Chapter 8 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

AMONG THE DREGS OF WINE
And so it befell that whilst by Guidobaldo's orders the preparations for Valentina's nuptials went forward with feverish haste—whilst painters, carvers, and artificers in gold and silver applied themselves to their hurried tasks; whilst messengers raced to Venice for gold leaf and ultramarine for the wedding-chests whilst the nuptial bed was being brought from Rome and the chariot from Ferrara; whilst costly stuffs were being collected, and the wedding-garments fashioned—the magnificent Romeo Gonzaga was, on his side, as diligently contriving to render vain all that toil of preparation.

On the evening of the third day of his conspiring he sat in the room allotted to him in the Palace of Urbino, and matured his plans. And so well pleased was he with his self-communion that, as he sat at his window, there was a contented smile upon his lips.

He allowed his glance to stray adown the slopes of that arid waste of rocks, to the River Metauro, winding its way to the sea, through fertile plains, and gleaming here silver and yonder gold in the evening light. Not quite so complacently would he have smiled had he deemed the enterprise upon which he was engaging to be of that warlike character which he had represented to Valentina. He did not want for cunning, nor for judgment of the working of human minds, and he very reasonably opined that once the Lady Valentina immured herself in Roccaleone and sent word to her uncle that she would not wed Gian Maria, nor return to the Court of Urbino until he passed her his ducal word that she should hear no more of the union, the Duke would be the first to capitulate.

He contended that this might not happen at once—nor did he wish it to; messages would pass, and Guidobaldo would seek by cajolery to win back his niece. This she would resist, and, in the end her uncle would see the impassable nature of the situation, and agree to her terms that it might be ended. That it should come to arms, and that Guidobaldo should move to besiege Roccaleone, he did not for a moment believe—for what manner of ridicule would he not draw upon himself from the neighbouring States? At the worst, even if a siege there was, it would never be carried out with the rigour of ordinary warfare; there would be no assaults, no bombarding; it would be a simple investment, with the object of intercepting resources, so as to starve the garrison into submission—for they would never dream of such victualling as Gonzaga was preparing.

Thus communed Gonzaga with himself, and the smile enlivening the corners of his weak mouth grew more thoughtful. He dreamed great dreams that evening; he had wondrous visions of a future princely power that should come to be his own by virtue of this alliance that he was so skilfully encompassing—a fool in a fool's paradise, with his folly for only company.

But for all that, his dreams were wondrous sweet to indulge and his visions truly alluring to contemplate. There were plans to be formed and means to be devised for the flight to Roccaleone. There were calculations to be made; the estimating of victuals, arms, and men; and once these calculations were complete, there were all these things to be obtained. The victuals he had already provided for, whilst of arms he had no need to think; Roccaleone should be well stocked with them. But the finding of the men gave him some concern. He had decided to enrol a score, which was surely the smallest number with which he could make a fair show of being martially in earnest. But even though the number was modest, where was he to find twenty fellows who reeked so little of their lives as to embark upon such an enterprise—even if lured by generous pay—and thereby incur the ducal displeasure of Guidobaido?

He dressed himself with sober rigour for once in his foppish life, and descended, after night had fallen, to a tavern in a poor street behind the Duomo, hoping that there, among the dregs of wine, he might find what he required.

By great good fortune he chanced upon an old freebooting captain, who once had been a meaner sort of condottiero, but who was sorely reduced by bad fortune and bad wine.

The tavern was a dingy, cut-throat place, which the delicate Gonzaga had not entered without a tremor, invoking the saints' protection, and crossing himself ere he set foot across the threshold. Some pieces of goat were being cooked on the embers, in a great fireplace at the end of the room farthest from the door. Before this, Ser Luciano—the taverner—squatted on his heels and fanned so diligently that a cloud of ashes rose ceiling high and spread itself, together with the noisome smoke, throughout the squalid chamber. A brass lamp swung from the ceiling, and shone freely through that smoke, as shines the moon through an evening mist. So foully stank the place that at first Gonzaga was moved to get him thence. Only the reflection that nowhere in Urbino was he as likely as here to find the thing he sought, impelled him to stifle his natural squeamishness and remain. He slipped upon some grease, and barely saved himself from measuring his length upon that filthy floor, a matter which provoked a malicious guffaw from a tattered giant who watched with interest his mincing advent.

Perspiring, and with nerves unstrung, the courtier picked his way to a table by the wall, and seated himself upon the coarse deal bench before it, praying that he might be left its sole occupant.

