Geoffrey and the Lady Gemma
Geoffrey dreamed of knightly deeds, of honor and wealth and Lady Gemma. Of these dreams, one had to die—it took a dream to slay a dream
W. G. HARDY
IT WAS the sort of thing he could never have imagined, back in Sussex. It was not the tent nor the torchlight guttering down, nor was it his uncle, Sir John, sitting on an upended block of wood, with Conrad on the one side and Raoul, the Breton, on the other. It was the girl who was past imagining.
Geoffrey stood in the shadows and stared at her. Her gown was dirty and disarranged. Her hair had been jostled loose from her jewelled headdress to cascade in a rich and vivid auburn down over her shoulders. She must know her danger dragged from her coach by Conrad’s Germans and now in the power of a band of those ruthless condottieri who in this year of grace, 1376, plagued Italy. Yet she faced Geoffrey’s uncle as if he were her captive.
“And so,” Sir John said, and there was a speculative note in his voice, “you name yourself the Lady Gemma of the Gozzadini.”
"My father,” she shot back at him, “the Lord Marco, Podesta of Racetti, will exact recompense for this this outrage.”
She was beautiful, standing there in the circle of t he torchlight , her head up and her eyes flashing.
Sir John leaned back. Conrad laughed. Raoul smiled his thin, dry-lipped smile.
Sir .John, who had been caressing the second ot his chins, leaned forward again.
“It escaj>es you, Lady,” he remarked blandly, "but we hold the plain. Your father, the Lord Marco, is shut up in Racetti like a rooster in a coop for hens. So how can he give you aid?”
You could see her think this over. “A ransom, then?” She put her chin up a fraction. “Gold. That is what you crave, is it not? Gold. Send to my father.”
Conrad laughed. “Tell her, Sir John,” he invited. “Tell her that this night we sack Racetti.”
She flung him a glance. “Braggart !”
Geoffrey knew what she meant. When that morning the Company of the Arrow had swept into this valley that ran like a trough down to the Adriatic, it had been easy to seize the plain. But Racetti, perched on its isolated crag, had sneered at them.
“Gates can be unbarred, Lady,” he heard his uncle say.
“And tonight, Lady,” Conrad added, standing up, “at the hour past midnight, the gates of Racetti will be unbarred to us.”
That shook her poise. She fell back a step. “Piero of the Rossi?” she whispered and there was loathing in her voice. “Traitors in the city? In his pay?” Continued on page .36'
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Geoffrey and the Lady Gemma
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Sir John nodded.
“And you, too, in his pay—that— that monster, that—that ape dressed in satin?”
Sir John nodded again.
“Consider it well, Lady,” Conrad said. He came to the end of the rough table and leaned there. “Why need we take ransom for you when by the morrow Racetti and all its other treasures, too, will be ours?—as you are now.”
He made her an ironic bow. She looked at his dark face; her hand fluttered to her throat, and then her eyes went round the tent, desperately.
IT GAVE Geoffrey a feeling he did not want to have. When, four months before this, he had led threescore bowmen and men-at-arms from Sussex to join his uncle, his head had been full of knightly deeds and of wealth and honor dropping on him like rain from heaven. Italy had cured that nonsense. But there was in Geoffrey’s big-boned frame a certain stubbornness as well as ambition and energy. When he had discovered that Italy was not a land of romance but a patchwork of fiercely warring states and factions where only ruthlessness succeeded, he had proceeded to adapt himself
BUT now, looking at this girl, so helplessly in Conrad’s power, he had a feeling that he wanted to interfere. That was folly. Besides, what was there that he could do? His uncle, Sir John, ruled the Company. Raoul
and Conrad led important contingents in it. But he himself, was a captain only by courtesy. So, what could he do, even if he were foolish enough to let this girl’s plight sway him? He could glance at Conrad and feel again that instinctive hostility that lay between them. But only his uncle could check the German.
The thought made him look at Sir John. It occurred to him suddenly, seeing the way in which Sir John was waiting with eyes that pretended to be sleepy but weren’t, that his uncle had some purpose in letting Lady Gemma stand there and realize her helplessness to the full.
But it was Conrad’s poise that snapped first.
