Chapter 9 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

Whilst the bustle of preparation went on briskly in Urbino, Gian Maria, on his side, was rapidly disposing of affairs in Babbiano, that he might return to the nuptials for which he was impatient. But he had chanced upon a deeper tangle than he had reckoned with, and more to do than he had looked for.

On the day of his departure from Urbino, he had ridden as far as Cagli, and halted at the house of the noble Messer Valdicampo. This had been placed at his disposal, and there he proposed to lie the night. They had supped—the Duke, de' Alvari, Gismondo Santi, Messér Valdicampo, his wife and two daughters, and a couple of friends, potential citizens of Cagli, whom he had invited, that they might witness the honour that was being done his house. It waxed late, and the torpor that ensues upon the generous gratification of appetite was settling upon the company when Armstadt—Gian Maria's Swiss captain—entered and approached his master with the air of a man who is the bearer of news. He halted a pace or two from the Duke's high-backed chair, and stood eyeing Gian Maria in stupid patience.

“Well, fool?” growled the Duke, turning his head.

The Swiss approached another step. “They have brought him, Highness,” he said in a confidential whisper.

“Am I a wizard that I must read your thoughts?” hectored Gian Maria. “Who has brought whom?”

Armstadt eyed the company in hesitation. Then, stepping close to the Duke, he murmured in his ear:

“The men I left behind have brought the fool—Ser Peppe.”

A sudden brightening of the eye showed that Gian Maria understood. Without apology to the board, he turned and whispered back to his captain to have the fellow taken to his chamber, there to await him. “Let a couple of your knaves be in attendance, and do you come too, Martino.”

Martin bowed, and withdrew, whereupon Gian Maria found grace to crave his host's pardon, with the explanation that the man had brought him news he had been expecting. Valdicampo, who for the honour of having a Duke sleep beneath his roof would have stomached improprieties far more flagrant, belittled the matter and dismissed it. And presently Gian Maria rose with the announcement that he had far to journey on the morrow, and so, with his host's good leave, would be abed.

Valdicampo, himself, then played the part of chamberlain, and taking up one of the large candle branches, he lighted the Duke to his apartments. He would have carried his good offices, and his candles, as far as Gian Maria's very bed-chamber, but that in the ante-room his Highness, as politely as might be, bade him set down the lights and leave him.

The Duke remained standing for a moment, deliberating whether to afford knowledge to Alvari and Santi—who had followed him and stood awaiting his commands—of what he was about to do. In the end he decided that he would act alone and upon his sole discretion. So he dismissed them.

When they had gone and he was quite alone, he clapped his hands together, and in answer to that summons the door of his bedroom opened, revealing Martin Armstadt on the threshold.

“He is there?” inquired the Duke.

“Awaiting your Highness,” answered the Swiss, and he held the door for Gian Maria to enter.

The bedchamber apportioned the Duke in the Palazzo Valdicampo was a noble and lofty room, in the midst of which loomed the great carved bed of honour, with its upright pillars and funereal canopy.

On the overmantel stood two five-armed sconces with lighted tapers. Yet Gian Maria did not seem to deem that there was light enough for such purpose as he entertained, for he bade Martin fetch him the candelabra that had been left behind. Then he turned his attention to the group standing by the window, where the light from the overmantel fell full upon it.

This consisted of three men, two being mercenaries of Armstadt's guard, in corselet and morion, and the third, who stood captive between, the unfortunate Ser Peppe. The fool's face was paler than its wont, whilst the usual roguery had passed from his eyes and his mouth, fear having taken possession of its room. He met the Duke's cruel glance with one of alarm and piteous entreaty.

Having assured himself that Peppe had no weapons, and that his arms were pinioned behind him, Gian Maria bade the two guards withdraw, but hold themselves in readiness in the ante-chamber with Armstadt. Then he turned to Peppe with a scowl on his low brow.

“You are not so merry as you were this morning, fool,” he scoffed.

Peppino squirmed a little, but his nature, schooled by the long habit of jest, prompted a bold whimsicality in his reply.

“The circumstances are scarcely as propitious—to me. Your Highness, though, seems in excellent good­humour.”

Gian Maria looked at him angrily a moment. He was a slow-witted man, and he could devise no ready answer, no such cutting gibe as it would have pleasured him to administer. He walked leisurely to the fire-place, and leant his elbow on the overmantel.

