,” said Pantaleone. “Out of four one might have been spared me.”
“Ah, but then, Vincenzo who helped to carry you to bed is my lord’s own body servant; Giannone has his duties in the stables, and Andrea has gone down to the borgo on an errand for Madonna.”
“That makes but three, and you said there were four.”
“The fourth is Giuberti; but then Giuberti has vanished; he disappeared a week ago.”
Pantaleone looked at the ceiling dreamily, reflecting how the vanishing of this Giuberti chanced to coincide with the vanishing of Matteo Orsini and wondering whether a link existed that would connect the two.
“He was dismissed, you mean?” he grumbled.
“I do not think so. It is a mystery.
There was a great ado that morning here, and I have not seen Giuberti since. But he has not been dismissed for I have been to his room and his garments are all there. Nor did he leave Pievano, unless he went on foot, for there is no horse missing from the stables. On the contrary—and that is another mystery which none can solve for me—on the morning after Giuberti’s disappearance I found seven horses in the stables instead of the usual six. I went there to count them that I might discover whether Giuberti had gone away. As I set little faith in wizardry I am not prepared to accept the simple explanation that Giuberti has been changed into a horse. Had it been an ass, now, I could have believed it—for no great metamorphosis would have been needed. But there it is: we have lost a biped and acquired a quadruped. An engaging mystery.”
DANTALEONE’S face showed nothing * of the keenness with which he listened to this fresh piece of indirect information of the fugitive’s presence at Pievano. He smiled lazily at the boy and encouraged him with flattery to let the stream of his chatter flow more freely.
“By the Host,” he approved him, “although you may be no more than a lad
you have a man’s wit; indeed, more wit than many a man that I have known. You should go far.”
The boy curled his green legs under him upon the bed, and smiled well gratified.
“You miss nothing,” Pantaleone spurred him on.
“Indeed, not much,” the boy agreed. “And I could tell you more. For instance, it happens that Mario’s wife has also disappeared. Mario is our castellan—he with the pock-marked face, who bore you to bed last night and bled you. Mario’s wife had charge of the kitchen, and she vanished together with Giuberti. Now that is a circumstance that intrigues me greatly.”
“It might intrigue you less if you were older,” said Pantaleone, implying something which he did not himself believe, and implying it solely as a goad.
Raffaele threw back his head, and considered the soldier with some scorn.
“You said well when you said that I had more wit than many a man,” he informed Pantaleone with pointed significance. “A man, of course, would blunder here to a prompt and lewd conclusion. Bah, sir! I am a boy, not a cherub in a fresco. You have but to see Colomba— Mario’s wife— to be assured of the chastity of her relations with Giuberti or with any man. You have seen Mario’s lovely countenance, looking as if the devil had stamped on it with his hoofs and a red-hot horseshoe on each hoof. His wife’s is even more uncomely, for she took the smallpox from him when he had it, which leaves them still the fit mates for each other that they were originally.”
“Precocious ape,” said Pantaleone. “Your discourse is a scandal to a poor soldier’s ears. I’d have the rods to you if you were boy of mine.” He flung back the bedclothes so that the lad was momentarily smothered in them, and rose to dress himself. He had learnt all that Raffaele could tell him.
“It is the mystery of it all that intrigues me,” babbled
the page unabashed. “Can you solve the riddle, Ser Pantaleone?”
“I’ll try,” said Pantaleone struggling with his hose, but Raffaele for all his precocity missed the grimness of that answer.
Thus, then, you see our adventurer in possession of certain facts that seemed to him tolerably clear: the disappearance of the groom. Guiberti, and of the woman, Colomba, synchronizing with the appearance of an additional horse in the stables and hence, presumably, with the arrival at Pievano of Matteo Orsini, indicated that the care of him had been entrusted to those two servants. Now since had Matteo Orsini remained in the castle itself, so much would have been unnecessary, it was further to be inferred that—no doubt for greater secrecy —he had been lodged elsewhere, though doubtlessly 'and the presence of the horse confirmed this) somewhere within the precincts of the citadel.
CO FAR Ser Pantaleone was clear, and already he ^ accounted the half of his task accomplished. His next step must be to ascertain what quarters outside the actual rocca the place contained.
He dressed himself with care in the garments which the page had brought him from the kitchen, where they had been sedulously dried. Having no shoes, he must perforce resume his boots, and since the weather was chill and he would presently be taking a turn out of doors he buckled on his leather hacketon over his apricot-coloured doublet. Finally, with his long sword hanging from his steel girdle and a heavy dagger over his right hip, he made his way below, a handsome cavalier, swaggering and arrogant of port, in whom it was scarcely possible to recognize the fainting bedraggled fugitive that but yesternight had implored sanctuary of the Lord of Pievano.
The pert Raffaele ushered him into the presence of Messer Almerico and Madonna Fulvia. They received him cordially, expressing genuine pleasure at his evident recovery. All hesitation and mistrust appeared to have vanished from the old man’s demeanour, whence Ser Pantaleone inferred that meanwhile the Lord of Pievano had consulted with Matteo, and that Matteo had told him— since in fact no man could have denied it —that his story was very possibly true, and that he had been friendly with Paolo Orsini as he said. Hence, superfluously now, the circumstance of Matteo’s presence was confirmed to him yet again. Intent upon his task, he would have gone forth at once claiming the need to take the air. But here the clay-faced Mario interposed with all the pompous authority of a medical adviser.
“What, sir? Go forth—in your condition? It were a madness. Last night you had the fever, and you were bled. You must rest and recover, or I will not answer for your life.”
Pantaleone laughed—he had a deeply tuneful laugh that was readily provoked, for when he was not laughing with you he would laugh at you. He scorned the notion that he was weak or that the frosty air would injure him. Was not the sun shining? Was he not quite himself again?
But Mario’s opposition was nothing shaken, rather did it gather strenth.
“Since it is to my skill that you owe it that you feel recovered, let my skill guide you when I say that the feeling is an illusion, a lightness ensuing upon the relief of an excess of blood which I have procured you. Forth you do not go save at your peril, at the peril of undoing all the good I have done.”
And then to Mario's persuasions were added those of Orsini and his daughter, until in the end. seeing that to insist further might be to awaken suspicions dormant now, Ser Pantaleone, chafing inwardly but still laughing outwardly, submitted. He spent the day indoors, and found the time hang heavily, despite the kindly efforts exerted by his host, and his host's daughter to lighten it for him.
MPHE kindness which they lavished upon him, the fact that he sat at table and broke bread with them, made no slightest impression upon Ser Pantaleone. The hideous treachery of the thing he did, the vileness of the manner in which he had insinuated himself into their confidence. left him untouched. It was naught to him that he should sit there in Pievano receiving the hospitality that is bestowed upon a friend.
This Pantaleone was a man without
sensibilities, an egotist with a brutally practical mind which harboured no considerations but those of worldly advancement. Honour to him was no more than one of the infirmities of vain men. Shame was a sentiment unknown to him. Macchiavelli might have honoured him for the fine singleness of purpose by which he was ever guided towards the given end in view.
On the morrow at last he had his way, despite Mario’s lingering doubts that it was unwise for him to go abroad. He would have taken the page with him for company, thinking that the chatterbox might be of service to him, but the excessive hospitality of Pievano ordained otherwise. Since he would not be denied his desire to take the air. Madonna Fulvia should be his guide. He protested that it was to do him too much—as indeed it was. Nevertheless she insisted, and together they went forth.
The gardens of Pievano ran in a flight of terraces up the steep sides of the hill behind the castle, the whole of it enclosed by massive, grey, machicolated walls that had stood two hundred years and more, and resisted more than one siege in the past—though that was before the days of such artillery as Cesare Borgia now commanded. In summer these terraces were cool lemon groves and cooler galleries of vine: but now all was bare, a mere network of ramage to fret the January sunshine. Yet there were spaces of green turf, whilst the mountain above them showed brightly emerald where the snows had melted. Below them a little to the north was spread the ahining (ace of Lake Trasimene.
They came slowly to the topmost terrace—there were aix of them in all. whence a fine view was to be commanded of all that broad valley. Here they found a sheltered spot under the western wall, where a seat hewn out of granite was set before a deep tank sunk to its rim into the ground—one of a series that were used in summer for irrigation purposes. Above the seat in a little semicircular niche there was a figure of the Virgin Mother in baked earth, painted red and blue, that had become mottled by alternate rain and sunshine.
Ser Pantaleone slipped his great red cloak from his shoulders, and spread it on the seat for his companion. She demurred awhile. Was he wise to sit, was not the air too chill and was he not perhaps heated from his walk? Thus, shaping her tender solicitude in questions, she warned him. But he reassured her with a buoyant laugh that made a mock of any assumption of weakness in his own condition.
SO SIDE by side they sat on that hewn granite seat, beneath the image of the Virgin Mother above the granite tank where the water slept, a crystal mirror. So might a pair of lovers have sat; but if she had no thoughts of love for her companion—her devotion being all given to another, as we know—he had still less for her. It was not that he was usually sluggish to dalliance. Those full red lips of his told a different story, as Fra Serafino had observed. But. in the first place, his taste was all for generously-hipped, deep-bosomed Hebes, and in the second his thoughts were all concerned with the enucleation of this problem of Matteo Orsini’s hiding-place.
They commanded from that height a noble view of hills and valley, of lake and river, as we have seen. But with this again Ser Pantaleone was no whit concerned. His bold, black eyes were questing nearer home, raking the disposition of the outbuildings to the left of the rocca. and an odd pavilion on the other side occupying the middle of a quadrangular terrain that was all walled about so as to form, as it were, a hortus inclusus.
He stretched his long, lithe legs and took a deep breath of the clean mountain air, noisily like a draught that is relished. Then he sighed.
“Heigh-o! If it were mine to choose my estate in life, I would be lord of some such lordship a3 thi3 of Pievano.”
“The ambition is a modest one." said she.
“To have more is to have the power to work mischief, and who works mischief raises up enemies, and who raises up enemies goes in t
anxiety and may not know the * *
pure joys of a contented life.”
“My father would agree with you. Such is his own philosophy. That is why he has lived ever here, nor ever troubled to strive for more.” “He chose the better part, indeed,” Ser Pantaleone agreed. “He has enough, and who has enough is happy.” “Ah, but whoever thinks that he has enough?”
“Your father thought so, and so should I think were I lord of Pievano. To one in your station bearing your name it may seem no more than mediocrity. Compared with what might be yours mediocrity'it is. Therein lies the secret of your happiness.”
“You appear to make sure that I am happy,” said she.
He looked at her, and for a moment was in peril of straying into by-ways concerned with her own affairs. But he conquered this.
“I were blind not to see it,” he said in a tone of finality. “Though when I said ‘you ’ I meant not only yourself but your father also. And here lies cause enough. A noble lordship, commodious yet compact, the villeins in the borgo yonder paying tribute and fealty, the rocca itself with all accessory buildings close-packed under its mothering wing—saving perhaps that pavilion yonder in the enclosed garden,” he excepted, waving his hand and speaking idly, giving no sign that thus at last, having reached it by slow and careful degrees, he came upon the goal which had been his since first he took his seat beside her. "That now,” he continued, musing, “is an odd construction. I cannot think for what purpose it can have been built.”