“We fritter time,” he said roughly. He turned to Sir John. “If there is nothing more—”
Sir John said sharply. “A moment, Sir Conrad ” and then, to the girl, smoothly, suavely: “Lady, your safety might still be purchased.” He put up a hand as Conrad swung round. “I said ‘might,’ Sir Conrad.”
IT WAS almost indecent to watch the hope flood into Lady Gemma’s face and the way she turned to Sir John. Geoffrey noted the trace of a satisfied smile in his uncle’s face. There was a plan of Racetti on the plank before Sir John. He pulled it to him.
“Look you, Lady, this night, we sack Racetti. But,” he put a blunt, spatulate finger on the plan, “there is still the palace keep. You know as well as I, Ladjr, how it stands at the very back of the town and three of its sides are the sheer precipice of the hill and the fourth, that which faces the town, is separated from it by a wall and a
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moat.” Sir John clapped his hands down on his knees. “ ‘Tis not my purpose to conceal from you. Lady. We know that your father and your three brothers and the most faithful of their retainers dwell in that keep. Not even the Lord Piero’s gold can get its gates unbarred.”
“So that is it,” she flashed back at him in a momentary surge of triumph, “my father and my brothers can laugh at you and at Piero, that — that mangy he-goat.”
“Does that alleviate your plight, Lady?”
“What—what would you have of me?”
“The keep is impregnable to our direct assault,” Sir John explained. “But if, Lady,” he hunched himself toward her, “if when we surge into Racetti, your coach, Lady, were to be driven fast up to the gates of that palace keep, as if escaping from us, and you in it, calling for the drawbridge to be lowered and the gates opened—”
“No!” she cried. “No.”
Sir John leaned still farther forward. “Think well, Lady. Sir Conrad— waits.”
She glanced at Conrad. She looked away. She stared round her and you could see that she had no illusions and that she realized completely the choice before her.
And then the Lady Gemma turned back. There was no color left in her face. She whispered:
“I still say: ‘No.’ ”
Sir John stood up. “Safety, Lady.”
Her chin went up. Her voice flashed out. “Slice me in pieces, if you will. It is always, ‘No.’ ”
Sir John shrugged his shoulders and sat down.
“Come,” he said and reached for the girl. Her defiance left her. She shrank away, putting out a hand to fend him off. Conrad caught at her shoulder. With a little cry she wrenched free and slapped him, full across the face. Geoffrey started forward. Deliberately, coldly, Conrad felled Lady Gemma to the ground. He bent over to pull her up. Geoffrey caught him by neck and seat. Conrad was a big man. Geoffrey was as big. The German went tottering toward the wall of the tent. Even as he touched it he steadied himself and his sword flashed out. Geoffrey’s was already bare and there was a savage grin on his face as he stepped in to meet Conrad’s rush.
Fledgling, was he? An infant in arms? Conrad would find out. And then another sword beat theirs down and Sir John was between them.
“Up, I say,” he roared. “Put them up.”
IT WAS an instant before Geoffrey moved back. He saw that Lady Gemma had got herself back against the wall of the tent. But her eyes were on him, gazing at him, and for the first time since he had reached Italy, he had a feeling of exultation.
Conrad was cursing.
“And what are you, Sir Conrad?” Sir John roared. “A captain in the Company of the Arrow? Or a roistering fool, who—”
“If your nephew—”
“Ix»ave me to rule my nephew.” Sir John turned to glare at Geoffrey. “Must I,” he demanded, “upend you across my knee?”
Back by t he table Raoul, the Breton, laughed. Geoffrey flushed, feeling not a hero but a silly boy. Conrad saw it. With a sneer he put up his sword.
“And now, Sir John, if your nephew permits—” He turned to the girl and his voice was rough with sudden fury. “As for you—”
shrank within himself, conscious of his own futility, Sir John said:
“Nay, Sir Conrad.”
The German swung toward him. Before he could speak Sir John went on: “Cast your memory back, Sir Conrad. Eighty thousand florins from the Lord Piero for the capture of Racetti and the Gozzadini. But all the Gozzadini who survive-—all mark you—to be kept safe—and untouched.”
“The Lord Piero is at Rimini, not here.”