“Your humour led you into saying some things for which I should be merciful if I had you whipped.”

“And, by the same reasoning, charitable if you had me hanged,” returned the fool dryly, a pale smile on his lips.

“Ah! You acknowledge it?” cried Gian Maria, never seeing the irony intended. “But I am a very clement prince, fool.”

“Proverbially clement,” the jester protested, but he did not succeed this time in excluding the sarcasm from his voice.

Gian Maria shot him a furious glance.

“Are you mocking me, animal? Keep your venomous tongue in bounds, or I'll have you deprived of it.”

Peppe's face turned grey at the threat, as well it might—for what should such a one as he do in the world without a tongue?

Seeing him dumb and stricken, the Duke continued:

“Now, for all that you deserve a hanging for your insolence, I am willing that you should come by no hurt so that you answer truthfully such questions as I have for you.”

Peppino's grotesque figure was doubled in a bow.

“I await your questions, glorious lord,” he answered.

“You spoke——” the Duke hesitated a moment, writhing inwardly at the memory of the exact words in which the fool had spoken. “You spoke this morning of one whom the Lady Valentina had met.”

The fear seemed to increase on the jester's face. “Yes,” he answered, in a choking voice.

“Where did she meet this knight you spoke of, and in such wondrous words of praise described to me?”

“In the woods at Acquasparta, where the river Metauro is no better than a brook. Some two leagues this side of Sant' Angelo.”

“Sant' Angelo!” echoed Gian Maria, starting at the very mention of the place where the late conspiracy against him had been hatched. “And when was this?”

“On the Wednesday before Easter, as Monna Valentina was journeying from Santa Sofia to Urbino.”

No word spake the Duke in answer. He stood still, his head bowed, and his thoughts running again on that conspiracy. The mountain fight in which Masuccio had been killed had taken place on the Tuesday night, and the conviction—scant though the evidence might be—grew upon him that this man was one of the conspirators who had escaped.

“How came your lady to speak with this man—was he known to her?” he inquired at last.

“No, Highness; but he was wounded, and so aroused her compassion. She sought to minister to his hurt.”

“Wounded?” cried Gian Maria, in a shout. “Now, by God, it is as I suspected. I'll swear he got that wound the night before at Sant' Angelo. What was his name, fool? Tell me that, and you shall go free.”

For just a second the hunchback seemed to hesitate. He stood in awesome fear of Gian Maria, of whose cruelties some ghastly tales were told. But in greater fear he stood of the eternal damnation he might earn did he break the oath he had plighted not to divulge that knight's identity.

“Alas!” he sighed, “I would it might be mine to earn my freedom at so light a price; yet it is one that ignorance will not let me pay. I do not know his name.”

The Duke looked at him searchingly and suspiciously.

Dull though he was by nature, eagerness seemed now to have set a cunning edge upon his wits, and suspicion had led him to observe the fool's momentary hesitation.

“Of what appearance was he? Describe him to me. How was he dressed? What was the manner of his face?”

“Again, Lord Duke, I cannot answer you. I had but the most fleeting glimpse of him.”

The Duke's sallow countenance grew very evil-looking, and an ugly smile twisted his lip and laid bare his strong white teeth.

“So fleeting that no memory of him is left you?” quoth he.

“Precisely, Highness.”

“You lie, you filth,” Gian Maria thundered in a towering rage. “It was but this morning that you said his height was splendid, his countenance noble, his manner princely, his speech courtly, and—I know not what besides. Yet now you tell me—you tell me—that your glimpse of him was so fleeting that you cannot describe him. You know his name, rogue, and I will have it from you, or else——”

“Indeed, indeed, most noble lord, be not incensed——” the fool began, in fearful protestation. But the Duke interrupted him.

“Incensed?” he echoed, his eyes dilating in a sort of horror at the notion. “Do you dare impute to me the mortal sin of choler? I am not incensed; there is no anger in me.” He crossed himself, as if to exorcise the evil mood if it indeed existed, and devotedly bowing his head and folding his hands—“Libera me a malo, Domine!” he murmured audibly. Then, with a greater fierceness than before—“Now,” he demanded, “will you tell me his name?”

