Chapter 5 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Highness paused to masticate the olive.

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke nodded, his mouth too full for words.

“Then, at their trial, what transpired?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesco shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gian Maria shrugged his fat shoulders.

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

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

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

The Duke shrugged his shoulders.

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

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