“Natheless, we keep our pledged word.”
“I will not be baulked, not now.” Sir John turned to Raoul, the Breton. “Eighty thousand florins, Sir Raoul. A princely sum. Are we to risk it for one girl?”
The Breton gnawed at his lip. Geoffrey could appreciate Raoul’s dilemma. In the Company of the Arrow the numbers of the Germans were almost equal to those of the English. Raoul led a smaller and yet a decisive contingent and so his policy was to play English against Germans and win advantage from both. This time Sir John had forced the issue — and Geoffrey could guess why. For weeks past Conrad had been disputing with Sir John, making ready, it seemed, to challenge him for the leadership.
“Eighty thousand florins, Sir Raoul,” Sir John repeated.
The Breton made up his mind. “Touching this girl, Sir Conrad, I must stand with Sir John.”
Without a word Conrad turned on his heel and strode from the tent. Sir John walked back to his block of wood. He clapped his hands. Oxley stuck in his face.
“Take the girl,” Sir John ordered. “Put her in a tent, her and her women. Guard her well, Oxley. Then, bring her with the rearguard up to Racetti.” Oxley was a grizzled veteran, a brisk, soldierly man who had fought with Sir John at Poitiers in the French Wars. He motioned to Lady Gemma. As she went, she stopped a split second and her smile at Geoffrey was warm and full of gratitude.
SIR JOHN sat down. He said:
“Nephew, you make yourself inconvenient.”
“Was I to stand by—” Geoffrey began and interrupted himself. “And you, uncle. Putting that choice on her.”
“It was a chance to take the keep,” Sir John retorted. He pulled the plan of Racetti to him again and studied it once more, tugging at his right ear. Then looked Geoffrey up and down.
“So I keep you too close under my wing, nephew?” Sir John said. “So I give you no chance to prove yourself?” He watched his nephew’s face flush and his eyes light up. “Would you, then,” he went on quickly, “accept a venture, lad, a desperate venture?”
Geoffrey caught his breath.
“Try me, Sir John,” he said, striving to keep his voice casual and steady.
His uncle glanced at him sharply. Then, satisfied with what he saw, he gestured to him.
“Come nearer, Geoffrey. You, too, Sir Raoul. This palace keep—impregnable. But here, look you, a sallyport out from it. Halfway down the hill.” Sir John tugged at his ear. “Look you, lad, if the Gozzadini keep close ward, it is a trap, a massacre. But the Gozzadini fancy themselves secure. So, mark you, if a band of men were to go up the tunnel from this sallyport into the palace keep - and if fortune were theirs—and if they were not to attempt to seize the keep itself but to sweep out here and occupy the gates between the keep and the town and hold them until
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1 fought my way up from the Cathedral Square—”
'1' WAS a half hour later that Geoffrey came out from his uncle’s tent. The Italian air was warm and languorous. On either side the ridges were etched sharp and black against the evening sky. Around him was the Company; the campfires winking, the men eating or dicing or furbishing their armor. He heard the stamping and the jingling from the horse lines. There was a bellow of anger somewhere and a crisp command and, off in the distance, a dog barking.
Geoffrey was aware of it and not aware. He was staring up at the crag of Racetti. But he was not thinking of the people up there in fancied security, for all other emotions were drowned in the surge of exultation within him. He could see himself, striding into the great hall and flinging down a bag of jewels and gold in front of that halfbrother who had told him disdainfully that there was no future for him in Sussex. And he could see himself, too, turning to his cousin, the Lady Elfreda, and her blue eyes looking up at him wonderingly. The thought took him down the slope, not knowing that his course would bring him past the tent of Lady Gemma. She must have been watching for him. And she must have persuaded Oxley that there could be no harm in her speaking to him. There she was, abruptly, in his path, a guard close beside her.
“Sir Geoffrey,” she said and moved a step sideways so that the light from inside her tent fell upon her.
In Sir John’s tent, even though her beauty had been evident, it had been her courage and her helplessness that had most affected him. But here, she might have stepped out of the pages of some romance. Her hair was coifed, her eyebrows pencilled and her gown swept smoothly around her. She gave him a vibrant smile.