There was a question plainly in the statement, and at once she answered it.
“It is a lazar-house,” she said.
Startled, Ser Pantaleone shifted uneasily, and there was no boldness now in the black eyes that stared at her. There was a sinister ring in the word that brought horrors leaping before the eyes of a man’s imagination.
“A lazar-house?” he said, aghast.,
SHE explained: “It happened in the days when my father was no more than a boy. There was the plague in Florence, and it was carried thither to the borgo. Men were dying like
flies at close of autumn. To succour them my grandfather ordered that pavilion to be built with others that have since been demolished, and he had the place enclosed by walls. There was a saintly minorité, one Fra Cristofero, who came to tend the plague-ridden and who himself was miraculously preserved from the contagion.”
Ser Pantaleone twis.ed his features in a gr mace of disgust.
“And do you keep that as a mpnument in honour of so ugly an event?” he asked.
“Why, no. There were other buildings there; but, as I have told you, they were demolished. That was the only one retained.’
“But why?” he asked.
“It has its uses.”
He looked at her with raised eyebrows, expressing a faint incredulity.
“You will not tell me that it is tenanted?” he asked in a note that was faintly jesting.
She spoke too quickly, he noted; and her voice had trembled, whilst those deep loyal eyes of hers had fallen guiltily away from his regard.
“No, no,” she repeated. “Of course, it is not tenanted now.”
He looked idly away towards the spot. She had lied to him, he was convinced already. Yet he would make assurance doubly sure. Suddenly he drew his legs under him and started half-rising with a sudden exclamation, his face averted from her ánd turned towards the enclosed garden.
And then he felt her hand upon his sleeve.
“What is it?” she asked, and her voice was breathless. “Surely. . . .Surely, you are wrong,” he said. “It is tenanted. It seemed to me that I saw something or someone move there in the shadow.”
“Oh, no, no—impossible! You were mistaken! There is no one there!” Agitation quivered in every syllable of that breathless denial.
He had drawn from her the answer to the question he had not asked. Satisfied, he craftily made haste to reassure her.
“Why, no,” he said, and laughed in self-derision. “I see now what it is—the shadow of that gnarled olive deceived me.” He looked at her, a smile on his full lips. “Alas!” he said. “You have laid what might have become the ghost of Fra., what was his name?”
“Of Fra Cristofero?” said she, and smiled back at him in her relief. But she rose. “Come, sir, you have sat here too long for one in your condition.” “Long enough,” said Pantaleone with more truth than she suspected, and he rose obediently to depart.
It was as he said. He had sat there long enough to achieve his ends, and the very suddenness with which now she urged his departure was yet a further confirmation of what he had discovered. She desired to draw him from that spot before he should chance, indeed, to see what she believed him to have imagined he had seen. Very willingly, then, he went.
A FOOL never doubts his judgment or questions its findings. He reaches a conclusion at a leap, and having reached it acts forthwith upon it. And that is why he is a fool. But your really astute fellow moves more slowly and with caution, testing the ground at every step, mistrusting his inferences until he has exhausted confirmation of them. Even where he is swift to conclude he will still be slow to act unless urged by necessity to immediate action.
Thus Pantaleone. He had added link to link until he held in his hands a fairly solid chain of circumstantial evidence, from which he was entitled to infer, firstly—and this most positively —that Matteo Orsini was sheltered at Pievano; secondly— and not quite so positively— that he was bestowed in the lazar-house in that hortus inclusus.
A rash fellow would have summoned his men and forthwith stormed the place. But Pantaleone was not rash. He counted first the cost of error. He considered that in spite of all indications it was yet possible that his quarry might not be in that lazar-house. And in that case did he take any such action he would find himself in the position of a gamester who staking all upon a single throw has seen the dice turn up ambs-ace. He would have discovered himself in his true character, and must submit to being driven forth in ignominy to bear his tale of failure to his master.
Continued on page 12
Continued from page 12
Therefore, despite his stout convictions, Pantaleone waited and watched, what time he took his ease at Pievano and savoured the hospitality of the Lord Almerico. He walked in the gardens with Madonna in the mornings, in the afternoon he would either permit Raffaele to teach him chess or repay these lessons by showing the golden-haired lad how to use a sword in conjunction with a dagger, and by what tricks—not tricks of swordsmanship, indeed, but , of pure knavery—an adversary might be done to death; in the evenings he would converse with his host, which is to say that he would listen to the Lord Almerico’s learned disquisitions upon life culled from the philosophy of Seneca or the teachings of Epictetus as preserved in the writings of Flavius Arrianus.
Pantaleone it must be confessed was a little bewildered and wearied by these discourses. A man with his full lips, and all the qualities those full lips implied, could find scant sense in the austere philosophy of the stoic, though he was faintly interested to observe the hold which that teaching had gained upon his host, and how his host appeared to have modelled the conduct of his life upon it, purchasing tranquillity as the stoic teaches. Although it was not thus that Pantaleone understood existence, yet he forbore argument and feigned agreement, knowing in his crafty way that agreement with a man is the short road to his esteem and confidence.
He earned, however, little discernible reward for all his patient pains. No such confidences as he hoped for were ever reposed in him. Matteo Orsini’s name was never mentioned in his presence, and when once he mentioned it himself t,o speak in glowing praise of the man and in a proper sorrow at his reported death, he was met by a silence that showed him how far indeed he was, their amiability notwithstanding, from having earned their trust. And he had other signs of this. On more occasions than one his sudden coming into their presence was marked by as sudden an interruption of the conversation between them, and the ensuing of a constrained silence.
THUS a week passed in which his mission made no progress, whereat he was beginning to grow restive, feeling that if his inaction endured much longer it might end by thrusting him into a rashness. No single shred of confirmation had his conclusions received, no single grain of independent evidence that the lazarhouse was tenanted. And then, at last, one night as he was taking his way to bed lighted by Raffaele, who was now become his body-servant, he chanced upon a small discovery.
His own room was over the rocca’s vast court-yard, and commanded no other view but that. But as on his way to it he passed one of the windows of the gallery facing southward towards that hortus inclusus, and as idly he looked in that direction, he caught the yellow glint of a point of light that was moving towards it through the darkness.'
He was satisfied that what he did any man in his place would have done, and, therefore, that it could awaken no suspicion. He stood still, looking at that light a moment, and then drew the page’s attention to it.
“Someone is roving in the gardens very late,” said he.
Raffaele came to stand beside him, and pressed his face against the glass, the better to peer into the darkness.
“It will be Mario,” said the boy. “I saw him standing by the door when I came up.”
“And what the devil does he do in the garden at such an hour? He can hardly be gathering snails at this season of the year.”
“Indeed, no,” agreed Raffaele, clearly intrigued.
“Ah, well,” said Pantaleone, who perceived that he was wasting time, since Raffaele had no knowledge to betray. “It is no affair of ours.” He yawned. “Come on, my lad, or I shall sleep where I stand-” First he thought of alluding to the matter casually upon the morrow, watching the effect upon Almerico and his daughter. But sleep brought sounder counsels, and when the morrow came he held his peace. He walked as usual with Madonna in the garden, though never
now on the upper terraces whence a view was obtained of the enclosure about the lazar-house. She had refused to repeat that visit of theirs to the garden’s heights, ever pleading that she found the ascent excessively fatiguing.
Pantaleone habitually wore a tiny gold pomander ball, no larger than a cherry, suspended from his neck by a slender chain of gold. He wore it as usual that morning when they went forth together; but had Madonna observed him closely she would have noted that at a stage of their sauntering it vanished.
Pantaleone remained apparently unconscious of its disappearance until towards the third hour of night—after they had supped and when it was usual for them to retire to bed, the hour, in fact, at which last night he had observed that mysterious light in the garden. Then it was that quite suddenly he leapt to his feet with an exclamation of dhr'ay that provoked their concerned inquiries.
“My pomander!” he cried, with all the air of a man whom some great mischance has overwhelmed. “I have lost it.”
MY LORD ALMERICO recovered from his concern and smiled. He quoted the stoic.
“In this life, my friend, we never lose anything. Sometimes we return a thing. That is the proper view. Why, then, all this concern about a pomander, a trifle that may be replaced by a ducat.”
“Should I be so concerned if that were all?” cried Pantaleone, with a faint show of impatience at the philosophy with which Orsini bore another’s loss. “It was my talisman—a potent charm against the evil eye given me by my sainted mother. For her sake I hold it sacred. I would sooner lose all I have than that.”
It made a difference, Monna Fulvia agreed, admiring the filial piety he displayed; and even her father had no more to say.
“Let me think, now; let me think,” said Pantaleone, standing rapt, fingering the cleft in his shaven chin. “I had it this morning in the garden—at least I had it when I went forth. I. . . .Yes!” He smote fist into palm. “It was in the garden— it must have been in the garden that I lost it.” And with a by-your-leave to his host he swung to the page.
“A lantern, Raffaele.”
“Were it not wiser to wait until daylight?” wondered Almerico.
“Sir, sir,” cried Pantaleone wildly, “I could not rest, I could not sleep in my suspense, in my uncertainty as to whether I shall recover it or not. I will hunt for it all night if need be.”
They attempted further to dissuade him, but before his wild insistence and his general air of distraction, they gave way, the old nobleman scarcely troubling to veil a sneer at superstitions that could take such potent hold upon a man. Since nothing less than to go forth at once would satisfy him, they bade Raffaele go with him, and whether this was a measure of kindly precaution, Pantaleone was by no means sure.
Forth into the night sallied he and Raffaele, each armed with a lantern, and straight they went to the first terrace. With their double light they searched every foot of the long walk, all to no purpose.
“Five ducats, Raffaele, if you find it,” said Pantaleone. “Let us divide our forces, thus are we likely to shorten the search. Do you go up to the next terrace and search that carefully, foot by foot. Five ducats if you find it.”
“Five ducats!” Raffaele was a little breathless. “Why the thing isn’t worth more than half a ducat!”
“Nevertheless five shall you have if you find it me. I value it. far above its price.” Raffaele sped upwards with his lantern, leaving Pantaleone in the act of resuming his search over ground that had been covered already. The adventurer waited until the sound of the lad’s footsteps had grown distant and until from where he stood the other’s light was no longer visible. Then he passed behind a stiff box hedge, that would screen his own light from any windows of the house, and there without more ado he extinguished it. That done he crossed the garden with as much speed as was consistent with his care to make no sound. By a clump of larches within a dozen paces of the wall of the enclosure he came to a halt, effaced
himself among the trees, and waited, watchful and listening.
MOMENTS passed in utter silence. In the distance he could perceive the faint gleam of Raffaele’s lantern moving at a snail’s pace along the third terrace on the hillside. Raffaele he knew was safely engaged for the next hour. That crafty promise of five ducats would sustain his patience against failure. Whilst any who might be spying from the house would be able to make out no more than a glimmer ■of light up yonder, and would suppose that Raffaele and himself were engaged together.
