Chapter 15 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

THE MERCY OF FRANCESCO
Monna Valentina and her ladies dined at noon in a small chamber opening from the great hall, and thither were bidden Francesco and Gonzaga. The company was waited upon by the two pages, whilst Fra Domenico, with a snow-white apron girt about his portentous waist, brought up the steaming viands from the kitchen where he had prepared them; for, like a true conventual, he was something of a master in the confection—and a very glutton in the consumption—of delectable comestibles. The kitchen was to him as the shrine of some minor cult, and if his breviary and beads commanded from him the half of the ecstatic fervour of his devotions to pot and pan, to cauldron and to spit, then was canonisation indeed assured him.

He set before them that day a dinner than which a better no prince commanded, unless it were the Pope. There were ortolans, shot in the valley, done with truffles, that made the epicurean Gonzaga roll his eyes, translated through the medium of his palate into a very paradise of sensual delight. There was a hare, trapped on the hillside, and stewed in Malmsey, of a flavour so delicate that Gonzaga was regretting him his heavy indulgence in the ortolans; there was trout, fresh caught in the stream below, and a wondrous pasty that turned liquid in the mouth. To wash down these good things there was stout red wine of Puglia and more delicate Malvasia, for in his provisioning of the fortress Gonzaga had contrived that, at least, they should not go thirsty.

“For a garrison awaiting siege you fare mighty well at Roccaleone,” was Francesco's comment on that excellent repast.

It was the fool who answered him. He sat out of sight upon the floor, hunched against the chair of one of Valentina's ladies, who now and again would toss him down a morsel from her plate, much as she might have treated a favourite hound.

“You have the friar to thank for it,” said he, in a muffled voice, for his mouth was crammed with pasty. “Let me be damned when I die, if I make him not my confessor. The man who can so minister to bodies should deal amazingly well with souls. Fra Domenico, you shall confess me after sunset.”

“You need me not,” answered the monk, in disdainful wrath. “There is a beatitude for such as you—'Blessed are the poor in spirit.'”

“And is there no curse for such as you?” flashed back the fool. “Does it say nowhere—'Damned are the gross of flesh, the fat and rotund gluttons who fashion themselves a god of their own bellies'?”

With his sandalled foot the friar caught the fool a surreptitious kick.

“Be still, you adder, you bag of venom.”

Fearing worse, the fool gathered himself up.

“Beware!” he cried shrilly. “Bethink you, friar, that anger is a cardinal sin. Beware, I say!”

Fra Domenico checked his upraised hand, and fell to muttering scraps of Latin, his lids veiling his suddenly down­cast eyes. Thus Peppe gained the door.

“Say, friar; in my ear, now—Was that a hare you stewed, or an outworn sandal?”

“Now, God forgive me,” roared the monk, springing towards him.

“For your cooking? Aye, pray—on your knees.” He dodged a blow, ducked, and doubled back into the room. “A cook, you? Pish! you tun of convent lard! Your ortolans were burnt, your trout swam in grease, your pasty——”

What the pasty may have been the company was not to learn, for Fra Domenico, crimson of face, had swooped down upon the fool, and would have caught him but that he dived under the table by Valentina's skirts, and craved her protection from this gross maniac that held himself a cook.

“Now, hold your wrath, father,” she said, laughing with the rest. “He does but plague you. Bear with him for the sake of that beautitude you cited, which has fired him to reprisals.”

Mollified, but still grumbling threats of a beating to be bestowed on Peppe when the opportunity should better serve him, the friar turned to his domestic duties. They rose soon after, and at Gonzaga's suggestion Valentina paused in the great hall to issue orders that Fortemani be brought before her for judgment. In a score of ways, since their coming to Roccaleone, had Ercole been wanting in that respect to which Gonzaga held himself entitled, and this opportunity he seized with eagerness to vent his vindictive rancour.

Valentina begged of Francesco that he, too, would stay, and help them with his wide experience, a phrase that sent an unpleasant pang through the heart of Romeo Gonzaga. It was perhaps as much to assert himself as to gratify his rancour against Fortemani, that, having despatched a soldier to fetch the prisoner, he turned to suggest curtly that Ercole should be hanged at once.

“What boots a trial?” he demanded. “We were all witnesses of his insubordination, and for that there can be but one punishment. Let the animal hang!”

“But the trial is of your own suggestion,” she protested.

“Nay, Madonna. I but suggested judgment. It is since you have begged Messer Francesco, here, to assist us that I opine you mean to give the knave a trial.”

“Would you credit this dear Gonzaga with so much bloodthirstiness?” she asked Francesco. “Do you, sir, share his opinion that the captain should hang unheard? I fear me you do, for, from what I have seen of them, your ways do not incline to gentleness.”

Gonzaga smiled, gathering from that sentence how truly she apprised the coarse nature of this stranger. Francesco's answer surprised them.