“May I give you thanks, Sir Geoffrey.”
“You must not name me ‘Sir.’ ” “And to hope, Sir Geoffrey, that, if this night Racetti is yours, on the morrow you will not be entirely forgetful of the Lady Gemma.”
He started to tell her that he could never he forgetful. She said, and her voice dropped a little and she was no longer the great lady but the little girl, moving closer as if for protection:
“Or to save her again, that Lord Piero—a a man who—oh, it is too terrible to think on—”
She had made her effect.
“Farewell, Sir Geoffrey,” she said her head bent, her shoulders seeming to droop. Geoffrey watched her go. Why was it, he was asking himself, that things could never be clear and definiteright and honor on one side and evil on the other as, back in Sussex, he had thought they would be? There were tales of this Lord Piero. When he had heard them of the tortures of helpless victims, of a cultivated refinement of savageries that, even in Italy, had given the Lord Piero a sort of admired pre-eminence - but when he had heard of them, even though they were tales only, there had been a sort of sick horror. Yet now, if this desperate venture that a moment since had seemed knightly to him, did succeed, it would not be some nameless woman at the Lord Piero’s mercy, but Lady Gemma.
I T WAS the next morning. Geoffrey stood on the northern of the twin towers that guarded the entrance from ( lie town of Racetti to the palace keep. Simon Oxley was with him. Below them was Racetti, fresh and bright in
the sun and as he looked down, it was difficult to remember that a few hours back darkness had filled those closepacked, narrow streets and t hat in them there had been torches flashing and shouts and the clash of armed men and the shrieks of women. As his eyes strayed farther, there on either side, far down, fair as in a picture, were spread the vineyards and the olive orchards and the ribbon of the river winding and over to right and left were the bright peaks of the ridges. In Geoffrey’s mind was a struggling and confused concept that, when nature was so fair, men’s emotions and actions should not be so ugly.
His more sober and less impetuous mood came from other and complicated considerations. For, last night, in the final flare-up of the resistance a crossbow bolt had felled Sir John. He lay at this moment in a room off the hall and it was not certain whether he would live or die. Geoffrey was beginning to comprehend to what an extent it had been his uncle’s shrewdness that had held the Company together. Last night he had been able to assert himself as Sir John’s temporary successor and as the equal to Conrad and Raoul in the affairs of t he Company. But, last night, too, he had been forced to realize how, in these affairs, you must look ahead and estimate both possibilities and motives. Above all, he had to watch Conrad, for to Conrad Sir John’s wound was opportunity.
RACETTI had been parcelled out.
The English were billeted in and around the Cathedral Square with Conrad’s Germans on the one side of them and Raoul’s Bretons on the other. The guards at the gates of the town and at all other vital points were one third from each of the three groups. But Geoffrey had succeeded in carrying the point that the palace keep, as Sir John’s headquarters, should be occupied by the Sussex men. On the other hand it had been necessary to concede that, even in the keep, the guard of nine men over the Gozzadini should be one third Bretons and one third Germans as well as one third English.
“We have done what we can,” Oxley said now reflectively. “At least, until the Lord Piero comes.”
“When, think you, will he be here?” Oxley scratched his cheek. “He will ride fast from Rimini. By midnight. On the morrow, certainly.”
Geoffrey turned round to look over the open courtyard below him to the broad steps leading up to the doors that opened into the great hall of the keep. He was remembering the scene in there last night when the Lord Marco and his sons had, at last, laid down their arms and stood, helpless but still grimly defiant. And then, Lady Gemma, breaking away from the guards who had brought her up to Racetti, had run across the hall to fling her arms, sobbing about her father’s neck.
“We must watch this Piero,” Oxley went on. “Let him but see some way to filch our eighty thousand florins-—”
He spat. So, at midnight, Geoffrey was thinking, Lady Gemma might be in this Piero’s hands. There had been another passage at arms with Conrad about her. To baulk Conrad was simple. But the Lord Piero—
“ Twould be well, too, to keep close ward on the Gozzadini,” Oxley said. He spat again.
“I will see to it,” Geoffrey promised. And he thought that he did not want to see Lady Gemma again. Yet he knew that he must see her. By logic and the laws of war it ought to be none of his concern what happened to her. Somehow, it still seemed to be.