Reassured on that score, then, Pantaleone was patient on his side, and waited. Nor was his patience sorely taxed. Some ten minutes or so after he had gained his point of observation, he heard the creaking of a door, and from the postern in the inner barbican he beheld the gleam of another lantern. It advanced swiftly towards him—for a pathway ran beside the larches—and presently there came the sound of feet. Soon Pantaleone could discern the figure of a man faintly outlined against the all-pervading gloom.
Immovable he stood screened by the larches, unseen yet observing. The figure advanced; it passed so closely by him that by putting forth his arm he might have touched it. He recognized the livid pockmarked face of the castellan, and noted that the fellow carried a basket slung on the crook of his left arm. He caught the faint gleam of napery atop of it, and thrusting forth from this the neck of a wine-flask.
The man passed on, and reached the wall. A green door was set in it just hereabouts, and Pantaleone was prepared to see him vanish through, preparing indeed to follow. Instead, however, Mario paused at the wall’s foot some ten paces away from that door, and Pantaleone caught the sound of hands softly clapped, and a voice softly calling:
“Are you there, Colomba?”
Instantly from beyond the wall floated the answer in a woman’s voice:
“I am here.”
What followed was none so distinct, and asked for guesswork on Pantaleone’s part. Partly he saw and partly inferred that Mario had taken a ladder that lay at the wall’s foot, set it against the wall, mounted it, and from the summit slung down his basket to his wife within the enclosure.
That was all. The thing being done, Mario descended again, removed the ladder, and returned unencumbered now and moving swiftly.
Pantaleone found his every suspicion confirmed. As he supposed, Colomba and the groom Giuberti were ministering to the concealed Matteo Orsini, whose food was borne to him thus in the night by Mario—and no doubt in the raw, to be cooked and. prepared by Mario’s wife—so that none in Pievano should share the secret with those who already and perforce were in possession of it.
All this was clear as daylight. But on the other hand the affair had its dark and mysterious side. Why should Mario employ a ladder to scale a wall when there was a door there ready to his hand? It was very odd, but it was some detail of precaution, he supposed, and dismissed the matter with that explanation.
Moreover something was happening that suddenly drew his attention to himself and his own position. Mario, instead of returning to the house, had paused midway a moment, as if hesitating, and then had struck across the gardens towards the light that marked the spot where Raffaele hunted.
NOW this to Messer Pantaleone was a serious matter. It might, unless he were careful, lead to the discovery of his own real pursuits. He came forth from his concealment and very softly set himself to follow Mario. Thus as far as the second terrace. Then as Mario still went on upwards, Pantaleone turned quickly away to the right, thus returning to the very spot where he had extinguished his lantern. Arrived there, he turned and came running back shouting as he ran: “Raffaele! Raffaele!”
He saw the swinging lantern of Mario arrested in its progress, and a moment later Raffaele’s light, as the boy approached the edge in answer to that summons.
“I have found it!” cried Pantaleone, as indeed he had found it—in his pocket where it had been safely bestowed.
“I have found it. . . found it!” he re-
peated on a note of ridiculous triumph, as if he were Columbus announcing that he had found the New World.
He advanced to the foot of the flight of steps that led upward, and there he awaited them.
“You have found it?” quoth Raffaele, crestfallen.
Pantaleone dangled it aloft by the chain.
“Behold!” he said, and added—“but you shall have a ducat for your pains none the less. So comfort you.”
“Did you find it in the dark?” It was Mario’s voice that growled the question, and Pantaleone was quick to catch the note of suspicion running through it.
“Fool,” he answered, preferring to take him literally. “How could I have found it in the dark? I upset my lantern in my excitement.”
Mario was scanning his face closely.
“It is very odd,” said he, “that as I came this way I saw no light.”
“I was beyond the hedge yonder. That may have screened it,” Pantaleone explained, and added no word more, for he knew that who explains himself too much accuses himself.
They trooped back to the house together; Raffaele silenced by his disappointment, Mario thoughtful and suspicious of all this ado, Pantaleone babbling naively in his delight at the recovery of his precious amulet, and recounting the circumstances under which his mother had set it round his neck, with what words she had enjoined him to keep it safe, and against what dreadful perils it had been his shield—all lies that came bubbling from his fertile mind like water from a spring.
But despite all this, when at length he came to bid good-night to Mario, he saw that clay-coloured face grimly set in lines of mistrust.
He went thoughtfully to bed in consequence. He lay awake some time considering his discovery and considering still more deeply that part of it which left him mystified. At another time he might have delayed his action until he had cleared that up. But here he decided that to delay further might be dangerous. He told himself again that he had discovered all that mattered and he fell asleep promising himself that upon the morrow he would act upon that discovery and lay Messer Matteo Orsini snugly by the heels.
THE manner adopted by Messer Pantaleone in which to do the thing he had been sent to do was startling and yet precisely such as was to have been looked for in a man of his temper.
He had been that day—the day following upon the affair of the lost amulet— down into the borgo of Pievano for the first time since his coming to the castle. As a pretext for this he had urged the need to mend the leg of one of his boots which had become torn during his search last night. (Himself he had ripped it with his dagger.)
He had made his way in the first place to a cobbler, with whom perforce he remained until the required repairs had been effected. From the cobbler’s he went to the Osteria del Orso, ostensibly to refresh himself, actually to issue his orders to his knaves through the one he had posted there. It resulted from these movements of his that as dusk was falling his ten sbirri wandered singly and unchallenged over the drawbridge into the empty courtyard of the castle. No guards were kept at Pievano, as we know, and so this furtive and piecemeal invasion was neither hindered nor yet so much as observed.
When he had assured himself that these knaves of his were at hand, Messer Pantaleone, armed, booted, spurred, cap in hand, and wrapped in his ample red cloak—obviously ready to take the road forthwith—strode into the hall of the rocca, that noble chamber where a week ago he had been so charitably received. Now, as then, he found the Lord Almerico engrossed in a volume of manuscript, and Madonna Fulvia with him.
They looked up sharply, inexplicably startled by the manner of his advent. There was a subtle change in his air. It was more arrogant and self-assertive than usual; here was no longer the guest with just so much swagger as was inseparable from a soldier of fortune, but one who seemed to come mantled in authority. He did not long intrigue them.
“My lord,” he announced bluntly, “I have a duty to perform and ten stout
fellows below to help me against the need of help. Will you summon your nephew Matteo Orsini who is hiding here?”
They stared at him in utter silence, whilst for as long as it would take a man to say a paternoster. They were like people stupefied. Then at last the girl spoke, her brows contracted, her eyes flashing like sombre jewels in her white face.
“What is your purpose with Matteo?” “The Lord Cesare Borgia’s purpose,” he answered brutally. The mask of guile having served its turn was now discarded, and there was no tinge of shame upon the uncovered face of his real self which he now showed them. “I was sent hither to arrest Ser Matteo by order of the Duke.” Again there fell a pause, what time those four eyes searched his bold countenance. The Lord Almerico closed his book upon his forefinger, and a faint yet intensely scornful smile broke upon the grey old face.
“Then,” said Madonna Fulvia, “all this time we.... we have been your dupes. You lied to us. Your faintness, the persecution of which you were the victim, was all so much pretence?” There was a note of incredulity in her voice.
“Necessity,” he reminded her, “knows no law.” And although he was neither shamed nor daunted by their steadfast scornful stare, yet he grew weary of it. “Come,” he added roughly. “You have had your fill of looking at me. Let us get to business. Send for this traitor you are harbouring.”
MADONNA FULVIA drew herself stiffly up. “My God!” she exclaimed. “A base Judas, a dirty spy! And I have sat at table with you. We have housed you here as an equal.” Her voice soared upwards, from the low note of horror and disgust upon which she had spoken. “O vile, O pitiful dog!” she cried. “Was this your errand? Was this...”
Her father’s hand fell gently upon her arm, and silenced her by its mute command. The stoic in him was equal even to so bitter an occasion. It was not for nothing that he had assimilated the wisdom of the ancients.
“Hush, child, self-respect forbids that you should address so base a creature even to upbraid it.” His voice was calm and level. “What is it to you that he is vile and treacherous, a shameless thing of shame? Does that hurt you? Does it hurt any but himself?”
It did not seem to her to be a time for stoicisms. She swung upon her father in a blaze of passion.
“Aye, does it hurt me,” she cried. “It hurts me and it hurts Matteo.”
“Can it really hurt a man to die?” wondered Almerico. “Matteo being dead, shall yet live. But that poor thing being living is yet dead.”
“Shall we come to business?” quoth Pantaleone, breaking in upon what promised to develop into an eloquent discourse upon life and death, chiefly derived from Seneca. “Will you send for Matteo Orsini, or shall I bid my men drag him from the lazar-home where he skulks? It is idle to resist, futile to delay. My knaves have hemmed the place about, and none goes in or out save at my pleasure.”
He saw a change of expression sweep across both faces. The girl’s eyes dilated —with fear, as he supposed; the old man uttered a short, sharp laugh—of stoicism he opined.
“Why, sir,” said Almerico, “since you are so well informed, you had best yourself complete your task of infamy.”
Pantaleone looked at him a moment, and then shrugged.
“Be it so,” he said shortly, and swung upon his heel to go about it.
“No, no!” It was Madonna Fulvia who arrested him with that cry, sharp with a new anxiety. “Wait, sir! Wait!”
He paused obediently, and half-turned. He beheld her standing tense and straight, one hand pressed upon her bosom as if to quell its tumult, the other held out to him in a gesture of supplication.
“Give me leave to speak with my father alone, ere. . . ere we decide,” she panted.
Pantaleone sniffed, and raised his eyebrows.
“Decide?” quoth he. “What remains to be decided?”
SHE wrung her hands in a pathetic intensity of mental stress.
‘‘We. . . we may have a proposal to make to you, sir.”
“A proposal?” He said, and scowled. Did they seek to bribe him? “By the
Host...” he began hotly, and there checked. The cupidity of his nature leapt up instantly, aroused and alert. After all, he bethought him, there would be no harm in hearing this proposal. The man is a fool who neglects to learn anything from which he may cull personal advantage. He considered further. After all, none save himself was aware of Matteo Orsini’s presence at Pievano, and if the price were high enough— who knew?— he might be induced to keep that knowledge to himself. But the price must needs be high to compensate him not only for the loss of the thousand ducats offered by the Duke but for the hurt his vanity would suffer in the admission of failure.
Seeing him silent, and conceiving that he hesitated, Madonna renewed her prayer.
“What harm can it do to grant me this?” she asked. “Have you not said yourself that the place is hemmed about by your men? Are you not therefore master of the situation?”
He bowed stiffly.
“I will concede it you,” he said. “I shall await your pleasure in the antechamber.” And upon that he went out, his spurs jingling musically.
Left alone father and daughter looked long at each other.
“Why did you hinder him?” asked the Lord of Pievano at length. “Surely you were not moved by any thought of pity for such a man?”
Her lip curled in a scornful smile. “You cannot think that—not in your heart,” she said.
“It is because I cannot think it that I ask. I am all bewildered.”
“Had we allowed him to go, consider what in his vengeance he might have done. He might have summoned these men of his, and ransacked the rocca until he discovered Matteo indeed.”
“But surely that must inevitably follow now. How can we prevent it?”