“Nay, I hold Messer Gonzaga's an ill counsel. Show mercy to Fortemani now, where he expects none, and you will have made a faithful servant of him. I know his kind.”

“Ser Francesco speaks without the knowledge that we have, Madonna,” was Gonzaga's rude comment. “An example must be made if we would have respect and orderliness from these men.”

“Then make it an example of mercy,” suggested Francesco sweetly.

“Well, we shall see,” was Valentina's answer. “I like your counsel, Messer Francesco, and yet I see a certain wisdom in Gonzaga's words. Though in such a case as this I would sooner consort with folly than have a man's death upon my conscience. But here he comes, and, at least, we'll give him trial. Maybe he is penitent by now.”

Gonzaga sneered, and took his place on the right of Valentina's chair, Francesco standing on her left; and in this fashion they disposed themselves to hold judgment upon the captain of her forces.

He was brought in between two mailed men-at-arms, his hands pinioned behind him, his tread heavy as that of a man in fear, his eyes directed sullenly upon the waiting trio, but sullenest of all upon Francesco, who had so signally encompassed his discomfiture. Valentina spread a hand to Gonzaga, and from Gonzaga waved it slightly in the direction of the Bully. Responsive to that gesture, Gonzaga faced the pinioned captain truculently.

“You know your offence, knave,” he bawled at him. “Have you aught to urge that may deter us from hanging you?”

Fortemani raised his brows a moment in surprise at this ferocity from one whom he had always deemed a very woman. Then he uttered a laugh of such contempt that the colour sprang to Gonzaga's cheek.

“Take him out——” he began furiously, when Valentina interposed, setting a hand upon his arm.

“Nay, nay, Gonzaga, your methods are all wrong. Tell him—— Nay, I will question him myself. Messer Fortemani, you have been guilty of an act of gross abuse. You and your men were hired for me by Messer Gonzaga, and to you was given the honourable office of captain over them, that you might lead them in this service of mine in the ways of duty, submission, and loyalty. Instead of that, you were the instigator of that outrage this morning, when murder was almost done upon an inoffensive man who was my guest. What have you to say?”

“That I was not the instigator,” he answered sullenly.

“It is all one,” she returned, “for at least it was done with your sanction, and you took a share in that cruel sport, instead of restraining it, as was clearly your duty. It is upon you, the captain, that the responsibility rests.”

“Lady,” he explained, “they are wild souls, but very true.”

“True to their wildness, maybe,” she answered him disdainfully. Then she proceeded: “You will remember that twice before has Messer Gonzaga had occasion to admonish you. These last two nights your men have behaved riotously within my walls. There has been hard drinking, there has been dicing, and such brawling once or twice as led me to think there would be throats cut among your ranks. You were warned by Messer Gonzaga to hold your followers in better leash, and yet to-day, without so much as drunkenness to excuse them, we have this vile affair, with yourself for a ringleader in it.”

There followed a pause, during which Ercole stood with bent head like one who thinks, and Francesco turned his wonder-laden glance upon this slight girl with the gentle brown eyes which had been so tender and pitiful. Marvelling at the greatness of her spirit, he grew—all unconsciously—the more enslaved.

Gonzaga, all unconcerned in this, eyed Fortemani in expectation of his answer.

“Madonna,” said the bully at last, “what can you look for from such a troop as this? Messer Gonzaga cannot have expected me to enlist acolytes for a business that he told me bordered upon outlawry. Touching their drunkenness and the trifle of rioting, what soldiers have not these faults? When they have them not, neither have they merit. The man that is tame in times of peace is a skulking woman in times of war. For the rest, whence came the wine they drank? It was of Messer Gonzaga's providing.”

“You lie, hound!” blazed Gonzaga. “I provided wine for Madonna's table, not for the men.”

“Yet some found its way to them; which is well. For water on the stomach makes a man poor-spirited. Where is the sin of a little indulgence, Madonna?” he went on, turning again to Valentina. “These men of mine will prove their mettle when it comes to blows. They are dogs perhaps—but mastiffs every one of them, and would lose a hundred lives in your service if they had them.”

“Aye, if they had them,” put in Gonzaga sourly; “but having no more than one apiece, they'll not care to spare it.”

“Nay, there you wrong them,” cried Fortemani, with heat. “Give them a leader strong enough to hold them, to encourage and subject them, and they will go anywhere at his bidding.”

“And there,” put in Gonzaga quickly, “you bring us back to the main issue. Such a leader you have shown us that you are not. You have done worse. You have been insubordinate when you should not only have been orderly, but have enforced orderliness in others. And for that, by my lights, you should be hanged. Waste no more time on him, Madonna,” he concluded, turning to Valentina. “Let the example be made.”

“But, Madonna——” began Fortemani, paling under the tan of his rugged countenance.

Gonzaga silenced him.