That afternoon, once again, he met
the Lady Gemma. It was in the garden. In the room above it he had been received by the Lord Marco dressed in a gown of wine-red velvet, making Geoffrey feel a young and uncouth barbarian in the presence of a grey-haired and cultivated gentleman. Not that the Lord Marco had shown resentment. He had accepted his plight with an urbane shrug of his shoulders and had discussed his probable fate at the hands of the Lord Piero with a devastating objectivity.
“The feud between us is, after all, a century old,” he had said. “I slew the Lord Piero’s father. When Piero, in turn, caught my younger brother and his wife, it was not—pretty. It was in the great hall, yonder. My brother, tied up by his thumbs over a slow fire and his wife, before his eyes—but I will spare you. This Piero—his cold deviltries do torture the mind and abase the spirit as well as the body.” He had sighed. “I could wish that my daughter, Lady Gemma, was already dead.” He had put the picture in Geoffrey’s mind. It was a picture that walked with him through the beds of roses and clove-pinks and through the blossoms of almonds and of plum trees. The path opened on a pool into which water splashed from the mouth of a marble swan. On a bench by it, under the drooping branches of a feathery willow, sat Lady Gemma. Geoffrey had a confused impression of brocaded skirts and of a proud head coifed with a net of pearls. Then, he was bowing over her hand. She smiled and motioned him to a seat beside her. It occurred to him in what an impossible situation he had placed himself. He could not save her.
She smiled — and then drew his attention to how cleverly this garden, on the very edge of the crag, was contrived and she made him very conscious of her as a warm and vibrant woman. All the time, he kept seeing the picture her father had painted for him, only now in the great hall it was the Lord Marco hung up and before his eyes, while Piero laughed, Lady Gemma. It made him break in upon her.
“Would it were in my power!” he exclaimed.
She did not pretend to misunderstand him. “With your uncle wounded, it is, is it not?”
He got to his feet. “You do not understand, Lady. The Company would not permit. Not only Itaoul and Conrad. Even the English—that eighty thousand florins—”
“Rut there is the sallyport, is there not? Out from this keep and down into the plain? We could be let out of it, in secret. No one in town would know of it—not till it was done.”
He stared down at her. She came to her feet in one swift, graceful mov -ment.
“Your Sussex men hold the keep. Yet not even the Sussex men would need to have knowledge of it. Only the guard immediately over us.”
“There are three Rretons and three Germans in that guard.”
“They could be slain. The Sussex men—they could come with us for a reward, a great reward that my father would pay when we come to Forli. In that manner, see, it could be made to seem that we had overcome the guards and framed our own escape.”
It had come upon him so suddenly. She moved close. The breath of her perfume was around him. And her plan was possible. It would be breaking the pledged word of the Company. Rut when a pledge was evil—
“If the eighty thousand florins troubles you, my father, when he comes to Forli, would pay them.” He had not been thinking of the
eighty thousand. In his mind was the stubborn fact that, no matter how you planned it, it would be from the keep and from his custody that the Gozzadini had escaped. Piero would make an issue of it. So would Conrad. Conrad would use it to grasp at the leadership while Sir John still lay wounded. Perhaps you could put a high face on it. Yet, too. the truth would come out and in that case, his own career would be ended. Why should this choice be put upon him?
She pressed a thought closer. “I would come to you,” she whispered, “wherever you may be—Geoffrey.”
/ He wanted to tell her that it was not that which was in his mind. It was the picture of her helplessness. He said:
“It would have to be before midnight. At midnight, the Lord Piero may come.”
“Oh!” she cried. Abruptly, warm lips were pressed to his. In this instant the Lady Elfreda, back in Sussex, was an unsubstantial dream.
And then, not at midnight, but at nightfall, the Lord Piero and a hundred horsemen with him, rode up to the gates of Racetti.
AP FIRST, when Oxley came up from the Cathedral Square with the news, Geoffrey felt relief that chance had taken the decision out of his hands. Rut when he faced P’ero in the great hall, his feeling changed. The Lord Piero was stained with the dust of his journey. Geoffrey could smell the sweat from his thick-set hairy body. Rut it was the face and eyes that fascinated him.
