Chapter 16 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

GONZAGA UNMASKS
The four great outer walls of Roccaleone stood ranged into a mighty square, of which the castle proper occupied but half. The other half, running from north to south, was a stretch of garden, broken into three terraces. The highest of these was no more than a narrow alley under the southern wall, roofed from end to end by a trellis of vines on beams blackened with age, supported by uprights of granite, square and roughly hewn.

A steep flight of granite steps, weedy in the interstices of the old stone, and terminating in a pair of couchant lions at the base, led down to the middle terrace, which was called the upper garden. This was split in twain by a very gallery of gigantic box trees running down towards the lower terrace, and bearing eloquent witness to the age of that old garden. Into this gallery no sun ever penetrated by more than a furtive ray, and on the hottest day in summer a grateful cool dwelt in its green gloom. Rose gardens spread on either side of it, but neglect of late had left them rank with weeds.

The third and lowest of these terraces, which was longer and broader than either of those above, was no more than a smooth stretch of lawn, bordered by acacias and plane trees, from the extreme corner of which sprang a winding, iron-railed staircase of stone, leading to an eerie which corresponded diagonally with the Lion's Tower, where the Count of Aquila was lodged.

On this green lawn Valentina's ladies and a page beguiled the eventide in a game of bowls, their clumsiness at the unwonted pastime provoking the good-humoured banter of Peppe, who looked on, and their own still better-humoured laughter.

Fortemani, too, was there, brazening out the morning's affair, which it almost seemed he must have forgotten, so self-possessed and mightily at his ease was he. He was of the kind with whom shame strikes never very deeply, and he ruffled it gaily there, among the women, rolling his fierce eyes to ogle them seductively, tossing his gaudy new cloak with a high-born disdain—gloriously conscious that it would not rend in the tossing, like the cloaks to which grim Circumstance had lately accustomed him—and strutting it like any cock upon a dunghill.

But the lesson he had learnt was not likely to share the same forgetfulness. Indeed, its fruits were to be observed already in the more orderly conduct of his men, four of whom, partisan on shoulder, were doing duty on the walls of the castle. They had greeted his return amongst them with sneers and derisive allusions to his immersion, but with a few choicely-aimed blows he had cuffed the noisiest into silence and a more subservient humour. He had spoken to them in a rasping, truculent tone, issuing orders that he meant should be obeyed, unless the disobeyer were eager for a reckoning with him.

Indeed, he was an altered man, and when that night his followers, having drunk what he accounted enough for their good, and disregarding his orders that they should desist and get them to bed, he went in quest of Monna Valentina. He found her in conversation with Francesco and Gonzaga, seated in the loggia of the dining-room. They had been there since supper, discussing the wisdom of going or remaining, of fleeing or standing firm to receive Gian Maria. Their conference was interrupted now by Ercole with his complaint.

She despatched Gonzaga to quell the men, a course that Fortemani treated to a covert sneer. The fop went rejoicing at this proof that her estimate of his commanding qualities had nowise suffered by contrast with those of that swashbuckling Francesco. But his pride rode him to a bitter fall.

They made a mock of his remonstrances, and when he emulated Francesco's methods, addressing them with sharp ferocity, and dubbing them beasts and swine, they caught the false ring of his fierceness, which was as unlike the true as the ring of lead is unlike that of silver. They jeered him insults, they mimicked his tenor voice, which excitement had rendered shrill, and they bade him go thrum a lute for his lady's delectation, and leave men's work to men.

His anger rose, and they lost patience; and from showing their teeth in laughter, they began to show them in snarls. At this his ferocity deserted him. Brushing past Fortemani, who stood cold and contemptuous by the doorway, watching the failure he had expected, he returned with burning cheeks and bitter words to Madonna Valentina.

She was dismayed at the tale he bore her, magnified to cover his own shame. Francesco sat quietly drumming on the sill, his eyes upon the moonlit garden below, and never by word or sign suggesting that he might succeed where Romeo had failed. At last she turned to him.

“Could you——?” she began, and stopped, her eyes wandering back to Gonzaga, loath to further wound a pride that was very sore already. On the instant Francesco rose.

“I might try, Madonna,” he said quietly, “although Messer Gonzaga's failure gives me little hope. And yet, it may be that he has taken the keen edge from their assurance, and that, thus, an easier task awaits me. I will try, Madonna.” And with that he went.

“He will succeed, Gonzaga,” she said, after he had gone. “He is a man of war, and knows the words to which these fellows have no answer.”

“I wish him well of his errand,” sneered Gonzaga, his pretty face white now with sullenness. “And I'll wager you he fails.”

But Valentina disdained the offer whose rashness was more than proven when, at the end of some ten minutes, Francesco re-entered, as imperturbable as when he went.

“They are quiet now, Madonna,” he announced.

She looked at him questioningly. “How did you accomplish it?” she inquired.

“I had a little difficulty,” he said, “yet not over-much.” His eye roved to Gonzaga, and he smiled. “Messer Gonzaga is too gentle with them. Too true a courtier to avail himself of the brutality that is necessary when we deal with brutes. You should not disdain to use your hands upon them,” he admonished the fop in all seriousness, and without a trace of irony. Nor did Gonzaga suspect any.

“I, soil my hands on that vermin?” he cried, in a voice of horror. “I would die sooner.”

“Or else soon after,” squeaked Peppe, who had entered unobserved. “Patrona mia, you should have seen this paladin,” he continued, coming forward. “Why, Orlando was never half so furious as he when he stood there telling them what manner of dirt they were, and bidding them to bed ere he drove them with a broomstick.”