She leaned towards him. “To what purpose do you study so deeply the lore of human nature if in practice you cannot probe the shallow murky depth of such a nature as this dog’s?”
He shrank back, staring at her, feeling that his philosophy had taught him nothing indeed if in an extremity such as the present one, this child could show him how it should be handled.
“Do you not know—does it not say so in any of those pages—that who betrays once, will betray again and yet again? Do you not see that a man so vile as to have played that knave’s part will be vile enough to sell his own master, will be true to naught save his own base interests?” “You mean that we should bribe him?” She drew herself up and uttered a short laugh. “I mean that we should seem to bribe him. Oh!” She pressed her hands to her white brow. “I have a vision of something that lies before us here. It is as if a door had been opened, a weapon thrust into my hand by means of which I can smite and at a blow avenge all the wrongs of the Orsini.”
“Pish, you are fevered, child! Here is no work for a weak maid. . . . ”
“Not for a weak maid—no; but for a strong one,” she broke in impetuously; “work for a woman of the Orsini. Listen.” She leaned towards him again, lowering her voice instinctively because of the secret thing she had to communicate. Speaking quickly now she expounded the whole plan that had flashed into her ready-witted mind, a plan complete in its every detail, a chain whose every link was soundly forged.
HE LISTENED, hunched in his chair, and the farther she proceeded the more hunched he became, like one who instinctively gathers himself together against a blow that is about to fall.
“My God!” he gasped wrhen she had done, and his old eyes stared at her between amazement and dismay. “My God! And your pure virgin mind has conceived this horror! In all these years I have not known you, Fulvia. I have deemed you a child, and you. ...” Words eluded him. Limply he waved his old transparent hands. The stoic in him had succumbed to the parent.
He would have dissuaded her out of his deep concern for her, his only child. But she was not to be dissuaded. She argued on, gathering enthusiasm as she dwelt upon the means by which she would at a single blow strike down this base betrayer and his master the Duke of Valentinois. She urged that there was no safety for her or him or any Orsini in her refraining from
this step upon which she was resolved. She reminded him that as long as Cesare Borgia lived no single Orsini would be safe, and she concluded by announcing that she believed her mission inspired by Heaven itself, that she a maid and the weakest of the Orsini should avenge the wrongs of their house and stay its further ruin.
“Leave me,” she said, “to deal with Cesare Borgia and his lackey, and do you pray for the souls of both.”
Upon that she kissed him, and swept out to the impatient Pantaleone waiting in the sparsely furnished ante-chamber.
She came to lean against the table, facing him across it, considering him with a glance that was steady despite the tremors agitating all the rest of her.
Pantaleone was shrewd and crafty as we know, but his craft was a shallow business when compared with her own; his shrewdness was mere low cunning when contrasted with the agile wits which her frail exterior dissembled.
In the moment in which he had revealed himself for what he was she had judged him, and she had judged him to the weight of a hair of his vile head. Upon that judgment she now went to work.
“Consider me well, Ser Pantaleone,” she invited him, her voice level and calm.
He did so, wondering whither this might lead.
“Tell me now, do you not find me fair to see, and am I riot shapely?”
He bowed, his face almost sardonic. “Fair as an angel, assuredly, Madonna. The Duke’s own sister, Monna Lucrezia, would suffer by comparison. But what has this to do with . . .?”
“In short, sir, do you account me desirable?”
THE question robbed him of breath, so amazing was it. It was a moment ere he found an answer, and by then the sardonic smile had passed entirely from his face. His pulses were quickened under her steady glance and her no less steady invitation to appraise her.
“Desirable as Paradise,” said he at last, dropping his voice.
“And to render metso, there is not merely this perishable beauty that is mine. I am well dowered.”
“It is fitting that so noble a jewel should be nobly set.” In his mind stirred now some inkling of whither she was leading him, and his pulses throbbed the faster.
“A matter of ten thousand ducats goes with me to the man I wed,” she informed him, and turned him giddy by the mention of so vast a sum.
“Ten thousand ducats?” he repeated slowly, awe-stricken.
“To the man who weds me,” she insisted, and added quietly—“Will you be that man?”
“Will I . . .?” He checked. No, no. The thing was incredible. The shock of that question almost stunned him. He gaped at her, and his handsome face turned pale under its tan.
“Upon the condition, of course,” she pursued, “that you abandon this quest for Ser Matteo, and bear word to your master that he is not to be found.”
“Of course, of course,” he mumbled foolishly. Then he reassembled his scattered wits and set them to read him this riddle. She was Matteo’s betrothed. She loved Matteo. And yet. ... Or could it be that her love was of that great self-sacrificing kind of which he had heard—but in which he had never believed—that will surrender all for the sake of the beloved? He could not swallow that. It was not in his nature to be so credulous. And then he threw up his head, his nostrils quivering. Suddenly he scented danger. A trap was being baited for him. Bluntly he said so, laughing short and scornfully.
But her reply disarmed his last suspicion.
“Take your own measures,” she in-J vited him serenely. “I understand your fears. But we are honourable folk, and if I swear to you that Matteo Orsini shall not stir him hence until this matter is done beyond recalling, so shall it be. Yet take your measures. You have the men and the power. Let them remain at their post surrounding that garden. Do that to-night, and to-morrow I will ride with you to Castel della Pieve to become your wife.”
Slowly he licked his lips, and his bold eyes narrowed as they surveyed her
greedily. Yet still he was suspicious. Still he could not believe in so much good fortune.
“Why at Castel della Pieve?” he asked. “Why not here?”
“Because I must be sure that you will keep faith. Castel della Pieve is the nearest place—yet far enough to leave Matteo a clear road of flight.”
“I understand,” he said slowly.
“And you agree?”
HIS keen black eyes stabbed into her calm white face as though they would pierce to her very soul and probe its secrets. It was incredible. To have fortune thrust upon him thus, fortune and a wife, and such a wife; for in his eyes she was growing more desirable moment by moment as he considered her. Had not Fra Serafino warned the Duke that this man would be as wax in the hands of a woman?
What greater profit—what profit onetenth as great could he look for in taking Ser Matteo, in keeping faith with Valentinois? He made, you see, no attempt to struggle with the temptation. He did not give so much as a thought to a young woman in the Bolognese— one Leocadia by name—who kept a wine-shop at Laveno, who had borne him a son and whom he had promised to marry. But all that had happened before he had risen to the rank of a condottiero and earned the regard and trust of Cesare Borgia; and of late in his new-found importance it had shrunk into a dim and distant background. It did not trouble him now. If he hesitated, it was only because the thing proposed him was beyond belief. ’ It bewildered him; a fog settled down upon his wits. By the Host! how she must love this fellow Matteo! Or was it—was it perhaps that he himself. . . .
Now here was a possibility hitherto unregarded; here something that might explain her singular attitude towards him. In saving Matteo she performed a duty, and by the very manner of it placed a barrier between herself and a lover of whom she had wearied.
Thus his vanity to complete the rout of his perspicuity, to convince him where cold reason failed.
“Agree?” he cried after that long pause. “Agree? By the Eyes of God Am I a wooden image, or a purblind fool to refuse? I’ll set a seal forthwith upon that contract.” And with arms flung wide he swooped down upon her like a hawk upon a dove, and caught her to him.
She suffered it, stiff and cold with sudden terror and repressed loathing. He held her close and muttered foolish fondnesses. Then the awakened passion mounting, it became suffused with tenderness, and he told her of a future in which he should be the slave of her slightest whim, her devout and worshipping lover always.
At length she released herself from those lithe arms, and drew away from him, a hectic spot on either cheek, deep shame in her soul and a sense of defilement pervading all her being. He watched her, abashed a little, mistrustful even.
But when she had gained the door she paused, and there for an instant her iciness melted. Her laugh trilled softly across the chamber to him.
“To-morrow!” she flung at him, and vanished leaving him distracted.
PERPLEXED, yet true to his adventurer’s character, determined to follow his fortunes and accept such chances as there might be, Pantaleone took his measures against possible treachery, posted his men for the night so as to make quite certain that his prey did not escape until Madonna Fulvia and himself should be on their way to the nuptials, and that done went to bed to dream of a roseate future ennobled by ten thousand ducats.
It is the test of your true adventurer in all ages and of all kinds that ducats are with him the sole standard of nobility. man may pawn his honour, pledge his proper pride and sell his immortal soul, so that he drives a good bargain in the matter of ducats. Thus it was with Pantaleone. Unless you are yourself one of those who measure worth—your own or another’s—by ducats, you will pity a little this man who set such store by profit. For the thousand ducats offered him by the Duke he had consented to act the part of a Judas and a traitor.
For the ten thousand ducats now dangled before his eyes he was ready to betray the hand that had hired him; and the sad part of it all is that he was convinced he did a shrewd and clever thing. That is why I invite your pity for him. He needs it both in this and in what is to follow out of it. Had he realized his baseness, he would have been just a villain. But far from it, since his baseness brought him profit he accounted himself a clever and deserving man. He was a true product of his age, and yet his kind has existed multitudinously in all ages.
Whilst he dreamt his aureate dreams, Madonna Fulvia below stairs was planning his destruction and another’s. She indited a note calculatedly enigmatic and brief that it might provoke curiosity and through this the response which she desired. She couched it in an odd mixture of curial Latin and the common language of the people.
“Magnificent (Magnifice Vir),—You are betrayed by one whom you hired to a betrayal. Before the Duomo of Castel della Pieve punctually at high noon tomorrow i will afford you proof of it if your Illustrious Magnificence is pleased to be there to receive it.
“Your Servant (Servitrix vestra),
“FULVIA ORSINI.” “From the Rocca of Pievano this 20th of January, 1503.”
And under her signature she added the two words “Manu propria,” which her self-respect seemed to demand of her.
Then came the superscription:
“To the Illustrious Prince, the Duke of Valentinois these
As she shook the pounce over the wet ink, she called Raffaele, who lay prone upon an Eastern rug before the fire, kicking his heels' in the air. Instantly he leapt to her summons.
Shb set her hands upon his shoulders, and looked steadily into his lovely face.
“Will you do a man’s work for me, Raffaele? I have need of a man, and there is none here whom I can spare. Will you ride to-night to Cesare Borgia’s camp at Castel della Pieve with this letter?”
“If that be all that is needed to prove myself a man, account it proven,” said he.
“Good lad! Dear lad! Now listen. There may be spies about the gate, and so it were best you went forth on foot from here. If you can slip out unseen it will be better still. Then go down into the borgo to the house of Villanelli. Bid him lend you a horse for my service, but say no word even to him of whither you ride. Be circumspect and swift.”
“Trust me, Madonna,” said the lad, slipping the letter into the breast of his doublet.
“I do, else I should not charge you with this message. God watch over you! Send Mario to me as you go.”
HE WENT forthwith, and soon came Mario in answer to her summons. “How is it with Giuberti to-night?” she asked the seneschal as he entered.
He shrugged despondently. “I doubt if the poor fellow will be alive by morning,” he answered.
Her face was drawn and grave, her eyes sad. “Poor lad!” she said. “Is the end indeed so near?”
