Chapter 11 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

That taunt of his mother's stirred Gian Maria. He rose from his ducal chair and descended from the dais on which it stood, possessed by a tempestuous mood that would not brook him to sit still.

“The braying of an ass?” he muttered, facing Caterina. Then he laughed unpleasantly. “The jaw-bone of an ass did sore execution on one occasion, Madonna, and it may again. A little patience, and you shall see.” Next, and with a brisker air, he addressed the four silent courtiers, “You heard him, sirs,” he exclaimed, “How do you say that I shall deal with such a traitor?” He waited some seconds for an answer, and it seemed to anger him that none came. “Have you, then, no counsel for me?” he demanded harshly.

“I had not thought,” said Lodi hardily, “that this was a case in which your Highness needed counsel. You were drawn to conclude that the Lord of Aquila was a traitor, but from what we have all heard, your Highness should now see that he is not.”

“Should I so?” the Duke returned, standing still and fixing upon Fabrizio an eye that was dull as a snake's. “Messer da Lodi, your loyalty is a thing that has given signs of wavering of late. Now, if by the grace of God and His blessed saints I have ruled as a merciful prince who errs too much upon the side of clemency, I would enjoin you not to try that clemency too far. I am but a man, after all.”

He turned from the fearless front presented by the old statesman, to face the troubled glances of the others.

“Your silence, sirs, tells me that in this matter your judgement runs parallel with mine. And you are wise, for in such a case there can be but one course. My cousin has uttered words to-day which no man has ever said to a prince and lived. Nor shall we make exception to that rule. My Lord of Aquila's head must pay the price of his temerity.”

“My son,” cried Caterina, in a voice of horror. Gian Maria faced her in a passion, his countenance grown mottled.

“I have said it,” he growled. “I will not sleep until he dies.”

“Yet never may you wake again,” she answered. And with that preamble she launched upon his head the bitterest criticism he had ever heard. By stinging epithets and contemptuous words, she sought to make him see the folly of what he meditated. Was he indeed tired of ruling Babbiano? If that were so, she told him, he had but to wait for Caesar Borgia's coming. He need not precipitate matters by a deed that must lead to a revolt, a rising of the people to avenge their idol.

“You have given me but added reasons,” he answered her stoutly. “There is no room in my Duchy for a man whose death, if it pleased me to encompass it, would be avenged upon me by my own people.”

“Then send him from your dominions,” she urged. “Banish him, and all may be well. But if you slay him, I should not count your life worth a day's purchase.”

This advice was sound, and in the end they prevailed upon him to adopt it. But it was not done save at the cost of endless prayers on the part of those courtiers, and the persuasions of Caterina's biting scorn and prophecies of the fate that surely awaited him did he touch the life of one so well­beloved. At last, against his will, he sullenly consented that the banishment of his cousin should content him. But it was with infinite bitterness and regret that he passed his word, for his jealousy was of a quality that nothing short of Francesco's death could have appeased. Certain it is that nothing but the fear of the consequences, which his mother had instilled into his heart, could have swayed him to be satisfied that the Count of Aquila should be banished.

He sent for Martino and bade him return the Count his sword, and he entrusted the message of exile to Fabrizio da Lodi, charging him to apprise Francesco that he was allowed twenty-four hours' grace in which to take himself beyond the dominions of Gian Maria Sforza.

That done—and with an exceedingly ill grace—the Duke turned on his heel, and with a sullen brow he left the ducal chamber, and passed, unattended, to his own apartments.

Rejoicing, Fabrizio da Lodi went his errand, which he discharged with certain additions that might have cost him his head had knowledge of them come to Gian Maria. In fact, he seized the opportunity to again press upon Francesco the throne of Babbiano.

“The hour is very ripe,” he urged the Count, “and the people love you as surely prince was never loved. It is in their interests that I plead. You are their only hope. Will you not come to them?”

