Chapter 7 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But, Highness, I do not love him.”

A shade of impatience crossed his lofty face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since you appear to have forgotten it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yet you sing of her?”

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

“Quando sorriderán' in ciel
Gli occhi tuoi ai santi—”

She laid a hand upon his arm to stay him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gonzaga sighed profoundly, in sympathy, but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me,” she besought him feverishly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gonzaga made her a low bow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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