On the opposite wall hung a blackened crucifix and a small holy-water stoup that had been dry for a generation, and was now a receptacle for dust and a withered sprig of rosemary. Immediately beneath this—in the company of a couple of tatterdemalions worthy of him—sat the giant who had mocked his escape from falling, and as Gonzaga took his seat he heard the fellow's voice, guttural, bottle-thickened and contentious.

“And this wine, Luciano? Sangue della Madonna! Will you bring it before dropping dead, pig?”

Gonzaga shuddered and would have crossed himself again for protection against what seemed a very devil incarnate, but that the ruffian's blood-shot eye was set upon him in a stony stare.

“I come, cavaliere, I come,” cried the timid host, leaping to his feet, and leaving the goat to burn while he ministered to the giant's unquenchable thirst.

The title caused Gonzaga to start, and he bent his eyes again on the man's face. He found it villainous of expression, inflamed and blotched; the hair hung matted about a bullet head, and the eyes glared fiercely from either side of a pendulous nose. Of the knightly rank by which the taverner addressed him the fellow bore no outward signs. Arms he carried, it is true; a sword and dagger at his belt, whilst beside him on the table stood a rusty steel-cap. But these warlike tools served only to give him the appearance of a roving masnadiero or a cut-throat for hire. Presently abandoning the comtemplation of Gonzaga he turned to his companions, and across to the listener floated a coarse and boasting tale of a plunderous warfare in Sicily ten years agone. Gonzaga became excited. It seemed indeed as if this were man who might be useful to him. He made pretence to sip the wine Luciano had brought him, and listened avidly to that swashbuckling story, from which it appeared that this knave had once been better circumstanced and something of a leader. Intently he listened, and wondered whether such men as he boasted he had led in that campaign were still to be found and could be brought together.

At the end of perhaps a half-hour the two companions of that thirsty giant rose and took their leave of him. They cast a passing glance upon Gonzaga, and were gone.

A little while he hesitated. The ruffian seemed to have lapsed into a reverie, or else he slept with open eyes. Calling up his courage the gallant rose at last and moved across the room. All unversed in tavern ways was the magnificent Gonzaga, and he who at court, in ballroom or in antechamber, was a very mirror of all the graces of a courtier, felt awkward here and ill at ease.

At length, summoning his wits to his aid:

“Good sir,” said he, with some timidity, “will you do me the honour to share a flagon with me?”

The ruffian's eye, which but a moment back had looked vacuous and melancholy, now quickened until it seemed ablaze. He raised his bloodshot orbs and boldly encountered Gonzaga's uneasy glance. His lips fell apart with an anticipatory smack, his back stiffened, and his head was raised until his chin took on so haughty a tilt that Gonzaga feared his proffered hospitality was on the point of suffering a scornful rejection.

“Will I share a flagon?” gasped the fellow, as, being the sinner that he was and knew himself to be, he might have gasped: “Will I go to Heaven?” “Will I—will I——?” He paused, and pursed his lips. His eyebrows were puckered and his expression grew mighty cunning as again he took stock of this pretty fellow who offered flagons of wine to down-at-heel adventurers like himself. He had all but asked what was to be required of him in exchange for this, when suddenly he bethought him—with the knavish philosophy adversity had taught him—that were he told for what it was intended that the wine should bribe him, and did the business suit him not, he should, in the confession of it, lose the wine; whilst did he but hold his peace until he had drunk, it would be his thereafter to please himself about the business when it came to be proposed.

He composed his rugged features into the rude semblance of a smile.

“Sweet young sir,” he murmured, “sweet, gentle and most illustrious lord, I would share a hogshead with such a nobleman as you.”

“I am to take it that you will drink?” quoth Gonzaga, who had scarce known what to make of the man's last words.

“Body of Bacchus! Yes. I'll drink with you gentile signorino, until your purse be empty or the world run dry.” And he leered a mixture of mockery and satisfaction.

Gonzaga, still half uncertain of his ground, called the taverner and bade him bring a flagon of his best. While Luciano was about the fetching of the wine, constraint sat upon that oddly discordant pair.

“It is a chill night,” commented Gonzaga presently, seating himself opposite his swashbuckler.

“Young sir, your wits have lost their edge. The night is warm.

“I said,” spluttered Gonzaga, who was unused to contradiction from his inferiors, and wished now to assert himself, “that the night is chill.”