“A miracle might save him. Nothing less. But miracles do not happen now.” She paced slowly to the hearth, her face thoughtful, her eyes bent upon the ground. Thus she stood for a long moment, Mario waiting.
“Mario,” she said at last, speaking very quietly. “There is a service I require of you this night—of you and Colomba.”
“We are yours to command, Madonna,” he replied.
Yet when she had told him what the service was she saw him recoil, aghast, horror stamped upon that face which the ravages of disease had made so horrible.
At that she fell to pleading with him, and with a burning eloquence she set forth the wrongs her house had suffered, spoke of the Orsini blood that had been shed to gratify Borgian ambition and to satiate Borgian vengeance, and so in the end won him to her will.
“Be it so, then, Madonna, since you
desire it,” he said, but he shuddered even as he spoke. “Have you the letter written?”
“Not yet. Come to me again soon, and it shall be ready.”
In silence he departed, and she returned to the writing pulpit. For awhile she could not w'rite, such was the tremor of her hand as a consequence of the agitation her interview with Mario had produced in her. Presently, however, she recovered her self-control, and thereafter for a spell there was no sound in the chamber, save the occasional splutter and crackle of the burning logs and the scratch of her busy quill.
Mario returned before she had finished, and stood waiting patiently until rising she flung down her pen, and proffered him the accomplished document.
“You understand?” she said.
“I understand, Madonna. God knows it is simple—terribly simple.” And he looked at her with eyes of sorrow, conveying by his glance that what he found so terrible was that one so young and lovely should have conceived a notion so diabolical as this in which she had besought his aid.
“And you will instruct Colomba carefully so that there is no mistake.”
“There will be none,” he promised. “I have the cane, and I myself will prepare it. A thorn is easily procured.”
“Let me have it, then, at daybreak. Bring it to my chamber. You will find me risen, and ready for a journey.”
AT THAT he was gripped by a fresh - alarm. “You are not yourself to be the bearer of it?” he cried out.
“Whom else?” she asked him. “Could I demand such a service of any other?” “Gesù!” he wailed. “Does my lord know of this?”
“Something of it. Enough of it. Not a word more now, Mario. Away with you, and see it done.”
“Ah, but consider, Madonna, what you risk! Consider, Madonna, I beseech you.”
“I have considered. I am an Orsini. Orsini have been strangled at Assisi, others gaoled in Rome. Matteo’s life is sought by this insatiable monster of revenge. I go there both to save and to avenge. I shall not fail.”
“Ah, but Madonna mine . . .” he
began, his voice quavering, tears of intercession gathering in his eyes.
“No more, as you love me, Mario. Do my will. You cannot alter it.”
The tone invested with a stern inflexibility that never before had he known in her—and he had known her from her very birth—made an end of his protests. She was the mistress, he the servant, almost the slave, owing unquestioning obedience. And so Mario, heavy-hearted, went his ways to do as she commanded, whilst she followed soon thereafter to seek what sleep she could, and in that sleep the strength to perform the task that lay before her.
The morning found her pale but calm when she came to confront her bridegroom in the hall.
The Lord of Pievano kept his chamber. Not all his stoicism was equal to the ordeal of sitting down to meat again with such a thing as Pantaleone, or witnessing the humiliation to which his daughter was to subject herself. However much he might esteem the end in view—since he was an Orsini before being a philosopher—he abhorred the means, and took the course of refusing them his countenance, and remaining passive. Yet—in justice to him be it said—of a certainty he would not have remained so had he known her full intent. A part of it only had she revealed to him.
Pantaleone was tortured between elation at the extraordinary good fortune that had so unexpectedly been flung into his lap and an irrepressible misgiving, an incredulity, a doubt as to its genuineness. Something of this was reflected in his glance as he came now into her presence. It had lost much of its habitual arrogant confidence; it seemed even a little strained.
He crossed to her, swaggering, since to swagger was natural to him; but there was none of the air of proprietorship that naturally was to be looked for in such a man towards the woman whom he had won to wife. Indeed, it was almost with humility that he took her hand, and bore it to his lips, she suffering it in the same icy detachment in which last night she had suffered his terrible embrace.
They sat down to table tobreak their
fast, with none to wait upon them but the silent sphinx-like Mario. Even Raffaele was absent, and Pantaleone had missed the pert lad’s ministrations on that morning of mornings.
He commented upon this, as much to ease the increasing strain of their silence as because he desired to know what had become of the page. Madonna excused the boy, saying that he was none so well and kept his bed. The truth was that he had but sought it a half-hour ago, upon his return from his ride to Castel della Pieve and the safe delivery of his letter.
THEY set out soon after, and took the road by the marsh towards Castel della Pieve. With them went Pantaleone’s ten knaves, and Mario as Madonna’s equerry by her insistence. Pantaleone disliked and mistrusted the silent, clay-faced servant and would gladly have been rid of his presence. Yet he deemed it wise to humour her at least until a priest should have given her fully into his possession.
As they cantered briskly forward in the bright sunshine of that January morning, and the miles were flung behind them, Pantaleone’s spirits rose, and conquered his last misgiving. Of treachery he had now no shadow of fear. Had she not delivered herself up to him? Were they not surrounded by men of his own? And must not the ducats and the rest follow as inevitably as the rising of to-morrow’s sun? In this assurance he attempted to play the gallant, as befits a bridegroom; but he found her cold and haughty and reserved, and when he remonstrated, pointing out that she did not use him at all like one who was to be her husband by noontide, she retorted with a reminder that between them was naught but a bargain that had been struck.
This chilled him, and for awhile he rode amain sulkily, with bent head and furrowed brows. But that soon passed. His abiding humour was too buoyant to suffer any permanent overclouding. Let her be as cold as ice at present. Anon he would know how to kindle her into living woman. He had so kindled a many in his day, and he was confident of his natural gifts in that direction. Not that it would greatly matter if she were to remain proof against his ardour. There were her ducats for ample consolation, and with her ducats he might procure elsewhere an abundance of the tenderness that she denied him.
They toiled up a gentle hill, and then from its summit the gleaming ruddy roofs of Castel della Pieve broke at last upon their view, some two leagues distant. It wanted yet an hour to noon, and if they maintained their present pace they would arrive too soon for Madonna’s schemes. Therefore she now delayed by slackening her pace a little, pleading fatigue as a result of a ride that was something arduous for one so little used to the saddle. And she contrived so well that noon was striking from the Duomo as they rode under the deep archway of the Porta Pia and entered the town.
THE DUKE’S army was encamped upon the eastern side of the city, so that Pantaleone had no inkling of his master’s presence there until they had entered the main street and saw the abundant evidences of it in the soldiers that thronged everywhere chattering in all the dialects of Middle Italy. The part he had played at Pievano had so isolated Pantaleone from the outside world, that he had remained without precise knowledge of Cesare Borgia’s whereabouts. His sudden realization that he had ridden almost into the very presence of the Duke was as a shower of cold water upon his heated body. For you will understand that engaged as he was he had every reason to avoid the Duke as he would avoid the devil.
He reined in sharply, and his eyes glared mistrustfully at Madonna, instinctively feeling that here was some trap into which like a fool he had been lured by this white-faced girl. It flashed across his mind that it had been his lifelong practice to mistrust lean women. Their very leanness was in his eyes an outward sign of their lack of femininity, and a woman that lacks femininity—as all the world knows—is as often as not a very devil.
“By your leave, Madonna,” said he grimly, “we will seek a priest elsewhere.” “Why so?” she asked.
“Because it is my will,” he snarled back.
She smiled a crooked little smile. She was calm and mistress of herself.
“It is early yet to impose your will upon me, and if you are over-insistent now, perhaps you never shall—for I marry you at Castel della Pieve or I do not marry you at all.”
He looked at her blenching with anger. “God’s Blood!” he swore, and gave tongue to that thought of his. “I never yet knew a lean woman that was not sly and a very bag of devil’s tricks. What is ■ in that mind of yours?”
And then suddenly a hoarse voice hailed him, and from among the passersby there rolled forward a grizzled veteran upon sturdy bowed legs, a swarthy oneeyed fellow, who creaked and clanked as he walked, being all mail and leather. It was Valentinois’s captain, Taddeo della Volpe.
“Well returned, my Pantaleone!” he cried. “The Duke named you but yesterday, wondering how you fared.”
“Did he so?” said Pantaleone since he must say something, raging inwardly to find his retreat cut off by this most inopportune encounter.
The veteran rolled his single eye in the direction of Madonna Fulvia. “Is this the prisoner you were sent to capture?” quoth he, and Pantaleone could not be sure that he was not being mocked. “But I delay you. You’ll be for the Duke. I’ll go with you.”
Now here was Pantaleone in desperate straits. Mechanically he moved forward with Taddeo, since to obey his very natural impulse and turn about to retreat by the way he had come was now utterly impossible. Nor could he question Madonna as he desired to do whilst Della Volpe stalked there beside him.
A dozen paces brought them to the open space before the Duomo, and there Pantaleone grew cold with fear to find himself almost face to face with Cesare Borgia himself, who rode amid a group of courtiers followed by a file of men-atarms from whose lances fluttered the bannerols with the Borgia device of the red Bull.
He was in the trap. He had been led into it by the nose like a fool by this whey-faced Orsini girl, and he lacked even the strength to brace himself against the snapping of its springs. As he checked his horse, mechanically in his dismay, Madonna Fulvia dealt her own a cut across the hams that launched it forward as from a catapult.
“Justice!” she cried, brandishing above her head what looked like a short truncheon. “Lord Duke of Valentinois, justice!”
THERE was a commotion in the magnificent group about his Highness. The wild bound of her horse had brought her almost into the midst of it.
The Duke raised his hand, and the cavalcade came to a sudden halt. His splendid eyes swept over her, and there was something in his glance that seemed to scorch her.
She beheld now for the first time this man, the enemy of her house, one whom she had come to consider a very monster. He was dressed in black, in the Spanish fashion, his doublet scrolled with golden arabesques, his velvet cap laced with a string of smouldering rubies large as sparrow’s eggs. From under this the wave of his bronze-coloured hair fell to his shoulders. The delicate yet essentially male beauty of his young face was such that for a moment it checked her cruel purpose.
A smile, gentle, almost wistful, broke upon that noble countenance, and he spoke in a voice that was soft and full of melody.
“What justice do you seek, Madonna?" To combat the sweet seduction of his face and voice she had need in that hour to bethink her of her cousins strangled at Assisi, of those other kinsmen gaoled in Rome and like to die, and of her own lover, Matteo, in peril of capture and death. What, then, if this man were a very miracle of male beauty? Was he not the enemy of her race? Did he not seek Matteo’s life? Had he not set that foul hound of his to track Matteo down?
Upon the unuttered answer to those unuttered questions she braced herself, steeled her resolve and held out the tube she carried.
“It is all set down here, Magnificent, in this petition.”
He moved his horse forward some
paces from amid his attendant courtiers, and without haste put forth his gauntletted hand to receive the thing she proffered. He balanced it in his palm a moment, as if weighing it, considering. It was a hollow cane, sealed at both ends. A faint smile moved his lips under cover of his auburn beard.
