Chapter 10 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

When on the morrow, towards the twenty-second hour, the High and Mighty Gian Maria Sforza rode into his capital at Babbiano, he found the city in violent turmoil, occasioned, as he rightly guessed, by the ominous presence of Caesar Borgia's envoy.

A dense and sullen crowd met him at the Porta Romana, and preserved a profound silence as he rode into the city, accompanied by Alvari and Santi, and surrounded by his escort of twenty spears in full armour. There was a threat in that silence more ominous than any vociferations, and very white was the Duke's face as he darted scowls of impotent anger this way and that. But there was worse to come. As they rode up the Borgo dell' Annunziata the crowd thickened, and the silence was now replaced by a storm of hooting and angry cries. The people became menacing, and by Armstadt's orders—the Duke was by now too paralysed with fear to issue any—the men-at-arms lowered their pikes in order to open a way, whilst one or two of the populace, who were thrust too near the cavalcade by the surging human tide, went down and were trampled under foot.

Satirical voices asked the Duke derisively was he wed, and where might be his uncle-in-law's spears that were to protect them against the Borgia. Some demanded to know whither the last outrageous levy of taxes was gone, and where was the army it should have served to raise. To this, others replied for the Duke, suggesting a score of vile uses to which the money had been put.

Then, of a sudden, a cry of “Murderer!” arose, followed by angry demands that he should restore life to the valiant Ferrabraccio, to Amerini, the people's friend, and to those others whom he had lately butchered, or else follow them in death. Lastly the name of the Count of Aquila rang wildly in his ears, provoking a storm of “Evviva! Live Francesco del Falco!” and one persistent voice, sounding loudly above the others, styled him already “il Duca Francesco.” At that the blood mounted to Gian Maria's brain, and a wave of anger beat back the fear from his heart. He rose in his stirrups, his eyes ablaze with the jealous wrath that possessed him.

“Ser Martino!” he roared hoarsely to his captain. “Couch lances and go through them at the gallop!”

The burly Swiss hesitated, brave man though he was. Alvaro de' Alvari and Gismondo Santi looked at each other in alarm, and the intrepid old statesman, in whose heart no pang of fear had been awakened by the rabble's threatening bay, changed colour as he heard that order given.

“Highness,” he implored the Duke, “You cannot mean this.”

“Not mean it?” flashed back Gian Maria, his eye travelling from Santi to the hesitating captain. “Fool!” he blazed at the latter. “Brute beast, for what do you wait? Did you not hear me?”

Without a second's delay the captain now raised his sword, and his deep, guttural voice barked an order to his men which brought their lances below the horizontal. The mob, too, had heard that fierce command, and awakening to their peril, those nearest the cavalcade would have fallen back but that the others, pressing tightly from behind, held them in the death-tide that now swept by with clattering arms and hoarse cries.

Shrieks filled the air where lately threats had been loudly tossed. But some there were in that crowd that would be no passive witnesses of this butchery. Half the stones of the borgo went after that cavalcade, and fell in a persistent shower upon them, rattling like giant hail upon their armour, dinting many a steel-cap to its wearer's sore discomfort. The Duke himself was struck twice, and on Santi's unprotected scalp an ugly wound was opened from which the blood flowed in profusion to dye his snowy locks.

In this undignified manner they reached, at last, the Palazzo Ducale, leaving a trail of dead and maimed to mark the way by which they had come.

In a white heat of passion Gian Maria sought his apartments, and came not forth again until, some two hours later, the presence was announced him of the emissary from Caesar Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, who sought an audience.

Still beside himself, and boiling with wrath at the indignities he had received, Gian Maria—in no mood for an interview that would have demanded coolness and presence of mind from a keener brain than his—received the envoy, a gloomy, priestly-faced Spaniard, in the throne-room of the Palace. The Duke was attended by Alvari, Santi, and Fabrizio da Lodi, whilst his mother, Caterina Colonna, occupied a chair of crimson velvet on which the Sforza lion was wrought in gold.

