Chapter 12 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

THE FOOL'S INQUISITIVENESS
In the morning Francesco set out once more, accompanied by his servants, Fanfulla, and the fool. The latter was now so far restored as to be able to sit a mule, but lest the riding should over-tire him they proceeded at little more than an ambling pace along the lovely valleys of the Metauro. Thus it befell that when night descended it found them still journeying, and some two leagues distant from Urbino. Another league they travelled in the moonlight, and the fool was beguiling the time for them with a droll story culled from the bright pages of Messer Boccaccio, when of a sudden his sharp ears caught a sound that struck him dumb in the middle of a sentence.

“Are you faint?” asked Francesco, turning quickly towards him, and mindful of the fellow's sore condition.

“No, no,” answered the fool, with a readiness that dispelled the Count's alarm on that score. “I thought I heard a sound of marching in the distance.”

“The wind in the trees, Peppino,” explained Fanfulla.

“I do not think——” He stopped short and listened and now they all heard it, for it came wafted to them on a gust of the fitful breeze that smote their faces.

“You are right,” said Francesco. “It is the tramp of men. But what of that, Peppe? Men will march in Italy. Let us hear the end of your story.”

“But who should march in Urbino, and by night?” the fool persisted.

“Do I know or do I care?” quoth the Count. “Your story, man.”

For all that he was far from satisfied, the fool resumed his narrative. But he no longer told it with his former irresistible humour. His mind was occupied with that sound of marching, which came steadily nearer. At length he could endure it no longer, and the apathy of his companions fired him openly to rebel.

“My lord,” he cried, turning to the Count, and again leaving his story interrupted, “they are all but upon us.”

“True!” agreed Francesco indifferently. “The next turn yonder should bring us into them.”

“Then I beg you, Lord Count, to step aside. Let us pause here, under the trees, until they have passed. I am full of fears. Perhaps I am a coward, but I mislike these roving night-hands. It may be a company of masnadieri.”

“What then?” returned the Count, without slackening speed. “What cause have we to fear a party of robbers?”

But Fanfulla and the servants joined their advice to Peppe's, and prevailed at last upon Francesco to take cover until this company should have passed. He consented, to pacify them, and wheeling to the right they entered the border of the forest, drawing rein well in the shadow, whence they could survey the road and see who passed across the patch of moonlight that illumined it. And presently the company came along and swung into that revealing flood of light. To the astonishment of the watchers they beheld no marauding party such as they had been led to expect, but a very orderly company of some twenty men, soberly arrayed in leather hacketons and salades of bright steel, marching sword on thigh and pike on shoulder. At the head of this company rode a powerfully-built man on a great sorrel horse, at sight of whom the fool swore softly in astonishment. In the middle of the party came four litters borne by mules, and at the side of one of them rode a slender, graceful figure that provoked from Peppe a second oath. But the profoundest objurgation of all was wrung from him at sight of a portly bulk in the black habit of the Dominicans ambling in the rear, who just then was in angry altercation with a fellow that was urging his mule along with the butt of his partisan.

“May you be roasted on a gridiron like Saint Lawrence,” gasped the irate priest. “Would you break my neck, brute beast that you are? Do you but wait until we reach Roccaleone, and by St. Dominic, I'll get your ruffianly commander to hang you for this ill-seasoned jest.”

But his tormentor laughed for answer, and smote the mule again, a blow this time that almost caused it to rear up. The friar cried out in angry alarm, and then, still storming and threatening his persecutor, he passed on. After him came six heavily-laden carts, each drawn by a pair of bullocks, and the rear of the procession was brought up by a flock of a dozen bleating sheep, herded by a blasphemant man-at-arms. They passed the astonished watchers, who remained concealed until that odd company had melted away into the night.

“I could swear,” said Fanfulla, “that that friar and I have met before.”

“Nor would you do a perjury,” answered him the fool. “For it is that fat hog Fra Domenico—he that went with you to the Convent of Acquasparta to fetch unguents for his Excellency.”

“What does he in that company, and who are they?” asked the Count, turning to the fool as they rode out of their ambush.

“Ask me where the devil keeps his lures,” quoth the fool, “and I'll make some shift to answer you. But as for what does Fra Domenico in that galley, it is more than I can hazard a guess on. He is not the only one known to me,” Peppino added, “There was Ercole Fortemani, a great, dirty, blustering ruffian whom I never saw in aught but rags, riding at their heads in garments of most unwonted wholeness; and there was Romeo Gonzaga, whom I never knew to stir by night save to an assignation. Strange things must be happening in Urbino.”