In that moment Geoffrey believed all he had heard. And in that moment, as he glanced from Piero to Conrad and to Raoul and Oxley, his final decision was taken. He scarcely listened to the Lord Piero. The Lord Piero was affable and congratulatory, brimming over with the triumph of his return to Racetti and, mentally, rubbing his hands at the thought of what he would do.
“And the Gozzadini—you have them safe?” he asked.
It was Raoul who answered. “Caged —like parrots.”
“The Lord Marco—he lives?”
“A-ah,” the Lord Piero said. And then quickly: “And his daughter,
“A-ah,” the Lord Piero repeated. “Though, touching her,” Raoul went on, “Sir Conrad here may have a dispute with you.”
The Lord Piero threw a quick glance at Conrad. He did not make an issue of it. He said:
“Well, Messirs, my men will take over the keep. My captain here—” “The eighty thousand florins,” Geoffrey said. “You have them?”
“At the speed at which I rode? I ask you, Messirs? Piero gestured nonchalantly. “On the morrow. Or the day after.”
Geoffrey said: “Until we touch
them, my Lord Piero, we hold the keep-”
“And the Gozzadini,” Oxley added. A dark flush suffused Piero’s face. “Dare you doubt my word?” he began. He controlled himself. He turned to Conrad. “You hold the town. Is not that surety enough?”
“For me—” Conrad agreed.
“Rut not for me,” Geoffrey answered him.
The Lord Piero glanced from one to the other and quickly, instinctively, his lively mind grasped the conflict and remembered that Sir John was wounded and thought of the eighty thousand florins and estimated the
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possible advantages for himself that could accrue. He shrugged his shoulders.
“On the other hand, a day or two, what matters it?” he said. “My horsemen—I will billet them with yours, Sir Conrad.”
£ EOFFREY seemed to have won. \JF But later that night, as the hour for the release of the Gozzadini drew near, he was restless and dissatisfied. On the morrow Oxley would disown him. So would Sir John, when he came to know of it. For, now that he had refused Lord Piero the custody of the Gozzadini, no matter what face was put upon it, the truth about the escape of the Gozzadini could not fail to be smelled out. He would be fortunate if he escaped with bis life. In any case his career was ended. No other band of condottieri would accept him. He would slink back to Sussex.
He had weighed all this and accepted it. What led him through the courtyard and out to the gates of the keep was a sense of unease, a sort of feeling that, down there in the town, something was moving inevitably to some sort of conclusion. The Lord Piero had accepted his defeat too easily. So had Conrad. There had been an interchange of glances between the two, a suggestion that they understood each other without speaking. Geoffrey wished that Oxley were with him instead of down there in the Cathedral Square.
The thought took him a step or two through the gates.
What might those two not be plotting? When he thought of it he could see how Conrad might agree to forego half the eighty thousand florins in return for some deal involving the leadership and, perchance, the Lady Gemma. But, in any case, before their plots could come to fruition the Gozzadini—and the Lady Gemma—would he away. Before morning they would be through the pass to the south and well on their way to Forli.
Geoffrey started to turn hack and then a corner of his eye was caught by what seemed to be darker shadows detaching themselves from the shadows of the streets. He stared at them. It must be his imagination, playing tricks. And then, suddenly, there was a clink of armor and from down by the Cathedral a tumult and lights flashing. Even as Geoffrey turned and ran hack through the gates shouting. Out, the guard. Up, Sussex men,” he knew as well as if he had been told what a fool he had been to think that it would take long for Conrad and Piero to reach a bargain and to strike. That shouting down by the Cathedral meant that Conrad’s Germans were surprising the English there. Raoul would stay out of it and join the victors. And behind him, as he ran and as hastily swung his Sussex men together, there was the rush of Piero’s mailed horsemen over the drawbridge and into the courtyard of the keep.