“Here are great precautions,” was his gentle comment, and his eyes stabbed her with questions.
“I would not have it polluted on its way to your august hands,” she explained.
His smile broadened. He inclined his head as if to acknowledge the courtliness of her speech. Then his glance went beyond her and rested on the scarred and savage Pantaleone.
“What fellow is that who is skulking there behind you?” said he. “You there!” he called. “Ola! Approach!”
Pantaleone gave a nervous hitch to his reins and walked his horse forward. His bronzed face was pallid, his glance furtive and uneasy; indeed, extreme uneasiness was writ large in every line of him.
Cesare’s brows were faintly raised. “Why Messer Pantaleone!” he cried. “You are well returned, and most opportunely. Here, break me these seals and read me the parchment this tube contains.”
There was a sudden stir of interest in the gay flock of attendants, a movement of horses and a craning of necks, which quickened when Madonna Fulvia intervened.
“No, no, Magnificent!” Her voice was sharp with a sudden anxiety. “It is for your eyes alone.”
He pondered her white face until she felt as she would faint under his regard, such was the terror with which it was beginning to inspire her. He smiled with a sweetness as ineffable as it was terrible and he addressed her in his silkiest accents.
“Since beholding you, Madonna, my eyes are something dazzled. I must borrow Ser Pantaleone’s, there, and be content to employ my ears.” Then to Pantaleone on a sudden note of sharp command: “Come, sir,” he said, “we wait.”
PANTALEONE a little dazed by his terror took the thing in his shaking hands, and not daring to demur or show hesitation, broke one of the seals with clumsy, fumbling fingers. A silken cord protruded from the tube. He seized it to pull forth the parchment, then with a sharp exclamation he drew back his hand as if he had been stung—as indeed he had been. There was a speck of blood on his thumb and another on his forefinger.
Madonna Fulvia shot a fearful glance at Valentinois. She saw here the miscarriage of her crafty plan, through the one factor which she had left out of consideration—the circumstance that Cesare Borgia living and moving in an environment of treachery, amid foes both secret and avowed, took no chances of falling a victim either to their force or their guile. She had not reckoned that he would appoint Pantaleone in this matter to an office akin to that filled at his table by the venom-taster.
“Come, come,” the Duke was admonishing the hesitating Pantaleone, more sharply now. “Are we to wait here in the cold all day? The petition, man!” Desperately Pantaleone now grasped the cord, taking care this time to avoid the thorn that accident or design—and he did not greatly care which, since he counted himself lost in any case—had lodged in the strands of the silk. He drew forth a cylinder of parchment, let fall the cane that had contained it, unrolled the petition with shaking hands, and studied it awhile, his brow wrinkled by the effort, for he was an indifferent scholar.
“Well, sir? Will you read?” Precipitately he responded to that command, and fell to reading aloud, his voice hoarse.
“Magnificent—By these present I make appeal to you for justice against one who has proved as treacherous to you in the performance of the task to which you set him as was treacherous that task itself. . . .”
He broke off abruptly, looking up with the wild eyes of a hunted thing.
“It ... it is not true!” he protested, faltering. “I . . .”
“Who bade you judge?” Cesare asked. “I bade you read; no more. Read on,
then. Should it prove to concern you your answer to it can follow.”
Under the suasion of that impeiious will, Pantaleone bent his eyes to the parchment again, and pursued his reading.
“. . . Believing that Matteo Orsini whom he was bidden to arrest is in hiding at Pievano, he has consented to connive at his escape and thus betray your trust in him upon the condition that I become his wife and my dowry his possession.” Again he broke off. “By the Eyes of God, it is false! As false as hell!” he cried, a sob of agony breaking his voice.
“Read on!” The Duke’s voice and mien were alike terrible.
DOMINATED once more, Pantaleone returned yet again to the parchment. . . Escape may or may not be for Matteo, but at least there can be no escape for you who read, by the time you have read thus far. We have another guest at Pievano in our lazar-house there—the small-pox. And these present have lain an hour upon the breast of one who is dying of it, and . . .”
On a sudden outcry of terror Pantaleone brought his reading abruptly to an end. The plague-laden parchment floated from his hands that were suddenly turned limp. It reached the ground, and there was a sudden alarmed movement on all sides to back away beyond the radius of its venom, beyond the danger of the dread scourge that it exuded.
Dully through Pantaleone’s benumbed wits the realization thrust itself that the thorn in the silk had been no accident. It had been set there of intent, so that it might open a way by which the terrible infection should travel the more swiftly and surely into the reader’s veins. He knew himself for a doomed man, one who might count himself under sentence of death,. since the chances of winning alive through an attack of that pestilence were so slight as to be almost negligible. Ashen-faced he stared straight before him, what time indignation and horror found voice on every side, and continued clamant until the Duke raised an imperious hand to demand silence.
He alone remained unmoved, or at least showed no outward sign of such anger as he may have felt. When next he addressed the white-faced lady, who had made this desperate attempt upon his life, his voice was as smooth and silken as it had been before, his returning smile as sweet. And perhaps because of that the doom hq pronounced was the more awful.
“Of course,” he said, “since Ser Pantaleone has fulfilled his part of the bargain, you, Madonna, will now fulfill yours. You will wed him as you undertook.”
Wide-eyed, she stared, and it was a long moment ere she understood the poetic justice that he meted out to her. When at last her voice came it came in a hoarse cry of horror.
“Wed him? Wed him! He is infected
“With your venom,” Cesare cut in crisply. A.nd he continued calmly as one reasoning with a wayward child: “It is your duty to yourself and him. You are in honour bound by your compact. The poor fellow could not foresee all this. You had not made him privy to your plans.”
He was mocking her. She perceived it, and rage surged through her at the ruthless cruelty of it. She had ever heard that he was pitiless, but in no imagining of hers could she ever have conceived a pitilessness to compare with this. Her sudden surge of anger heartened her a little, yet it lent her no words in which to answer him, for in truth he was unanswerable — his justice ever tvas, wherefore men hated him the more.
“You called to me for justice, Madonna,” he reminded her. “Thus you receive it. It is complete, I think. I hope it satisfies you.”
Her anger shivered itself unuttered against that iron dominance of his. Before it her spirit left her utterly, her high courage ebbed like water, and she became again the prey of fear and horror.
“Oh, not that! not that!” she cried to him. “Mercy! Mercy! as you would hope for mercy in your need, have mercy on me now.” He looked sardonically at Ser Pantaleone, who sat his horse, benumbed in body and in brain.
“Madonna Fulvia does not flatter you, Pantaleone,” said he. “She has little fancy for you as a bridegroom, it appears.
Yet, fool, you believed her when she promised to take you to husband. You believed her! Ha! What was it Fra Serafino said of you?” He fell thoughtful. “I remember! He found you too full in the lips to be trusted with a woman. He knows his world, Fra Serafino. A cloister is a good coign of observation. So you succumbed to her promises! But be comforted. She shall fulfil them, where she thought to cheat you. She shall take you to that white breast of hersemdash;you and the plague you carry with you.”
“Oh, God!” she panted. “Will you wed me to death?”
“Is it possible,” he wondered, “that you can find death more repulsive than Pantaleone? Yet consider,” he begged her, reasoning dispassionately, “that I do naught by you that you would not have done by me.” He began with infinite caution to peel off the heavy gauntlet of buffalo hide with which he had handled that death-dealing tube. “After all,” he resumed, “if to keep your word is beyond measure odious to you emdash;a family trait with you, Madonna, as I have cause to knowemdash;I may show you the way to escape its consequences.”
SHE looked at him, but there was no hope in her glance.
“You mock me!” she cried.
“Not so. There is a way that some would account to be consistent with honour. Cancel the bargain that you made with him, and thus cancel the obligation to fulfil your part and to submit to his embrace.”
“Cancel it? How cancel it?” she asked. “Is it not plain? By surrendering Matteo Orsini to me. Deliver him up to me this day, and the night shall be free from nuptials that are distasteful to you.”
She understood at once the satanic subtlety of this man; she saw how far removed he was from any petty vengeance such as she had suspected him to be gratifying; she was but an insignificant pawn in the deep game he played; her feelings were to him no more than the means to the one end of which never for an instant had he lost sightemdash;the capture of Matteo Orsini. That was all that mattered to him, and he was not to be turned aside by any considerations of anger towards herself. He had terrified her with the threat of this unutterable marriage, simply that he might render her pliant to his will, ready to pay any price of treachery to escape that ghastly fate.
“Deliver him up to you?” she said, and it was her turn to smile at last, but with infinitely bitter scorn.
“Could aught be easier?” he asked. “There is no need to tell me even where he lurks. I do not ask you to betray him, or do aught that would hurt your tender Orsini sensibilities.” His sarcasm was a sword of fire. “You need but to send him word of the plight into which your essay in poisoning has landed you. That is all. As he is a man, he must come hither to ransom you from the consequences of your deed. Let him come before nightfall, or elseemdash;” he shrugged, flung his gauntlets down into the mud, and nodded his head towards the stricken Pantaleoneemdash;“you keep your bargain; you pay the price agreed upon for his escape, and myself I shall provide the nuptial banquet.”
She looked at him with a deep malignity aroused by his own relentlessness and by the hateful suavity in which he cloaked it. And then her wits roused themselves to do battle with his own. She saw how subtlety might yet defeat subtlety. And as the idea crept into her fevered mind, the blood came slowly back into her livid cheeks, her glance grew bold and resolute as it met his own.
“Be it so,” she said. “You leave me no choice, Magnificent.” Her voice came harsh and something mocking. “It shall be as you desire. I will send my servant to him now.”
He gave her a long, searching glance which at first was grave and doubting, and ended by becoming almost contemptuous. He made a sign to his cavaliers.
“Let us on, sirs. Here is no more to do.” But he stooped from his saddle to issue an order in an undertone to Della Volpe who throughout had stood beside him. Then flicking his horse with the slight whip which he carried, he moved on across the square, his fluttering attendants with him. He rode away
with contempt in his heart. He knew this Orsini brood. They were all the same. Bold to devise, but craven to execute; their brains were stouter than their hearts. Their stiffness crumpled at the touch.
T^RECT and stiff upon her horse sat Madonna Fulvia, her eyes following the Duke as he rode away across the square, to vanish down the street that opened out of it. She remained thus, bemused, half-dazed, indifferent to the gaping crowd that by now surrounded her, but keeping its distance out of respect for the disease with which Pantaleone was accounted laden.
She was roused at length by a groom dressed in black with a bull wrought in red upon the breast of his doublet, who stepped forward to take her reins, whilst at the same time Della Volpe addressed her, his tone respectful but his single eye contemptuous.
“Madonna,” he said, “I pray you go with us. I have my lord’s commands for your entertainment.”
She looked at him, sneering at first at the euphemism he had employed by which to convey to her that she was a prisoner. But something in that veteran’s rugged face struck the sneer from her lips. Two things she read in that countenance: the first, that he was honest; the second, that he condemned her action.
Her glance grew troubled, and it fell away from him. “Do you lead the way then, sir,” she said. “My equerry here accompanies me, I think.” And she indicated Mario, who sat his horse rigidly behind her, a dumb anguish in his dark eyes.