The interview was brief, and marked by a rudeness at its close that contrasted sharply with the ceremoniousness of its inception. It soon became clear that the ambassador's true mission was to pick a quarrel with Babbiano on his master's behalf, to the end that the Borgia might be afforded a sound pretext for invading the Duchy. He demanded, at first politely and calmly, and later—when denied—with arrogant insistance, that Gian Maria should provide the Duke of Valentinois with a hundred lances—equivalent to five hundred men—as some contribution on his part towards the stand which Caesar Borgia meant to make against the impending French invasion.

Gian Maria never heeded the restraining words which Lodi whispered in his ear, urging him to temporise, and to put off this messenger until the alliance with the house of Urbino should be complete and their position strengthened sufficiently to permit them to brave the anger of Caesar Borgia. But neither this nor the wrathful, meaning glances which his cunning mother bent upon him served to curb him. He obeyed only the voice of his headstrong mood, never dreaming of the consequences with which he might be visited.

“You will bear to the Duca Valentino this message from me,” he said, in conclusion. “You will tell him that what lances I have in Babbiano I intend to keep, that with them I may defend my own frontiers against his briganding advances. Messer da Lodi,” he added, turning to Fabrizio and without so much as waiting to see if the envoy had anything further to say, “let this gentleman be reconducted to his quarters, and see that he has safe conduct hence until he is out of our Duchy.”

When the envoy, crimson of face and threatening of eye, had withdrawn under Lodi's escort, Monna Caterina rose, the very incarnation of outraged patience, and poured her bitter invective upon her rash son's head.

“Fool!” she stormed at him. “There goes your Duchy—in the hollow of that man's hand.” Then she laughed in bitterness. “After all, in casting it from you, perhaps you have chosen the wiser course, for, as truly as there is a God in Heaven, you are utterly unfitted to retain it.”

“My lady mother,” he answered her, with such dignity as he could muster from the wretched heap in which his wits now seemed to lie, “you will be well advised to devote yourself to your woman's tasks, and not to interfere in a man's work.”

“Man's work!” she sneered. “And you perform it like a petulant boy or a peevish woman.”

“I perform it, Madonna, as best seems to me, for it happens that I am Duke of Babbiano,” he answered sullenly. “I do not fear any Pope's son that ever stepped. The alliance with Urbino is all but completed. Let that be established, and if Valentino shows his teeth—by God we'll show ours.”

“Aye, but with this difference, that his are a wolf's teeth, and yours a lamb's. Besides, this alliance with Urbino is all incomplete as yet. You had been better advised to have sent away the envoy with some indefinite promise that would have afforded you respite enough in which to seal matters with the house of Montefeltro. As it is, your days are numbered. Upon that message you have sent him Caesar will act at once. For my own part, I have no mind to fall a prey to the invader, and I shall leave Babbiano, and seek refuge in Naples. And if a last word of advice I may offer you, it is that you do the same.”

Gian Maria rose and came down from the dais, eyeing her in a sort of dull amazement. Then he looked, as if for help, to Alvari, to Santi, and lastly to Lodi, who had returned while Caterina was speaking. But no word said any of them, and grave were the eyes of all.

“Poor-spirited are you all!” he sneered. Then his face grew dark and his tone concentrated. “Not so am I,” he assured them, “if in the past I may have seemed it sometimes. I am aroused at length, sirs. I heard a voice in the streets of Babbiano to-day, and I saw a sight that has put a fire into my veins. This good-tempered, soft, indulgent Duke you knew is gone. The lion is awake at last, and you shall see such things as you had not dreamt of.”

They regarded him now with eyes in which the gravity was increased by a light of fearsome wonder and inquiry. Was his mind giving way under the prodigious strain that had been set upon it that day? If not madness, what else did that wild boasting argue?

“Are you all dumb?” he asked them, his eyes feverish. “Or do you deem that I promise more than is mine to fulfil. You shall judge, and soon. To-morrow, my lady mother, whilst you journey south, as you have told us, I go north again, back to Urbino. Not a day will I now waste. Within the week, sirs, by God's grace, I shall be wed. That will give us Urbino for a buckler, and with Urbino comes Perugia and Camerino. But more than that. There is a princely dowry comes to us with the Lady Valentina. How think you will I spend it? To the last florin it shall go to the arming of men. I will hire me every free condotta in Italy. I will raise me such an army as has never before been seen at any one time, and with this I shall seek out the Duca Valentino. I'll not sit here at home awaiting the pleasure of his coming, but I'll out to meet him, and with that army I shall descend upon him as a thunderbolt out of Heaven. Aye, my lady mother,” he laughed in his madness, “the lamb shall hunt the wolf, and rend it so that it shall never stand again to prey on other lambs. This will I do, my friends, and there shall be such fighting as has not been seen since the long-dead days of Castracani.”