“And the litters?” inquired Francesco, “Can you hazard no guess as to their meaning?”

“None,” said he, “saving that they may account for the presence of Messer Gonzaga. For litters argue women.”

“It seems, fool, that not even your wisdom shall avail us. But you heard the friar say they were bound for Roccaleone?”

“Yes, I heard that. And by means of it we shall probably learn the rest at the end of our journey.”

And being a man of extremely inquisitive mind, the fool set his inquiries on foot the moment they entered the gates of Urbino in the morning—for they had reached the city over-late to gain admittance that same night, and were forced to seek shelter in one of the houses by the river. It was of the Captain of the Gate that he sought information.

“Can you tell me, Ser Capitan,” he inquired, “what company was that that travelled yesternight to Roccaleone?”

The captain looked at him a moment.

“There was none that I know of,” said he, “Certainly none from Urbino.”

“You keep a marvellous watch,” said the fool drily. “I tell you that a company of men-at-arms some twenty strong went last night from Urbino to Roccaleone.”

“To Roccaleone?” echoed the captain, with a musing air, more attentively than before, as if the repetition of that name had suggested something to his mind. “Why, it is the castle of Monna Valentina.”

“True, sapient sir. But what of the company, and why was it travelling so, by night?”

“How know you it proceeded from Urbino?” quoth the captain earnestly.

“Because at its head I recognised the roaring warrior Ercole Fortemani, in the middle rode Romeo Gonzaga, in the rear came Fra Domenico, Madonna's confessor—men of Urbino all.”

The officer's face grew purple at the news.

“Were there any women in the party?” he cried.

“I saw none,” replied the fool, in whom this sudden eagerness of the captain's awakened caution and reflection.

“But there were four litters,” put in Francesco, whose nature was less suspicious and alert than the wise fool's.

Too late Peppe scowled caution at him. The captain swore a great oath.

“It is she,” he cried, with assurance. “And this company was travelling to Roccaleone, you say. How know you that?”

“We heard it from the friar,” answered Francesco readily.

“Then, by the Virgin! we have them. Olá!” He turned from them, and ran shouting into the gatehouse, to re-emerge a moment later with half-dozen soldiers at his heels.

“To the Palace,” he commanded, and as his men surrounded Francesco's party, “Come, sir,” he said to the Count. “You must go with us, and tell your story to the Duke.”

“There is no need for all this force,” answered Francesco coldly. “In any case, I could not pass through Urbino without seeing Duke Guidobaldo. I am the Count of Aquila.”

At once the captain's bearing grew respectful. He made his apologies for the violent measures of his zeal, and bade his men fall behind. Ordering them to follow him, he mounted a horse that was brought him, and rode briskly through the borgo at the Count's side. And as he rode he told them what the jester's quick intuition had already whispered to him. The lady Valentina was fled from Urbino in the night, and in her company were gone three of her ladies, and—it was also supposed, since they had disappeared—Fra Domenico and Romeo Gonzaga.

Aghast at what he heard, Francesco pressed his informer for more news; but there was little more that the captain could tell him, beyond the fact that it was believed she had been driven to it to escape her impending marriage with the Duke of Babbiano. Guidobaldo was distraught at what had happened, and anxious to bring the lady back before news of her behaviour should reach the ears of Gian Maria. It was, therefore, a matter of no little satisfaction to the captain that the task should be his to bear Guidobaldo this news of her whereabouts which from Francesco and the jester he had derived.

Peppe looked glum and sullen. Had he but bridled his cursed curiosity, and had the Count but taken the alarm in time and held his peace, all might have been well with his beloved patrona. As it was, he—the one man ready to die that he might serve her—had been the very one to betray her refuge. He heard the Count's laugh, and the sound of it was fuel to his anger. But Francesco only thought of the splendid daring of the lady's action.

“But these men-at-arms that she had with her?” he cried. “For what purpose so numerous a bodyguard?”

The captain looked at him a moment.

“Can you not guess?” he inquired. “Perhaps you do not know the Castle of Roccaleone.”

“It were odd if I did not know the most impregnable fortress in Italy.”

“Why, then, does it not become clear? She has taken this company for a garrison, and in Roccaleone she clearly intends to resist in rebel fashion the wishes of his Highness.”

At that the Count threw back his head, and scared the passers-by with as hearty a peal of laughter as ever crossed his lips.