If for a moment Francesco hesitated, it was rather in consideration of the manner in which the crown was offered than in consequence of any allurement that the offer may have had for him. Once—that night at Sant' Angelo—he had known temptation, and for a moment had listened to the seductions in the voice that invited him to power. But not so now. A thought he gave to the people who had such faith in him, and showered upon him such admiring love, and whom, as a matter of reciprocity, he wished well, and would have served in any capacity but this. He shook his head, and with a smile of regret declined the offer.

“Have patience, old friend,” he added. “I am not of the stuff that goes to make good princes, although you think it. It is a bondage into which I would not sell myself. A man's life for me, Fabrizio—a free life that is not directed by councillors and at the mercy of the rabble.”

Fabrizio's face grew sad. He sighed profoundly, yet since it might not be well for him that he should remain over-long in talk with one who, in the Duke's eyes, was attainted with treason, he had not leisure to insist with persuasions, which, after all, he clearly saw must in the end prove barren.

“What was the salvation of the people of Babbiano,” he murmured, “was also your Excellency's, since did you adopt the course I urge there would be no need to go in banishment.”

“Why, this exile suits me excellently well,” returned Francesco. “Idle have I been over-long, and the wish to roam is in my veins again. I'll see the world once more, and when I weary of my vagrancy I can withdraw to my lands of Aquila, and in that corner of Tuscany, too mean to draw a conqueror's eye, none will molest me, and I shall rest. Babbiano, my friend, shall know me no more after to-night. When I am gone, and the people realise that they may not have what they would, they may rest content perhaps with what they may.” And he waved a hand in the direction of the doors leading to the ducal chamber. With that he took his leave of his old friend, and, carrying in his hand the sword and dagger which Captain Armstadt had returned to him, he repaired briskly to the northern wing of the Palace, in which he had his lodging.

In the ante-room he dismissed those of his servants who had been taken from the ranks of the Duke's people, and bade his own Tuscan followers, Zaccaria and Lanciotto, see to the packing of his effects, and make all ready to set out within the hour.

He was no coward, but he had no wish to die just yet if it might be honourably avoided. Life had some sweets to offer Francesco del Falco, and this spurred him to hasten, for he well knew his cousin's unscrupulous ways. He was aware that Gian Maria had been forced by weight of argument to let him go, and he shrewdly feared that did he linger, his cousin might veer round again, and without pausing to seek advice a second time, have him disposed of out of hand and reckless of consequences.

Whilst Lanciotto was left busy in the ante-room the Count passed into his bedchamber attended by Zaccaria, to make in his raiment such changes as were expedient. But scarce had he begun when he was interrupted by the arrival of Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, whom Lanciotto ushered in. Francesco's face lighted at sight of his friend, and he held out his hand.

“What is it that has happened?” cried the young gallant, adding that which showed his question to be unnecessary, for from Fabrizio da Lodi he had had the whole story of what was befallen. He sat himself upon the bed, and utterly disregarding the presence of Zaccaria—whom he knew to be faithful—he attempted to persuade the Count where Fabrizio had failed. But Paolo cut him short ere he had gone very far.

“Have done with that,” he said, and for all that he said it with a laugh, determination sounded sturdy in his accents. “I am a knight-errant, not a prince, and I'll not be converted from one to the other. It were making a helot of a free man, and you do not love me, Fanfulla, if you drive this argument further. Do you think me sad, cast down, at the prospect of this banishment? Why, boy, the blood runs swifter through my veins since I heard the sentence. It frees me from Babbiano in an hour when perhaps my duty—the reciprocation of the people's love—might otherwise have held me here, and it gives me liberty to go forth, my good Fanfulla, in quest of such adventure as I choose to follow.” He threw out his arms, and displayed his splendid teeth in a hearty laugh.

Fanfulla eyed him, infected by the boisterous gladness of his mood.

“Why, true indeed, my lord,” he acknowledged, “you are too fine a bird to sing in a cage. But to go knight-erranting——” He paused, and spread his hands in protest. “There are no longer dragons holding princesses captive.”