IN THE swirl of battle there is not time for reflection. But there are isolated thoughts and decisions as swift and as clear as lightning flashes. For Geoffrey the first of them was the knowledge that, taken by surprise though they were and though the court yard had been lost, his Sussex men could hold the great hall. The second was that the English, caught unprepared in the Cathedral Square, would be wiped out by Conrad’s men and that, once Conrad came sweeping up to join Piero, he and his men and the keep were lost. He knew anger, fierce despair, but he took a moment to draw back from the fighting and call a man to him and to fling keys to him.
“Let loose the Gozzadini,” he bawled to him. “Bid them flee—while they may.”
And then there was fighting again and the forcing of Piero's men out of the great hall to the steps leading down to the courtyard. There the battle hung until suddenly there was a shout behind him and the Gozzadini—a score of men and more—instead of fleeing rushed forward into the melee.
He shouted to his men. He drove forward into the courtyard and he was like a maniac, his great sword rising and falling, a man who cared not whether he lived or died. They won hack half of the courtyard, two thirds of it, all of it, and the battle hung at the gates. And then there was another charge up from the town and a shouting and Geoffrey thought confusedly that these would be Conrad’s men and that this was the end. But instead it was Oxley’s English, Oxley who had not only scented trouble hut prepared for it so that Conrad’s Germans had charged into a trap and a hail of arrows. Conrad was dead. And, in a brief space of time, Piero’s men were cut down and Piero himself was wounded and a prisoner.
But it was the Lord Piero who, the next morning, still stood between Geoffrey and the Lady Gemma.
THEY were in the garden again. He had come into it with a sense of clean triumph, with a feeling that at last honor and right had linked hands. For it was the Lord Marco with whom they now dealt and the Lord Marco had offered to pay the eighty thousand florins, as soon as it could be collected in order for the Company to vacate Racetti. Both Piero and Conrad were finished and Sir John had recovered consciousness. And there was himself and the Lady Gemma. She had welcomed him with a kiss. But now she had drawn away from him and was staring at him with amazement in her face.
“You will let him go! That—that monster!”
“The Lord Piero will pay a ransom.” “He must not escape,” she hurst out. “Look, we will buy him from you!”
He did not tell her that her father had also made that offer. He stared at her, trying to readjust his idea of her.
“Why?” lu; asked.
“To put him to death. To make him pay—pay a thousand times over for that which he; did to my father’s brother and my father’s brother’s wife and for what he would have done to us.” She was very beautiful in this moment, the sunlight glinting on her hair, her eyes liquid, her lips ripe. He said with a certain grey ness:
“This morning I also learned in what manner and after what tortures the Lord Piero’s father died in the dungeon below us—at your father’s bidding, Gemma.”
“That!” she said. “He had slain my grandfather. And you—you know now what the Lord Piero had planned. Me—turned over to Conrad first and then—afterward— Is there aught too terrible, any tortures sufficient for that—that beast?”
He was not entirely clear about it in his own mind. He said, trying to find words for it:
“To kill in battle, yes. To put to death in justice as a fair penalty, yes. If that were your plan for Piero. But to torture a man to death—”
“Piero—I could slice his cursed flesh off from him, slice by slice, with my own hands—and laugh at each scream—and taunt him. Now do you understand?”
He understood. He said:
“I had a choice, too, Gemma.
Remember? A choice between my own future-—and you—pity for you.”
“You—you had no choice.”
He stared at her. She laughed.
“That escape—’twas planned—my father and I—-every move, every word.”
It was almost clear, now.
“But, look you,” she said, “give but Lord Piero to me—to do with as I will. And then— ” She made a little movement toward him—“Geoffrey.” He turned and walked away.
TT WAS four days later. The Company of the Arrow was moving back through the pass by which, a week earlier, they had poured into the plain of Racetti. Sir John rode in a litter up front. Geoffrey was chivying
along the rearguard. At the last moment he halted his horse and looked back. The valley was peaceful in the sun. The river was a silver ribbon. Up on the isolated crag the battlements of Racetti were clear and bright, and above them, at the back, the blunt fist of the palace keep stood up, uncompromising.
Only a week—but you could not measure experience in terms of time. Only a week—Conrad and Piero and the Lady Gemma. She was a dream that she herself had slain.
There might be other dreams. Geoffrey did not know. He only knew that somehow a man must have certain standards by which to live. He touched his horse with the toe of his boot and rode on into the pass. jy