“You lied, then,” returned the other, with a fresh leer, “for, as I answered you, the night is warm. Piaghe di Cristo! I am an ill man to contradict, my pretty gallant, and if I say the night is warm, warm it shall be though there be snow on Mount Vesuvius.”

The courtier turned pink at that, and but for the arrival of the taverner with the wine, it is possible he might have done an unconscionable rashness. At sight of the red liquor the fury died out of the ruffler's face.

“A long life, a long thirst, a long purse, and a short memory!” was his toast, into whose cryptic meaning Gonzaga made no attempt to pry. As the fellow set down his cup, and with his sleeve removed the moisture from his unshorn mouth, “May I not learn,” he inquired, “whose hospitality I have the honour of enjoying?”

“Heard you ever of Romeo Gonzaga?”

“Of Gonzaga, yes; though of Romeo Gonzaga never. Are you he?”

Gonzaga bowed his head.

“A noble family yours,” returned the swashbuckler, in a tone that implied his own to be as good. “Let me name myself to you. I am Ercole Fortemani,” he said, with the proud air of one who announced himself an emperor.

“A formidable name,” said Gonzaga, in accents of surprise, “and it bears a noble sound.”

The great fellow turned on him in a sudden anger.

“Why that astonishment?” he blazed. “I tell you my name is both noble and formidable, and you shall find me as formidable as I am noble. Diavolo! Seems it incredible?”

“Said I so?” protested Gonzaga.

“You had been dead by now if you had, Messer Gonzaga. But you thought so, and I may take leave to show you how bold a man it needs to think so without suffering.”

Ruffled as a turkey-cock, wounded in his pride and in his vanity, Ercole hastened to enlighten Gonzaga on his personality.

“Learn, sir,” he announced, “that I am Captain Ercole Fortemani. I held that rank in the army of the Pope. I have served the Pisans and the noble Baglioni of Perugia with honour and distinction. I have commanded a hundred lances of Gianinoni's famous free-company. I have fought with the French against the Spaniards, and with the Spaniards against the French, and I have served the Borgia, who is plotting against both. I have trailed a pike in the emperor's following, and I have held the rank of captain, too, in the army of the King of Naples. Now, young sir, you have learned something of me, and if my name is not written in letters of fire from one end of Italy to the other, it is—Body of God!—because the hands that hired me to the work garnered the glory of my deeds.”

“A noble record,” said Gonzaga, who had credulously absorbed that catalogue of lies, “a very noble record.”

“Not so,” the other contradicted, for the lust of contradiction that was a part of him. “A great record, if you will, to commend me to hireling service. But you may not call the service of a hireling noble.”

“It is a matter we will not quarrel over,” said Gonzaga soothingly. The man's ferocity was terrific.

“Who says that we shall not?” he demanded. “Who will baulk me if I have a mind to quarrel over it? Answer me!” and he half rose from his seat, moved by the anger into which he was lashing himself. “But patience!” he broke off, subsiding on a sudden. “I take it, it was not out of regard for my fine eyes, nor drawn by the elegance of my apparel”—and he raised a corner of his tattered cloak—“nor yet because you wish to throw a main with me, that you have sought my acquaintance, and called for this wine. You require service of me?”

“You have guessed it.”

“A prodigious discernment, by the Host!” He seemed to incline rather tediously to irony. Then his face grew stern, and he lowered his voice until it was no more than a growling whisper. “Heed me, Messer Gonzaga. If the service you require be the slitting of a gullet or some kindred foul business, which my seeming neediness leads you to suppose me ripe for, let me counsel you, as you value your own skin, to leave the service unmentioned, and get you gone.”

In hasty, frantic, fearful protest were Gonzaga's hands outspread.

“Sir, sir—I—I could not have thought it of you,” he spluttered, with warmth, much of which was genuine, for it rejoiced him to see some scruples still shining in the foul heap of this man's rascally existence. A knave whose knavery knew no limits would hardly have suited his ends. “I do need a service, but it is no dark-corner work. It is a considerable enterprise, and one in which, I think, you should prove the very man I need.”

“Let me know more,” quoth Ercole grandiloquently.

“I need first your word that should the undertaking prove unsuited to you, or beyond you, you will respect the matter, and keep it secret.”

“Body of Satan! No corpse was ever half so dumb as I shall be.”

“Excellent! Can you find me a score of stout fellows to form a bodyguard and a garrison, who, in return for good quarters—perchance for some weeks—and payment at four times the ordinary mercenaries' rate, will be willing to take some risk, and chance even a brush with the Duke's forces?”