“Alas no. But the Venetians are on the eve of war, and they will find work for these hands of mine. I want not for friends among them.”

Fanfulla sighed.

“And so we lose you. The stoutest arm in Babbiano leaves us in the hour of need, driven out by that loutish Duke. By my soul, Ser Francesco, I would I might go with you. Here is nothing to be done.”

Francesco paused in the act of drawing on a boot, and raised his eyes to stare a moment at his friend.

“But if you wish it, Fanfulla, I shall rejoice to have your company.”

And now the idea of it entered Fanfulla's mind in earnest, for his expression had been more or less an idle one. But since Francesco invited him, why not indeed?

And thus it came to pass that at the third hour of that warm May night a party of four men on horseback and two sumpter mules passed out of Babbiano and took the road that leads to Vinamare, and thence into the territory of Urbino. These riders were the Count of Aquila and Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, followed by Lanciotto leading a mule that bore the arms of those knights-errant, and Zaccaria leading another with their general baggage.

All night they rode beneath the stars, and on until some three hours after sunrise, when they made halt in a hollow of the hills not far from Fabriano. They tethered their horses in a grove of peaceful laurel and sheltering mulberry, at the foot of a slope that was set with olive trees, grey, gnarled and bent as aged cripples, and beside the river Esino at a spot where it was so narrow that an agile man might leap its width. Here, then, they spread their cloaks, and Zaccaria unpacked his victuals, and set before them a simple meal of bread and wine and roasted fowl, which to their hunger made more appeal than a banquet at another season. And when they had eaten they laid them down beside the stream, and there beguiled in pleasant talk the time until they fell asleep. They rested them through the heat of the day, and waking some three hours after noon, the Count rose up and went some dozen paces down the stream to a spot where it fell into a tiny lake—a pool deep and blue as the cloudless heavens which it mirrored. Here he stripped off his garments and plunged headlong in, to emerge again, some moments later, refreshed and reinvigorated in body and in soul.

As Fanfulla awoke he beheld an apparition coming towards him, a figure lithe and stalwart as a sylvian god, the water shining on the ivory whiteness of his skin and glistening in his sable hair as the sunlight caught it.

“Tell me now, Fanfulla, lives there a man of so depraved a mind that he would prefer a ducal crown to this?”

And the courtier, seeing Francesco's radiant mien, understood perhaps, at last, how sordid was the ambition that could lure a man from such a god-like freedom, and from the holy all-consuming joys it brought him. His thoughts being started upon that course, it was of this they talked what time the Count resumed his garments—his hose of red, his knee-high boots of untanned leather, and his quilted brigandine of plain brown cloth, reputed dagger-proof. He rose at last to buckle on his belt of hammered steel, from which there hung, behind his loins, a stout, lengthy dagger, the only weapon that he carried.

At his command the horses were saddled and the sumpters laden once more. Lanciotto held his stirrup, and Zaccaria did like service for Fanfulla, and presently they were cantering out of that fragrant grove on to the elastic sward of broad, green pasture-lands. They crossed the stream at a spot where the widened sheet of water scarce went higher than their horses' hocks; then veering to the east they rode away from the hills for a half-league or so until they gained a road. Here they turned northward again, and pushed on towards Cagli.

As the bells were ringing the Ave Maria the cavalcade drew up before the Palazzo Valdicampo, where two nights ago Gian Maria had been entertained. Its gates were now as readily thrown wide to welcome the illustrious and glorious Count of Aquila, who was esteemed by Messer Valdicampo no less than his more puissant cousin. Chambers were set at his disposal, and at Fanfulla's; servants were bidden to wait upon them; fresh raiment was laid out for them, and a noble supper was prepared to do honour to Francesco. Nor did the generous Valdicampo's manner cool when he learned that Francesco was in disgrace at the Court of Babbiano and banished from the dominions of Duke Gian Maria. He expressed sympathetic regret at so untoward a circumstance and discreetly refrained from passing any opinion thereupon.