“I would I could,” the terrified hunchback began. But at that the Duke turned from him with a shrug of angry impatience, and clapping his hands together:

“Olá! Martino!” he called. Instantly the door opened, and the Swiss appeared. “Bring in your men and your rope.”

The captain turned on his heel, and simultaneously the fool cast himself at Gian Maria's feet.

“Mercy, your Highness!” he wailed. “Do not have me hanged. I am——”

“We are not going to hang you,” the Duke broke in coldly. “Dead you would indeed be dumb, and avail us nothing. We want you alive, Messer Peppino—alive and talkative; we find you very reserved for a fool. But we hope to make you speak.”

On his knees, Peppe raised his wild eyes to Heaven.

“Mother of the Afflicted,” he prayed, at which the Duke broke into a contemptuous laugh.

“What has the Heavenly Mother to do with such filth as you? Make your appeals to me. I am the more immediate arbiter of your fate. Tell me the name of that man you met in the woods, and all may yet be well with you.”

Peppino knelt in silence, a cold sweat gathering on his pale brow, and a horrid fear tightening at his heart and throat.

And yet greater than this horror they were preparing for him was the horror of losing his immortal soul by a breach of the solemn oath he had sworn. Gian Maria turned from him, at last, to his bravi, who now entered silently and with the air of men who knew the work expected of them. Martino mounted the bed, and swung for an instant from the framework of the canopy.

“It will hold, Highness,” he announced.

Gian Maria bade him, since that was so, remove the velvet hangings, whilst he despatched one of the men to see that the ante-chamber door was closed, so that no cry should penetrate to the apartments of the Valdicampo household.

In a few seconds all was ready, and Peppino was rudely lifted from his knees and from the prayers he had been pattering to the Virgin to lend him strength in this hour of need.

“For the last time, sir fool,” quoth the Duke, “will you tell us his name?”

“Highness, I cannot,” answered Peppe, for all that terror was freezing his very blood.

A light of satisfaction gleamed now in Gian Maria's eyes.

“So you know it!” he exclaimed. “You no longer protest your ignorance, but only that you cannot tell me. Up with him, Martino.”

In a last pitiable struggle against the inevitable, the fool broke from his guards, and flung himself towards the door. One of the burly Swiss caught him by the neck in a grip that made him cry out with pain. Gian Maria eyed him with a sinister smile, and Martin proceeded to fasten one end of the rope to his pinioned wrists. Then they led him, shivering to the great bed. The other end of the cord was passed over one of the bared arms of the canopy-frame. This end was grasped by the two men-at-arms. Martin stood beside the prisoner. The Duke flung himself into a great carved chair, an air of relish now investing his round, pale face.

“You know what is about to befall you,” he said, in tones of chilling indifference. “Will you speak before we begin?”

“My lord,” said the fool, in a voice that terror was throttling, “you are a good Christian, a loyal son of Mother Church, and a believer in the eternal fires of hell?”

A frown settled on Gian Maria's brow. Was the fool about to intimidate him with talk of supernatural vengeance?

“Thus,” Peppe continued, “you will perhaps be merciful when I confess my position. I made most solemn oath to the man I met at Acquasparta on that luckless day, that I would never reveal his identity. What am I to do? If I keep my oath, you will torture me to death perhaps. If I break it, I shall be damned eternally. Have mercy, noble lord, since now you know how I am placed.”

The smile broadened on Gian Maria's face, and the cruelty of his mouth and eyes seemed intensified by it. The fool had told him that which he would have given much to learn. He had told him that this man whose name he sought, had so feared that his presence that day at Acquasparta should become known, that he had bound the fool by oath not to divulge the secret of it. Of what he had before suspected he was now assured. The man in question was one of the conspirators; probably the very chief of them. Nothing short of the fool's death under torture would now restrain him from learning the name of that unknown who had done him the double injury of conspiring against him, and—if the fool were to be believed—of capturing the heart of Valentina.

“For the damnation of your soul I shall not be called to answer,” he said at last. “Care enough have I to save my own—for temptations are many and this poor flesh is weak. But it is this man's name I need, and—by the five wounds of Lucia of Viterbo!—I will have it. Will you speak?”