“Naturally, Madonna, since he is to be your messenger. Forward, Giasone,” he commanded, and upon that, the groom leading her horse, Della Volpe striding grimly beside her and Mario riding as grimly in her wake, she moved forward towards the Communal Palace whither by Cesare’s orders they were taking her.
As for the wretched Pantaleone, she scarce bestowed another thought upon him. He had been no more than a pawn in this game of hers, even as she was became one now in the deeper game of the Duke’s. He had served his miserable turn, though net quite as she had intended. In view of the resolve she had taken, it was unlikely that she would be troubled with him again, she thought.
She had observed, though with but faint interest, that a half-dozen arbalisters had charge of him. These men, under the command of an antient, showed no relish for their task of apprehending one who was so armed that without raising a finger he could fling death about him. Accordingly they kept their distance. They made a wide ring about their prisoner, each with a quarrel laid to his arbalest, and thus they urged him away, threatening to shoot him if he were disobedient.
When at last he had been removed in this fashion, a man in the Borgia livery came forward with a flaming torch to within a couple of yards of the pestilential parchment that still lay where it had fallen. Thence he flung his torch upon it, nor went to recover it again. Torch and plague-laden parchment were consumed together, in spite of which, so runs the story, the good folk of Citta della Pieve went wide of the spot for days thereafter.
MEAN"WHILE Madonna Fulvia had been conducted to the Communal, and found herself housed in a long, lowceilinged chamber of the mezzanine of the old palace, an austere room in the matter of equipment, for Citta della Pieve was a modest township that had not kept pace with the luxurious development of the great Italian States.
A guard was placed outside the door, and another was set to pace beneath her windows; but at least she was given the freedom of that spacious chamber, and of course Mario was admitted to her presence, since he was to be her messenger to Matteo Orsini. The Duke had judged it well that it should be so. since to the testimony of such letters as she might write Mario would add the confirmation of his own evidence of a fact which might be disbelieved if related by another.
Alone with his mistress, this frail child whom he had known from her cradle, the old servant now broke down utterly
His grimness deserted him utterly, and the tears rolled down his ghastly furrowed
“Madonna mine! Madonna mine!” he sobbed brokenly, and held out his old arms as if he would have taken her to them, paternally to comfort her. “I warned you. I told you here was no work for such gentleness as yours. I implored you to let me do this thing in your stead. What do I matter? I am old; my life has reached its evening; my loss of a few days more would be nobody’s gain. But you . . . O God of Pity!”
“Calm, Mario! Be calm,” she bade him gently.
“Calm?” he cried. “Can I be calm when before you lies the choice between betrayal and death, and, Gesù! such a death. Had I carried an arbalist I should have put a bolt through his devil’s heart when he pronounced your doom; the fiend, the monster!”
“A beautiful devil he is,” she said. Then she dropped her voice. “Mario!” she called him softly. Her eyes flashed to the door, then she drew still farther from it, over to the window overlooking the square, beckoning him to follow. He went silently, staring, impressed by the mystery of her bearing.
By the window, in lowered murmuring accents she addressed him.
“There may yet be a way out of this,” she said. “You shall bear no letters, because you will need none. Listen now.” And she gave him her commands.
By the time she had done he was staring at her, his jaw fallen. Then he stirred himself out of his amazement. He broke into protests that she was but making her ruin doubly certain; he sought to dissuade her, reminded her that it was through a disregard of his counsels that she came into her present ghastly pass, and besought her not again to disregard them.
But in her headstrong way she remained unmoved, her resolve a rock upon which the torrent of his loving eloquence broke and was dissipated. And so in the end she had her way with him against his better judgment, even as last night. That there might be no mistake she repeated all to him in brief at parting.
“And to my lord? What shall I say to my lord?” he asked.
“As little as you can, and nothing to alarm him.”
“I am to lie, then.”
“Even that if need be, out of charity to him.”
He departed at last, and throughout the long afternoon she sat alone in that room of the mezzanine, save for one interruption when a couple of slender vermilion striplings of the Duke’s household brought her food and wine in golden vessels upon salvers of beaten gold.
She drank a little of the wine, but though she had not eaten since leaving Pievano early that morning, the suffocation of suspense was upon her and she refused all food.
SHE sat on by the window, and towards evening she saw the Duke returning with his gay cavalcade. Later, as the twilight was deepening, the two vermilion pages returned to bid her in the Duke’s name to the supper that was spread below. She excused herself. But the pages were gently insistent.
“It is his potency’s wish,” one of them informed her, in a tone that quietly implied that what his potency wished none might withstand.
Perceiving not only the uselessness of further denial, but, further, that her very presence below might advance the thing she had set herself to do, she rose and signed to the pages to lead the way. In the corridor another pair awaited her, each bearing a lighted taper, who went on ahead. In this ceremonious fashion was she conducted below to the great hall, where a courtly crowd of cavaliers and ladies were assembled, making her instantly conscious—very woman that she was—of her own plain and dusty raiment, so out of place amid all this glittering splendour.
The Duke himself, tall and graceful in a suit of sulphur-coloured silk with silver bands at throat and waist, advanced to the foot of the stairs to receive her, bowing to her with the deference he might have used to a princess. By the hand, which she did not dream of denying him, he led her through the throng to the double doors that were thrown open upon an inner room. Here
long tables were set for supper upon a dais that formed the three sides of a parallelogram.
At the table’s head, in the middle of the short upper limb, he took his seat with her beside him, whilst those who had trooped in after them found for themselves the places that had been allotted them. It was as if the company had but awaited the arrival of herself as of an honoured guest, and the vengeful mockery of it stabbed her to the soul. Yet she strove that naught of this should appear, and she succeeded. White-faced she sat between Valentinois and the portly Capello, Orator of Venice, braving the curious glances that were flashed towards her from every side.
That room of the Communal, which in normal times was bare and cheerless as a barn, had been transmogrified under the deft hands of Cesare’s familiars until none who knew its ordinary appearance could now have recognized it. You might have supposed yourself in one of the chambers of the Vatican. The walls were hung with costly arras, Byzantine carpets had been spread upon the stone floor, and the tables themselves gleamed and flashed with broidered naperies, vessels of gold and silver, costly crystal and massive candlesticks in which candles of painted and scented wax were burning. Add to this that gorgeous company in silk and velvet, in cloth of gold and silver, in ermines and miniver, the women in gem-encrusted bodices and jewelled hair-nets, the flock of fluttering pages, and you will understand how Madonna Fulvia reared far from the world of courts in the claustral seclusion of Pievano, was dazzled by the spectacle.
FROM a fretted gallery above the doorway came a sound of lutes, archlutes and viols, and under cover of the music—his voice so melodious that it almost seemed to sing to it—the Duke addressed her.
“I rejoice for you, madonna,” he said, “that here is spread no nuptial feast.” She looked at him, and shivered slightly as she turned away again.
“It would break my heart,” he pursued on that murmuring, caressing note of his that lent his voice a wooing quality, “it would break my heart to see so much beauty delivered into the arms of foul infection. Hence do I fervently pray that Matteo Orsini comes to-night.”
“And for no other reason?” she asked him scornfully, stung by what seemed to her such stark hypocrisy.
He smiled, his beautiful sombre eyes enveloping her white face in their regard. “I confess the other,” he admitted, “but I swear as I am living man and worship all things lovely, the reason that I gave weighs the heavier.” He sighed. “It is to save you that I pray Matteo Orsini may come to-night.”
“He will come,” she answered him. “Have no doubt of that.”
“He owes no less to his manhood,” he said quietly. Then turned his attention to more immediate matter. “You do not eat,” he reproved her.
“I should choke, I think,” she answered frankly.
“A cup of wine at least,” he urged, and signed to a cellarer who bore a gold vessel of soft Puglia wine. But, seeing her gesture of refusal, he put forth a hand to stay the servant’s pouring. “Wait,” he said, and beckoned a page to him. “A moss-agate cup for Madonna Fulvia, here,” he bade the, stripling, and the page vanished upon his errand.
Madonna’s lip curled a little. “There is no need for the precaution,” she said —for moss-agate cups were said to burst if poison touched them—“I neither suspect venom nor do I fear it.”
“So much I might have known,” he answered, “since you have displayed yourself so subtly learned in the uses of it.”
He spoke quietly and gravely, but at the words she felt herself go hot and cold at once. A scarlet wave suffused her face, then ebbed, to leave it deathly pale. His words made her perhaps realize that she had no just cause for grievance; she was a poisoner caught flagrante, and the steely treatment he meted out to her in his silken fashion was no more than her desert.
Back came the page with the gleaming moss-agate cup, which he set down before her. The waiting cellarer brimmed it at a sign from him, and his glance now inviting her she drank to steady her sudden weakness.
But the meats they placed before her continued unheeded, nor did she thereafter heed the Duke when he leaned aside to mock her still with that dread gentleness of his. Her staring eyes were set expectantly upon the doors at the room’s end. It waxed late, and her impatience mounted. Why did they not come, and thus put an end to the unbearable strain of suspense that racked her very soul?
Came pages now with silver basins, ewers, and napkins. Gallants and ladies dipped their hands and washed their fingers against the serving of the sweetmeats, and then without warning—but obeying, no doubt, the orders that the Duke had left—those portals upon which Madonna’s eyes had so long been fastened swung open, and between two men-at-arms in steel she beheld her clayfaced equerry, the faithful Mario, haggard and dust-stained, returned at last.
THE hum of conversation sank down and was stilled as the sturdy fellow advanced up the long room between the tables and came, still flanked by his guards, to stand immediately before the Duke. Not to the Duke, however, but to Madonna Fulvia did he address himself when at length he spoke.
“Madonna, I have done your bidding. I have brought Ser Matteo.”
A silence followed and a pause, ended at last by Cesare’s short laugh.
“Body of God! Did he need bringing?” “He did, my lord.”
The Duke’s glance swept over the noble company. “You hear,” he called to them, raising his voice. “You perceive the lofty spirit of these Orsini. An Orsini must needs be brought to ransom his mistress and kinswoman from the fate decreed her.” He turned to the equerry. “Fetch him hither,” he said shortly, with a wave of his fine hand.
But Mario was slow to obey. Not upon the Duke but upon Madonna were his eyes set, as if awaiting her confirmation of ! that command. She nodded, whereupon I he turned and strode down the room again upon his errand and so out.
The doors closed after him, but the silence continued. No man or woman i there but felt the oppression of the im1 pending drama, but awaited in suspense ; the climax and conclusion that were close at hand. The very minstrels in the gallery had ceased their music, and not a sound ! disturbed the geheral brooding hush.
Cesare leaned back in his high gilded chair, his slender fingers toying delicately with the strands of his auburn beard, his ! narrowed eyes glancing aslant at Madonna Fulvia. He found her manner very odd. It contained some quality that intrigued him, and eluded his miraculous penetration.
She sat there with ashen face and wide, staring eyes; so might a corpse have sat, and a corpse you might have deemed her but for the convulsive heave of her slight bosom.
And then a sound of voices beyond the door—of voices raised in sudden altercation—broke upon the general expectancy.