Yet later, as they supped, and when perhaps the choice wines had somewhat relaxed his discretion, he permitted himself to speak of Gian Maria's ways in terms that were very far from laudatory.

“Here, in my house,” he informed them, “he committed an outrage upon a poor unfortunate, for which an account may yet be asked of me—since it was under my roof that the thing befell, for all that I knew nothing of it.”

Upon being pressed by Paolo to tell them more, he parted with the information that the unfortunate in question was Urbino's jester Peppe. At that, Paolo's glance became more intent. The memory of his meeting with the fool and his mistress in the woods, a month ago, flashed now across his mind, and it came to him that he could rightly guess the source whence his cousin had drawn the information that had led to his own arrest and banishment.

“Of what nature was the outrage?” he inquired.

“From what Peppe himself has told me it would seem that the fool was possessed of some knowledge which Gian Maria sought, but on which Peppe was bound by oath to silence. Gian Maria caused him to be secretly taken and carried off from Urbino. His sbirri brought the fellow here, and to make him speak the Duke improvised in his bedchamber a tratta di corde, which had the desired result.”

The Count's face grew dark with anger. “The coward!” he muttered. “The dastardly craven!”

“But bethink you, sir Count,” exclaimed Valdicampo, “that this poor Peppe is a frail and deformed creature, lacking the strength of an ordinary man, and do not judge him over-harshly.”

“It was not of him I spoke,” replied Francesco, “but of my cousin, that cowardly tyrant, Gian Maria Sforza. Tell me, Messer Valdicampo—what has become of Ser Peppe?”

“He is still here. I have had him tended, and his condition is already much improved. It will not be long ere he is recovered, but for a few days yet his arms will remain almost useless. They were all but torn from his body.”

When the meal was done Francesco begged his host to conduct him to Peppe's chamber. This Valdicampo did, and leaving Fanfulla in the company of the ladies of his house, he escorted the Count to the room where the poor, ill-used hunchback was abed tended by one of the women of Valdicampo's household.

“Here is a visitor to see you, Ser Peppe,” the old gentleman announced, setting down his candle on a table by the bed. The jester turned his great head towards the newcomer's, and sought with melancoly eyes the face of his visitor. At sight of him a look of terror spread itself upon his countenance.

“My lord,” he cried, struggling into a sitting posture, “my noble, gracious lord, have mercy on me. I could tear out this craven tongue of mine. But did you know what agonies I suffered, and to what a torture they submitted me to render me unfaithful, it may be that you, yourself, would pity me.”

“Why, that I do,” answered Francesco gently. “Indeed, could I have seen the consequences that oath would have for you, I had not bound you by it.”

The fear in Peppe's face gave place to unbelief.

“And you forgive me, lord?” he cried. “I dreaded when you entered that you were come to punish me for what wrong I may have done you in speaking. But if you forgive me, it may be that Heaven will forgive me also, and that I may not be damned. And that were a thousand pities, for what, my lord, should I do in hell?”

“Deride the agonies of Gian Maria,” answered Francesco, with a laugh.

“It were almost worth burning for,” mused Peppe, putting forth a hand, whose lacerated, swollen wrist bore evidence to the torture he had suffered. At sight of it the Count made an exclamation of angry horror, and hastened to inquire into the poor fool's condition.

“It is not so bad now,” Peppe answered him, “and it is only in consequence of Messer Valdicampo's insistence that I have kept my bed. I can scarce use my arms, it is true, but they are improving. To-morrow I shall be up, and I hope to set out for Urbino, where my dear mistress must be distressed with fears for my absence, for she is a very kind and tender­hearted lady.”

This resolve of Peppe's prompted the Count to offer to conduct him to Urbino on the morrow, since he, himself, would be journeying that way—an offer which the fool accepted without hesitation and with lively gratitude.