“By the Host!” he gasped, laughter still choking his utterance. “There is a maid for you! Do you hear what the captain says, Fanfulla? She means to resist this wedding by armed force if needs be. Now, on my soul, if Guidobaldo insists upon the union after this, why, then, he has no heart, no feeling. As I live, she is a kinswoman that such a warlike prince might well be proud of. Small wonder that they do not fear the Borgia in Urbino.” And he laughed again. But the captain scowled at him, and Peppe frowned.

“She is a rebellious jade,” quoth the captain sourly.

“Nay, softly,” returned Francesco; for all that he still laughed. “If you were of knightly rank I'd break a lance with you on that score. As it is——” he paused, his laughter ceased, and his dark eyes took the captain's measure in a curious way. “Best leave her uncensured, Ser Capitano. She is of the house of Rovere, and closely allied to that of Montefeltro.”

The officer felt the rebuke, and silence reigned between them after that.

It was whilst Francesco, Fanfulla and Peppe waited in the ante-chamber for admittance to the Duke that the jester vented some of the bitterness he felt at their babbling. The splendid room was thronged with a courtly crowd. There were magnificent nobles and envoys, dark ecclesiastics and purple prelates, captains in steel and court officers in silk and velvet. Yet, heedless of who might hear him, Peppe voiced his rebuke, and the terms he employed were neither as measured nor as respectful as the Count's rank dictated. Yet with that fairness of mind that made him so universally beloved, Francesco offered no resentment to the fool's reproof. He saw that it was deserved, for it threw upon the matter a light that was new and more searching. But he presently saw further than did the fool, and he smiled at the other's scowls.

“Not so loud Peppe,” said he. “You over-estimate the harm. At worst, we have but anticipated by a little what the Duke must have learnt from other sources.”

“But it is just that little—the few hours or days—that will do the mischief,” snapped the jester testily, for all that he lowered his voice. “In a few days Gian Maria will be back. If he were met with the news that the Lady Valentina were missing, that she had run away with Romeo Gonzaga—for that, you'll see, will presently be the tale—do you think he would linger here, or further care to pursue his wooing? Not he. These alliances that are for State purposes alone, in which the heart plays no part, demand, at least, that on the lady's side there shall be a record unblemished by the breath of scandal. His Highness would have returned him home, and Madonna would have been rid of him.”

“But at a strange price, Peppe,” answered Franeesco gravely. “Still,” he added, “I agree that I would have served her purpose better by keeping silent. But that such an affair will cool the ardour of my cousin I do not think. You are wrong in placing this among the alliances in which the heart has no part. On my cousin's side—if all they say be true—the heart plays a very considerable part indeed. But, for the rest—what harm have we done?”

“Time will show,” said the hunchback.

“It will show, then, that I have done no hurt whatever to her interests. By now she is safe in Roccaleone. What, then, can befall her? Guidobaldo, no doubt, will repair to her, and across the moat he will entreat her to be a dutiful niece and to return. She will offer to do so on condition that he pass her his princely word not to further molest her with the matter of this marriage. And then?”

“Well?” growled the fool, “And then? Who shall say what may befall then? Let us say that his Highness reduces her by force.”

“A siege?” laughed the Count. “Pooh! Where is your wisdom, fool! Do you think the splendid Guidobaldo is eager to become the sport of Italy, and go down to posterity as the duke who besieged his niece because she resisted his ordainings touching the matter of her wedding?”

“Guidobaldo da Montefeltro can be a violent man upon occasion,” the fool was answering, when the officer who had left them reappeared with the announcement that his Highness awaited them.

They found the Prince in a very gloomy mood, and after greeting Francesco with cool ceremony, he questioned him on the matter of the company they had met yesternight. These inquiries he conducted with characteristic dignity, and no more show of concern than if it had been an affair of a strayed falcon. He thanked Francesco for his information, and gave orders that the seneschal should place apartments at his and Fanfulla's disposal for as long as it should please them to grace his court. With that he dismissed them, bidding the officer remain to receive his orders.

“And that,” said Francesco to Peppe, as they crossed the ante-chamber in the wake of a servant, “is the man who would lay siege to his niece's castle? For once, sir fool, your wisdom is at fault.”

“You do not know the Duke, Excellency,” answered the fool. “Beneath that frozen exterior burns a furnace, and there is no madness he would not commit.”

But Francesco only laughed as, linking arms with Fanfulla, he passed down the gallery on his way to the apartments to which the servant was conducting them.