“Your words are vain. You have been insubordinate, and for insubordination there is but one penalty.”

The bully hung his head, deeming himself lost, and lacking the wit to retort as Francesco unexpectedly retorted for him.

“Madonna, there your adviser is at fault. The charge against the man is wrong. There has been no insubordination.”

“How?” she questioned, turning to the Count. “None, say you?”

“A Solomon is arisen,” sneered Gonzaga. Then peevishly; “Waste not words with him, Madonna,” he pursued. “Our business is with Fortemani.”

“But stay, my good Gonzaga. He may be right.”

“Your heart is over-tender,” answered Romeo impatiently. But she had turned from him now, and was begging Francesco to make his meaning clearer.

“Had he raised his hand against you, Madonna, or even against Messer Gonzaga, or had he disobeyed an order given him by either of you, then, and then only, could there be question of insubordination. But he has done none of these things. He is guilty of grossly misusing my servant, it is true, but there is no insubordination in that, since he was under no promise of loyalty to Lanciotto.”

They stared at him as though his words were words of recondite wisdom instead of the simple statement of a plain case. Gonzaga crestfallen, Fortemani with a light of hope and wonder shining in his eyes, and Madonna with a faint nodding of the head that argued agreement. They wrangled a while yet, Gonzaga bitter and vindictive and rashly scornful of both Francesco and Fortemani. But the Count so resolutely held the ground he had taken that in the end Valentina shrugged her shoulders, acknowledged herself convinced, and bade Francesco deliver judgment.

“You are in earnest, Madonna?” quoth Francesco in surprise, whilst a black scowl disfigured the serenity of Gonzaga's brow.

“I am indeed. Deal with him as you account best and most just, and it shall fare with him precisely as you ordain.”

Francesco turned to the men-at-arms. “Unbind him, one of you,” he said shortly.

“I believe that you are mad,” cried Gonzaga, in a frenzy, but his mood sprang rather from the chagrin of seeing his interloper prevail where he had failed. “Madonna, do not heed him.”

“I pray you let be, my good Gonzaga,” she answered soothingly, and Gonzaga, ready to faint from spite, obeyed her.

“Leave him there, and go,” was Paolo's next order to the men, and they departed, leaving the astonished Fortemani standing alone, unbound and sheepish.

“Now mark me well, Messer Fortemani,” Francesco admonished him. “You did a cowardly thing, unworthy of the soldier that you would have men believe you. And for that, I think, the punishment you received at my hands has been sufficient, in that the indignity to which I submitted you has shaken your standing with your followers. Go back to them now and retrieve what you have lost, and see that in the future you are worthier. Let this be a lesson to you, Messer Fortemani. You have gone perilously near hanging, and you have had it proved to you that in moments of peril your men are ready to raise their hands against you. Why is that? Because you have not sought their respect. You have been too much a fellow of theirs in their drinking and their brawling, instead of holding yourself aloof with dignity.”

“Lord, I have learnt my lesson!” answered the cowed bully.

“Then act upon it. Resume your command, and discipline your men to a better order. Madonna, here, and Messer Gonzaga will forget this thing. Is it not so, Madonna? Is it not so, Messer Gonzaga?”

Swayed by his will and by an intuition that told her that to whatever end he might be working, he was working wisely, Valentina gave Fortemani the assurance Francesco begged, and Gonzaga was forced grudgingly to follow her example.

Fortemani bowed low, his face pale and his limbs trembling as not even fear had made them tremble. He advanced towards Valentina, and sinking on one knee, he humbly kissed the hem of her gown.

“Your clemency, Madonna, shall give you no regret. I will serve you to the death, lady, and you, lord.” At the last words he raised his eyes to Francesco's calm face. Then, without so much as a glance at the disappointed Gonzaga, he rose, and bowing again—a very courtier—he withdrew.

The closing of the door was to Gonzaga a signal to break out in a torrent of bitter reproofs against Francesco, reproofs that were stemmed midway by Valentina.

“You are beside yourself, Gonzaga,” she exclaimed. “What has been done, has been done with my sanction. I do not doubt the wisdom of it.”

“Do you not? God send you never may! But that man will know no peace until he is avenged on us.”

“Messer Gonzaga,” returned Francesco, with an incomparable politeness, “I am an older man than are you, and maybe that I have seen more warring and more of such men. There is a certain valour lurks in that bully for all his blustering boastfulness and swagger, and there is, too, a certain sense of justice. Mercy he has had to-day, and time will show how right I am in having pardoned him in Madonna's name. I tell you, sir, that nowhere has Monna Valentina a more faithful servant than he is now likely to become.”

“I believe you, Messer Francesco. Indeed, I am sure your act was wisdom itself.”

Gonzaga gnawed his lip.

“I may be wrong,” said he, in grudging acquiescence. “I hope, indeed, I may be.”