Something like a sob shook the poor fool's deformed frame. But that was all. With bowed head he preserved a stubborn silence. The Duke made a sign to the men, and instantly the two of them threw their weight upon the rope, hoisting Peppe by his wrists until he was at the height of the canopy itself. That done, they paused, and turned their eyes upon the Duke for further orders. Again Gian Maria called upon the fool to answer his questions; but Peppe, a writhing, misshapen mass from which two wriggling legs depended, maintained a stubborn silence.

“Let him go,” snarled Gian Maria, out of patience. The men released the rope, and allowed some three feet of it to run through their hands. Then they grasped it again, so that Peppe's sudden fall was as suddenly arrested by a jerk that almost wrenched his arms from their sockets. A shriek broke from him at that exquisite torture, and he was dragged once more to the full height of the canopy.

“Will you speak now?” asked Gian Maria coldly, amusedly almost. But still the fool was silent, his nether lip caught so tightly in his teeth that the blood trickled from it adown his chin. Again the Duke gave the signal, and again they let him go. This time they allowed him a longer drop, so that the wrench with which they arrested it was more severe than had been the first.

Peppe felt his bones starting from their joints, and it was as if a burning iron were searing him at shoulder, elbow and wrist.

“Merciful God!” he screamed. “Oh, have pity, noble lord.”

But the noble lord had him hoisted anew to the canopy. Writhing there in the extremity of his anguish, the poor hunchback poured forth from frothing lips a stream of curses and imprecations, invoking Heaven and hell to strike his tormentors dead.

But the Duke, from whose demeanour it might be inferred that he was inured to the effect produced by this form of torture, looked on with a cruel smile, as of one who watches the progress of events towards the end that he desires and has planned. He was less patient, and his signal came more quickly now. For a third time the fool was dropped, and drawn up, now, a short three feet from the ground.

This time he did not so much as scream. He hung there, dangling at the rope's end, his mouth all bloody, his face ghastly in its glistening pallor, and of his eyes naught showing save the whites. He hung there, and moaned piteously and incessantly. Martin glanced questioningly at Gian Maria, and his eyes very plainly inquired whether they had not better cease. But Gian Maria paid no heed to him.

“Will that suffice you?” he asked the fool. “Will you speak now?”

But the fool's only answer was a moan, whereupon again, at the Duke's relentless signal, he was swung aloft. But at the terror of a fourth drop, more fearful than any of its three predecessors, he awoke very suddenly to the impossible horror of his position. That this agony would endure until he died or fainted, he was assured. And since he seemed incapable of either fainting or dying, suffer more he could not. What was heaven or hell to him then that the thought of either could efface the horror of this torture and strengthen him to continue to endure the agony of it? He could endure no more—no, not to save a dozen souls if he had had them:

“I'll speak,” he screamed. “Let me down, and you shall have his name, Lord Duke.”

“Pronounce it first, or the manner of your descent shall be as the others.”

Peppe passed his tongue over his bleeding lips, hung still and spoke.

“It was your cousin,” he panted, “Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila.”

The Duke stared at him a moment, with startled countenance and mouth agape.

“You are telling me the truth, animal?” he demanded, in a quivering voice. “It was the Count of Aquila who was wounded and whom Monna Valentina tended?”

“I swear it,” answered the fool. “Now, in the name of God and His blessed saints, let me down.”

For a moment yet he was held there, awaiting Gian Maria's signal. The Duke continued to eye him with that same astonished look, what time he turned over in his mind the news he had gathered. Then conviction of the truth sank into his mind. It was the Lord of Aquila who was the idol of the Babbianians. What, then, more natural than that the conspirators should have sought to place him on the throne they proposed to wrest from Gian Maria? He dubbed himself a fool that he had not guessed so much before.

“Let him down,” he curtly bade his men. “Then take him hence, and let him go with God. He has served his purpose.”

Gently they lowered him, but when his feet touched the ground he was unable to stand. His legs doubled under him, and he lay—a little crook-backed heap—upon the rushes of the floor. His senses had deserted him.

At a sign from Armstadt the two men picked him up and carried him out between them.

Gian Maria moved across the room to a tapestried prie­dieu, and knelt down before an ivory crucifix to render thanks to God for the signal light of grace, by which He had vouchsafed to show the Duke his enemy.

Thereafter, drawing from the breast of his doublet a chaplet of gold and amber beads, he piously discharged his nightly devotions.