“You cannot enter!” came a gruff shout. “You cannot take. ...”
And then they heard Mario’s voice, harsh, vibrant and compelling, interrupting and overbearing the objector.
“Did you not hear the Duke’s express commands that I should bear Matteo Orsini to him? I have Matteo Orsini here, and I but obey his potency’s commands. Out of my way, then.”
But other voices broke in upon him, all speaking together so that they made no more than a confused and bawling chorus whose purport was not to be discerned.
Suddenly Cesare rose in his place, his eyes flaming. “What’s this?” he cried. “By the Host! am I kept waiting? Set me wide those doors!”
There was a scurry of lacqueys to obey that imperious voice. The Duke sank back into his chair as the doors were violently pulled open. Beyond it a line of a half-dozen men-at-arms made a screen that concealed whatever lay behind them.
“My lord. ...” began one of these, a grizzled antient, raising his hand in appeal.
But Cesare let him get no further. His clenched hand descended violently upon the table. “Stand back, I say, and let him enter.”
TNSTANTLY that line of steel-clad Amen melted and vanished, and where it had been stood Mario now. He paused a moment on the threshold, his face set
and grim. Then he stalked forward up the long room again between the tables. But no one heeded him. Every eye was fixed in amazed and uncomprehending horror upon that which followed after him.
Came four brothers of the Misericordia in black, funereal habits, their heads cowled, their eyes gleaming faintly from' the eyeholes cut in their shapeless vizors. Among them they carried a bier, whose trappings of black velvet edged with silver swept the ground as they solemnly advanced.
They were midway up that room before the company broke from the spell of horror which this grim spectacle had laid upon it. A loud outcry seemed to burst from every throat at once. Then the Duke leapt to his feet, and the whole company with him, and in the sudden stir and confusion none observed that Madonna Fulvia left her place at the Duke’s side.
The bearers halted and set down their ghastly burden. Mario stood slightly aside, lest his body should screen the bier from the eyes of the Duke.
“What’s this?” his potency demanded, anger ringing in his voice. “What jest is this you dare to put upon me?” And as he spoke he swung aside to where Madonna Fulvia had been, then, finding her place now vacant, his flaming eyes swept round in quest of her, and discovered her at last standing there beside the bier.
“No jest, Magnificent,” she answered him, her head thrown back, a smile of bitter, tragic triumph on her white face. “Faithful and utter compliance with your behest—no more. You commanded that Matteo Orsini should be delivered into your hands. Provided I did'that you would release me of my compact to wed your jackal Pantaleone degli Uberti. I hold you to your word, my lord. I have done my part. Matteo Orsini is here.” And she flung an arm out and downwards to indicate the bier.
He stared at her, his eyes narrowing, oddly out of countenance for one habitually so calm, so master of every circumstance.
“Here?” he questioned, and added the further question—“Dead?”
For answer she stooped and swept the velvet pall aside, laying bare the coffin underneath. That done she faced him again, defiance in her every slender line, a ghastly smile on her pale lips.
“Bid your guards hack off the lid that you may assure yourself ’tis he. I promise you he will offer no resistance now.”
Considering him, she took satisfaction in the perception that at last she had wiped that hateful, gently mocking smile from his face. He was scowling upon her, his eyes ablaze with such a passion as no man in all Italy would willingly have confronted. His hands, resting upon the table before him, were clenched so that the knuckles showed like knobs of marble.
The rest of them, the whole of that splendid company, was ranged against the walls as far as possible from that hideous thing below. In their minds, as in Cesare’s, there stirred a memory of what had befallen earlier that day of that letter that had been infected and of the manner of that infection—and a suspicion of what was yet to follow began to form in the thoughts of all.
THUS for a spell of awful silence, then Cesare’s voice rasped out a question harshly—a question that voiced in part that general and terrible suspicion:
“How died he?”
Came like a thunderbolt her answer, shrilly delivered on a high note of fierce exaltation—“He died of the smallpox yesternight. Hack off the lid,” she added. “Hack off the lid, and take him.”
But that last mocking invitation which she hurled at the Duke was lost in the sudden uproar in the noise of the wild stampede that followed her announcement. Mad with fear, men who had shown themselves fearless upon a field of stricken battle turned this way and that, seeking a way out. Cursing, they hurled themselves against the long windows that opened upon the little claustral garden of the Communal, and screaming, fainting women crowded after them to avail themselves of this shortest way out that was being forced open.
It would have needed more even than the presence of that terrible duke to have restrained them in their wild panic, in their mad frenzy to breathe the clean cold air, to quit this tainted atmosphere, to fly
this hideous plague-spot. Nor did Cesare make any effort to delay their flight.
With shivering of glass and crashing of splintered timbers those long windowdoors were swept away. Out of the room headlong, as a river that has burst its dam, surged that courtly, terror-stricken mob; into it rushed the pure, keen air of the January night.
Cesare alone, at his place beyond the board, in the flickering light of windblown, guttering candles, remained even after the last lackey had fled, conquered by his panic. Indomitable, the Duke stood there to face the woman who dared to bring a plague-ridden corpse to set at naught his authority and make a mock of his power.
“Well?” she asked him, and her laugh made him shudder, man of iron though he was. “Have you the courage to face Matteo Orsini now? Or do you lack it still, for all that he is dead?”
“Living I never feared him,” he blazed out, unworthily it must be confessed.
“Then you will not fear him dead,” said she, and turned fiercely upon her equerry. “Here, Mario, you who have -had the scourge and therefore need no longer fear it, prize off this lid. Give Matteo room to strike even in death.”
But the Duke waited for no more. Panic took him, too; and he was known to confess to it thereafter, adding that it was the only occasion in all his life upon which he had been face to face with fear, he who so often had looked death in the eyes without quailing.
“Blood of God!” he cried, and on that fierce oath he sprang from the table, and flung through the nearest window in the wake of his vanished court. Outside they heard him shouting for his horse, and they heard too, the clamour of answering voices.
Within ten minutes he and his noble company were in the saddle, scudding through the night away from Castel della Pieve and the dread plague it harboured.
■ As that thunder of hoofs receded, Madonna Fulvia, who had remained by the coffin with no word spoken, bade the men take up their burden once more. Laden with it they passed out of that room, all littered with the now unheeded treasures that had been assembled in the Duke’s honour. Madonna and Mario walked ahead, the coffin was borne after them. They crossed the hall and quitted the palace, none hindering, indeed all fleeing before their approach. Horses were found for herself and Mario; the bearers came on foot with their burden. Thus they took the road by the marshes back to Pievano in the dark.
WHEN they had put a league or so between themselves and Citta della Pieve, she spoke for the first time.
“How was it with Giuberti to-day, Mario?” she asked.
“He died at noon, Madonna,” was the answer. “God be praised, there is no other case of smallpox yet, and by His grace there will be none. Our precautions were well taken, and they will be to the end. Colomba herself dug his grave and gave him burial deep in the enclosed garden. The lazar-house was in flames when I left Pievano, so that all source of infection may be destroyed, and Colomba herself will set up a tent in the enclosure and abide there until ail danger of her carrying the scourge is overpast.”
“The good Colomba shall be rewarded, Mario. We are profoundly in her debt.” “A faithful soul,” Mario admitted. “But there was no risk to her, since, like myself, she too has paid the price of immunity.”
“That cannot lessen our gratitude,” she said. And then she sighed. “Poor Giuberti! God rest his loyal soul! A faithful servant ever, he has served us even in death. Heaven has blessed us in the matter of servants, Mario. There is yourself. ...”
“I? I am but a clod,” he interrupted. “I had not the wit to trust you to-day. Had you been dependent upon my service all must have miscarried and Heaven knows what fatality had been the end of this adventure.”
“Which reminds me,” said she, “that these poor fellows are unnecessarily laden. We have no pursuit to fear, and we shall make the better speed if we ease them of their burden.” She drew rein as she spoke, and Mario with her. “Enough!” she called to those cowled figures that swung along behind her. “Empty it out.” Obediently they set down the coffin,
forced up the lid, tilted it over, and rolled out the load of earth and stones that it contained.
She laughed softly in the dark when this was done. But Mario shuddered, bethinking him of the risk she had taken.
“God and His saints be thanked he did not dare to look,” he said with fervour. “He has a reputation for high courage, and I feared.... By the Host! how I feared!”
“Not more than I feared, Mario,” she confessed, “but I also hoped; and if the chance was a desperate one it was still the only chance.”
At Pievano some hours later she found her father so racked with anxiety by her continued absence and the circumstance that Mario had come and gone again that afternoon that he had summoned the fugitive Matteo Orsini from his hidingplace to consult with him as to what measures should be taken.
Her appearance ended their travail of spirit, and the sight of them made an end of the fortitude that had so long upheld her. She flung herself upon her lover’s breast, panting and trembling.
“You may sleep quiet now of nights, Matteo mine,” she said. “He believes you dead, and fears you dead more than he could ever have feared you living.” And on that she fainted in his arms, her strength of body and of spirit alike exhausted.
AND that, so far as I can discover, is the only instance in which man or woman defeated the Duke of Valentinois in an encounter of wits; nor does it lessen my high opinion of his penetration, for it must surely be admitted that the dice were heavily cogged against him, and that he fell a victim to a fraud rendered possible by circumstances. There is also responsible for this failure the fact that for once he did not choose his tool with that discrimination which Macchiavelli enjoins upon princes. He overlooked the significance of those excessively full lips of Pantaleone’s and left unheeded the warning Fra Serafino uttered on the score of them. Or perhaps, on the other hand . . But why speculate? I have laid the facts before you, and you may draw your own inferences.
As for Pantaleone, if he still interests you, he fared on the whole perhaps better than he deserved, though that is purely a matter of the point of view from which he is to be judged. For, as the Lord Almerico’s favourite philosopher has said, a man does not choose the part he shall play in life, he simply plays the part that is allotted to him.
He was entirely overlooked when Cesare with all his following left Citta della Pieve, and he was left there in the gaol into which he had been flung until it should be ascertained whether he was to be required as a bridegroom. Anon Cesare remembered him, and was about to order him to be strangled when he learnt that the fellow had developed the smallpox and had been, very properly, taken to a lazar-house. It is recorded that upon hearing this the Duke shuddered at the memory of his own escape, and was content to leave the rascal to the fate that had overtaken him—perhaps because he knew of no one who in the circumstances would undertake to strangle him.
Pantaleone’s lusty youth stood him in such good stead that he made one of those rare recoveries from that pitiless scourge. But he came forth into the world again broken in health and strength, and no longer to be recognized for the same swaggering, arrogant captain who had sought sanctuary on that January evening at Pievano.
His career as a captain of fortune being ended, realizing that he was a broken and useless man, he dragged himself wearily back to the village of Laveno in the Bolognese, and stumbled one April morning into Leocadia’s wine-shop; there he flung himself upon the charity and the ample bosom of the woman whom in prosperity he had forsaken. And such is the ever-forgiving and generous nature of your true woman that Leocadia put her arms about him and wept silently in thanksgiving for his return, blessing the disease that had made him weak and hideous since it had restored him to her.
Since it sorted well with his interest. I do not doubt that he made an honest woman of her.