They stared at him, scarce believing now that he was sane, and marvelling deeply whence had sprung this sudden martial fervour in one whose nature was more indolent than active, more timid than warlike. And yet the reason was not far to seek, had they but cared to follow the line of thought to which he, himself, had given them the clue when he referred to the voice he had heard, and the sights he had seen in the streets of Babbiano. The voice was the voice that had acclaimed his cousin Francesco Duke. That it was through that a fierce jealousy had fired him. This man had robbed him at once of the love of his people and of Valentina, and thereby had set in his heart the burning desire to outdo him and to prove wrong in their preference both his people and Valentina. He was like a gamer who risks all on a single throw, and his stake was to be the dowry of his bride, the game a tilt with the forces of the Borgia. If he won he came out covered with glory, and not only the saviour of his people and the champion of their liberty, but a glorious figure that all Italy—or, at least, that part of it that had known the iron heel of Valentino—should revere. Thus would he set himself right, and thus crush from their minds the memory of his rebellious cousin with whom he was about to deal.

His mother turned to him now, and her words were words of caution, prayers that he should adventure on naught so vast and appalling to her woman's mind, without due thought and argument in council. A servant entered at that moment, and approached the Duke.

“Madonna,” Gian Maria announced, breaking in upon her earnest words, “I am fully resolved upon my course. If you will but delay a moment and resume your seat, you shall witness the first scene of this great drama that I am preparing.” Then turning to the waiting servant: “Your message?” he demanded.

“Captain Armstadt has returned, Highness, and has brought his Excellency.”

“Fetch lights and then admit them,” he commanded briefly. “To your places, sirs, and you, my mother. I am about to sit in judgment.”

Amazed and uncomprehending, they obeyed his wild gestures, and resumed their places by the throne even as he walked back to the dais and sat himself upon the ducal chair. Servants entered, bearing great candelabra of beaten gold which they set on table and overmantel. They withdrew, and when the doors opened again, a clank of mail, reaching them from without, increased the astonishment of the company.

This rose yet higher, and left them cold and speechless, when into the chamber stepped the Count of Aquila with a man-at-arms on either side of him, marking him a prisoner. With a swift, comprehensive glance that took in the entire group about the throne—and without manifesting the slightest surprise at Lodi's presence—Francesco stood still and awaited his cousin's words.

He was elegantly dressed, but without lavishness, and if he had the air of a great lord, it was rather derived from the distinction of his face and carriage. He was without arms, and bareheaded save for the gold coif he always wore, which seemed to accentuate the lustrous blackness of his hair. His face was impassive, and the glance as that of a man rather weary of the entertainment provided him.

There was an oppressive silence of some moments, during which his cousin regarded him with an eye that glittered oddly. At last Gian Maria broke into speech, his voice shrill with excitement.

“Know you of any reason,” he demanded, “why your head should not be flaunted on a spear among those others on the Gate of San Bacolo?”

Francesco's eyebrows shot up in justifiable astonishment.

“I know of many,” he answered, with a smile, an answer which by its simplicity seemed to nonplus the Duke.

“Let us hear some of them,” he challenged presently.

“Nay, let us hear, rather, some reason why my poor head should be so harshly dealt with. When a man is rudely taken, as I have been, it is a custom, which perhaps your Highness will follow, to afford him some reason for the outrage.”

“You smooth-tongued traitor,” quoth the Duke, with infinite malice, made angrier by his cousin's dignity. “You choicely-spoken villain! You would learn why you have been taken? Tell me, sir, what did you at Acquasparta on the morning of the Wednesday before Easter?”

The Count's impassive face remained inscrutable, a mask of patient wonder. By the sudden clenching of his hands alone did he betray how that thrust had smitten him, and his hands none there remarked. Fabrizio da Lodi, standing behind the Duke, went pale to the lips.

“I do not recall that I did anything there of much account,” he answered. “I breathed the good spring air in the woods.”

