Chapter 4 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you suffer?” she asked at last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His brows shot up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause, ended at length by Francesco.

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

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

At that his brows grew of a sudden dark.

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

“You said?” she asked.

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

“Madonna! Madonna Valentina!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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