Ercole blew out his mottled cheeks until Gonzaga feared that he would burst them.

“It's outlawry!” he roared, when he had found his voice. “Outlawry, or I'm a fool.”

“Why, yes,” confessed Gonzaga. “It is outlaw matter of a kind. But the risk is slender.”

“Can you tell me no more?”

“I dare not.”

Ercole emptied his wine-cup at a draught and splashed the dregs on to the floor. Then, setting down the empty vessel, he sat steeped in thought awhile. Growing impatient:

“Well,” cried Gonzaga at last, “can you help me? Can you find the men?”

“If you were to tell me more of the nature of this service you require, I might find a hundred with ease.”

“As I have said—I need but a score.”

Ercole looked mighty grave, and thoughtfully rubbed his long nose.

“It might be done,” said he, after a pause. “But we shall have to look for desperate knaves; men who are already under a ban, and to whom it will matter little to have another item added to their indebtedness to the law should they fall into its talons. How soon shall you require this forlorn company?”

“By to-morrow night.”

“I wonder——” mused Ercole. He was counting on his fingers, and appeared to have lapsed into mental calculations. “I could get half-a-score or a dozen within a couple of hours. But a score——” Again he paused, and again he fell to thinking. At last, more briskly: “Let us hear what pay you offer me, to thrust myself thus blindfolded into this business of yours as leader of the company you require?” he asked suddenly.

Gonzaga's face fell at that. Then he suddenly stiffened, and put on an expression of haughtiness.

“It is my intent to lead this company myself,” he loftily informed the ruffler.

“Body of God!” gasped Ercole, upon whose mind intruded a grotesque picture of such a company as he would assemble, being led by this mincing carpet-knight. Then recollecting himself: “If that be so,” said he, “you had best, yourself, enrol it. Felicissima notte!” And he waved him a farewell across the table.

Here was a poser for Gonzaga. How was he to go about such a business as that? It was beyond his powers. Thus much he protested frankly.

“Now attend to me, young sir,” was the other's answer. “The matter stands thus: If I can repair to certain friends of mine with the information that an affair is afoot, the particulars of which I may not give them, but in which I am to lead them myself, sharing such risk as there may be, I do not doubt but that by this time to-morrow I can have a score of them enrolled—such is their confidence in Ercole Fortemani. But if I take them to enter a service unknown, under a leader equally unknown, the forming of such a company would be a mighty tedious matter.”

This was an argument to the force of which Gonzaga could not remain insensible. After a moment's consideration, he offered Ercole fifty gold florins in earnest of good faith and the promise of pay, thereafter, at the rate of twenty gold florins a month for as long as he should need his services and Ercole, who in all his free-lancing days had never earned the tenth of such a sum, was ready to fall upon this most noble gentleman's neck, and weep for very joy and brotherly affection.

The matter being settled, Gonzaga produced a heavy bag which gave forth a jangle mighty pleasant to the ears of Fortemani, and let it drop with a chink upon the table.

“There are a hundred florins for the equipment of this company. I do not wish to have a regiment of out-at-elbow tatterdemalions at my heels.” And his eye swept in an uncomplimentary manner over Ercole's apparel. “See that you dress them fittingly.”

“It shall be done, Magnificent,” answered Ercole, with a show of such respect as he had not hitherto manifested. “And arms?”

“Give them pikes and arquebuses, if you will; but nothing more. The place we are bound for is well stocked with armour—but even that may not be required.”

“May not be required?” echoed the more and more astonished swashbuckler. Were they to be paid on so lordly a scale, clothed and fed, to induce them upon a business that might carry no fighting with it? Surely he had never sold himself into a more likely or promising service, and that night he dreamt in his sleep that he was become a gentleman's steward, and that at his heels marched an endless company of lacqueys in flamboyant liveries. On the morrow he awoke to the persuasion that at last, of a truth, was his fortune made, and that hereafter there would be no more pike-trailing for his war-worn old arms.

Conscientiously he set about enrolling the company, for, in his way, this Ercole Fortemani was a conscientious man—boisterous and unruly if you will; a rogue, in his way, with scant respect for property; not above cogging dice or even filching a purse upon occasion when hard driven by necessity—for all that he was gently born and had held honourable employment; a drunkard by long habit, and a swaggering brawler upon the merest provocation. But for all that, riotous and dishonest though he might be in the general commerce of life, yet to the hand that hired him he strove—not always successfully, perhaps, but, at least, always earnestly—to be loyal.