“And nothing else?” sneered Gian Maria.

“I can bethink me of little else that signifies. I met a lady there with whom I had some talk, a friar, a fool, a popinjay, and some soldiers. But,”—he shifted abruptly, his tone growing haughty—“whatever I did, I did as best seemed to me, and I have yet to learn that the Count of Aquila must give account of what he does and where he does it. You have not told me yet, sir, by what right, or fancied right, you hold me prisoner.”

“Have I not, indeed? See you no link between your offence and your presence near Sant' Angelo on that day?”

“If I am to apprehend that you have had me brought here with this indignity to set me riddles for your amusement, I am enlightened and yet amazed. I am no court buffoon.”

“Words, words,” snapped the Duke. “Do not think to beguile me with them.” With a short laugh he turned from Francesco to those upon the dais. “You will be marvelling, sirs, and you, my lady mother, upon what grounds I have had this traitor seized. You shall learn. On the night of the Tuesday before Easter seven traitors met at Sant' Angelo to plot my overthrow. Of those, the heads of four may be seen on the walls of Babbiano now; the other three made off, but there stands one of them—the one that was to have occupied this throne after they had unseated me.”

The eyes of all were now upon the young Count, whilst his own glance strayed to the face of Lodi, on which there was written a consternation so great that it must have betrayed him had the Duke but chanced to look his way. A pause ensued which none present dared to break. Gian Maria seemed to await an answer from Francesco; but Francesco stood impassively regarding him, and made no sign that he would speak. At length, unable longer to endure the silence:

“E dunque?” cried the Duke. “Have you no answer?”

“I would submit,” returned Francesco, “that I have heard no question. I heard a wild statement, extravagant and mad, the accusation of one demented, a charge of which no proofs can be forthcoming, else I take it you had not withheld them. I ask you, sirs, and you, Madonna,” he continued, turning to the others, “has his Highness said anything to which an answer can by any means be necessary?”

“Is it proofs you lack?” cried Gian Maria, but less confidently than hitherto, and, so, less fiercely. A doubt had arisen in his mind born of this strange calm on the part of Francesco—a calm that to Gian Maria's perceptions seemed hardly the garb of guilt, but belonged rather to one who is assured that no peril threatens him. “Is it proofs you lack?” quoth the Duke again, and then with the air of a man launching an unanswerable question: “How came you by the wound you had that day in the woods?”

A smile quivered on Francesco's face, and was gone.

“I asked for proofs, not questions,” he protested wearily. “What shall it prove if I had a hundred wounds?”

“Prove?” echoed the Duke, less and less confident of his ground, fearing already that he had perhaps gone too fast and too far upon the road of his suspicions. “It proves to me, when coupled with your presence there, that you were in the fight the night before.”

Francesco stirred at that. He sighed and smiled at once. Then assuming a tone of brisk command:

“Bid these men begone,” he said, pointing to his guards. “Then hear me scatter your foul suspicions as the hurricane scatters the leaves in autumn.”

Gian Maria stared at him in stupefaction. That overwhelming assurance, that lofty, dignified bearing which made such a noble contrast with his own coarse hectoring, were gradually undermining more and more his confidence. With a wave of his hand he motioned the soldiers to withdraw, obeying almost unconsciously the master-mind of his cousin by which he was as unconsciously being swayed.

“Now, Highness,” said Francesco, as soon as the men were gone, “before I refute the charge you make, let me clearly understand it. From the expressions you have used I gather it to be this: A conspiracy was laid a little time ago at Sant' Angelo which had for object to supplant you on the throne of Babbiano and set me in your place. You charge me with having had in that conspiracy a part—the part assigned to me. It is so, is it not?”

Gian Maria nodded.

“You have put it very clearly,” he sneered. “If you can make out your innocence as clearly, I shall be satisfied that I have wronged you.”

“That this conspiracy took place we will accept as proven, although to the people of Babbiano the proof may have seemed scant. A man, since dead, had told your Highness that such a plot was being hatched. Hardly, perhaps, in itself, evidence enough to warrant setting the heads of four very valiant gentlemen on spears, but no doubt your Highness had other proofs to which the rest of us had no access.”

Gian Maria shivered at the words. He recalled what Francesco had said on the occasion of their last talk upon this very subject; he remembered the manner of his own reception that day in Babbiano.

“We must be content that it is so,” calmly pursued Francesco. “Indeed, your Highness's action in the matter leaves no doubt. We will accept, then, that such a plot was laid, but that I had a part in it, that I was the man chosen to take your place—need I prove the idleness of such a charge?”

“You need, in truth. By God! you need, if you would save your head.”

The Count stood in an easy posture, his hands clasped behind his back, and smiled up at his cousin's pale face and scowling brow.

“How mysterious are the ways of your justice, Cousin,” he murmured, with infinite relish; “what a wondrous equity invests your methods! You have me dragged here by force, and sitting there, you say to me: 'Prove that you have not conspired against me, or the headsman shall have you!' By my faith! Soloman was a foolish prattler when compared with you.”

Gian Maria smote the gilded arm of his chair a blow for which he was to find his hand blackened on the morrow.

“Prove it!” he screamed, like a child in a pet. “Prove it, prove it, prove it!”

“And have my words not already proven it?” quoth the Count, in a voice of such mild wonder and gentle protest that it left Gian Maria gasping.

Then the Duke made a hasty gesture of impatience.

“Messer Alvari,” he said, in a voice of concentrated rage, “I think you had best recall the guard.”

“Wait!” the Count compelled him, raising his hand. And now it was seen that the easy insouciance was gone from his face: the smile had vanished, and in its place there was a look of lofty and contemptuous wrath. “I will repeat my words. You have dragged me here before you by force, and, sitting there on the throne of Babbiano, you say: 'Prove that you have not conspired against me if you would save your head.'” A second he paused, and noted the puzzled look with which all regarded him.

“Is this a parable?” sneered the uncomprehending Duke.

“You have said it,” flashed back Francesco. “A parable it is. And if you consider it, does it not afford you proof enough?” he asked, a note of triumph in his voice. “Do not our relative positions irrefutably show the baselessness of this your charge? Should I stand here and you sit there if what you allege against me were true?” He laughed almost savagely, and his eyes flashed scornfully upon the Duke. “If more plainly still you need it, Gian Maria, I tell you that had I plotted to occupy your tottering throne, I should be on it now, not standing here defending myself against a foolish charge. But can you doubt it? Did you learn no lesson as you rode into Babbiano to-day? Did you not hear them acclaim me and groan at you. And yet,” he ended, with a lofty pity, “you tell me that I plotted. Why, if I desired your throne, my only need would be to unfurl my banner in the streets of your capital, and within the hour Gian Maria would be Duke no more. Have I proved my innocence, Highness?” he ended quietly, sadly almost. “Are you convinced how little is my need for plots?”

But the Duke had no answer for him. Speechless, and in a sort of dazed horror, he sat and scowled before him at his cousin's handsome face, what time the others watched him furtively, in silence, trembling for the young man who, here, in his grasp, had dared say such things to him. Presently he covered his face with his hands, and sat so, as one deeply in thought, a little while. At last he withdrew them slowly and presented a countenance that passion and chagrin had strangely ravaged in so little time. He turned to Santi, who stood nearest.

“The guard,” he said hoarsely, with a wave of the hand, and Santi went, none daring to utter a word. They waited thus an odd group, all very grave save one, and he the one that had most cause for gravity. Then the captain re-entered, followed by his two men, and Gian Maria waved a hand towards the prisoner.

“Take him away,” he muttered harshly, his face ghastly, and passion shaking him like an aspen. “Take him away, and await my orders in the ante-chamber.”

“If it is farewell, Cousin,” said Francesco, “may I hope that you will send a priest to me? I have lived a faithful Christian.”

Gian Maria returned him no answer, but his baleful eye was upon Martino. Reading the significance of that glance, the captain touched Francesco lightly on the arm. A moment the Count stood, looking from the Duke to the soldiers; a second his glance rested on those assembled there; then, with a light raising of his shoulders, he turned on his heel, and with his head high passed out of the ducal chamber.

And silence continued after he was gone until Caterina Colonna broke it with a laugh that grated on Gian Maria's now very tender nerves.

“You promised bravely,” she mocked him, “to play the lion. But so far, we have only heard the braying of an ass.”