“And they went?” she asked.

“Not at first,” said the fool. “They had drunk enough to make them very brave, and one who was very drunk was so brave as to assault him. But Ser Francesco fells him with his hands, and calling Fortemani he bids him have the man dropped in a dungeon to grow sober. Then, without waiting so much as to see his orders carried out, he stalks away, assured that no more was needed. Nor was it. They rose up, muttering a curse or two, maybe—yet not so loud that it might reach the ears of Fortemani—and got themselves to bed.”

She looked again at Francesco with admiring eyes, and spoke of his audacity in commending terms. This he belittled; but she persisted.

“You have seen much warring, sir,” she half-asked, half­asserted.

“Why, yes, Madonna.”

And here the writhing Gonzaga espied his opportunity.

“I do not call to mind your name, good sir,” he purred.

Francesco half-turned towards him, and for all that his mind was working with a lightning quickness, his face was indolently calm. To disclose his true identity he deemed unwise, for all connected with the Sforza brood must earn mistrust at the hands of Valentina. It was known that the Count of Aquila stood high in the favour of Gian Maria, and the news of his sudden fall and banishment could not have reached Guidobaldo's niece, who had fled before the knowledge of it was in Urbino. His name would awaken suspicion, and any story of disgrace and banishment might be accounted the very mask to fit a spy. There was this sleek, venomous Gonzaga, whom she trusted and relied on, to whisper insidiously into her ear.

“My name,” he said serenely, “is, as I have told you. Francesco.”

“But you have another?” quoth Valentina, interest prompting the question.

“Why, yes, but so closely allied to the first as to be scarce worth reciting. I am Francesco Franceschi, a wandering knight.”

“And a true one, as I know.” She smiled at him so sweetly that Gonzaga was enraged.

“I have not heard the name before,” he murmured, adding:

“Your father was——?”

“A gentleman of Tuscany.”

“But not at Court?” suggested Romeo.

“Why, yes, at Court.”

Then with a sly insolence that brought the blood to Francesco's cheeks, though to the chaste mind of Valentina's it meant nothing—“Ah!” he rejoined. “But then, your mother——?”

“Was more discriminating, sir, than yours,” came the sharp answer, and from the shadows the fool's smothered burst of laughter added gall to it.

Gonzaga rose heavily, drawing a sharp breath, and the two men stabbed each other with their eyes. Valentina, uncomprehending, looked from one to the other.

“Sirs, sirs, what have you said?” she cried. “Why all this war of looks?”

“He is over-quick to take offence, Madonna, for an honest man,” was Gonzaga's answer. “Like the snake in the grass, he is very ready with his sting when we seek to disclose him.”

“For shame, Gonzaga,” she cried, now rising too. “What are you saying? Are you turned witless? Come, sirs, since you are both my friends, be friends each with the other.”

“Most perfect syllogism!” murmured the fool, unheeded.

“And you, Messer Francesco, forget his words. He means them not. He is very hot of fancy, but sweet at heart, this good Gonzaga.”

On the instant the cloud lifted from Francesco's brow.

“Why, since you ask me,” he answered, inclining his head, “if he'll but say he meant no malice by his words, I will confess as much for mine.”

Gonzaga, cooling, saw that haply he had gone too fast, and was the readier to make amends. Yet in his bosom he nursed an added store of poison, a breath of which escaped him as he was leaving Valentina, and after Francesco had already gone:

“Madonna,” he muttered, “I mistrust that man.”

“Mistrust him? Why?” she asked, frowning despite her faith in the magnificent Romeo.

“I know not why; but it is here. I feel it.” And with his hand he touched the region of his heart. “Say that he is no spy, and call me a fool.”

“Why, I'll do both,” she laughed. Then more sternly, added: “Get you to bed, Gonzaga. Your wits play you false. Peppino, call my ladies.”

In the moment that they were left alone he stepped close up to her, spurred to madness by the jealous pangs he had that day endured. His face gleamed white in the candlelight, and in his eyes there was a lurking fierceness that gave her pause.

“Have your way, Madonna,” he said, in a concentrated voice; “but to-morrow, whether we go hence, or whether we stay, he remains not with us.”

She drew herself up to the full of her slender, graceful height, her eyes on a level with Gonzaga's own.

“That,” she answered, “is as shall be decreed by me or him.”

He breathed sharply, and his voice hardened beyond belief in one usually so gentle of tone and manner.

“Be warned, Madonna,” he muttered, coming so close that with the slightest swaying she must touch him, “that if this nameless sbirro shall ever dare to stand 'twixt you and me, by God and His saints, I'll kill him! Be warned, I say.”

And the door re-opening at that moment, he fell back, bowed, and brushing past the entering ladies, gained the threshold. Here someone tugged at the prodigious foliated sleeves that spread beside him on the air like the wings of a bird. He turned, and saw Peppino motioning him to lower his head.

“A word in your ear, Magnificent. There was a man once went out for wool that came back shorn.”

Angrily cuffing the fool aside, he was gone.

Valentina sank down upon her window-seat, in a turmoil of mingled anger and amazement that paled her cheek and set her bosom heaving. It was the first hint of his aims respecting her that Gonzaga had ever dared let fall, and the condition in which it left her boded ill for his ultimate success. Her anger he could have borne, had he beheld it, for he would have laid it to the score of the tone he had taken with her. But her incredulity that he could indeed have dared to mean that which her senses told her he had meant, would have shown him how hopeless was his case and how affronted, how outraged in soul she had been left by this moment of passionate self-revealing. He would have understood then that in her eyes he never had been, was never like to be, aught but a servant—and one, hereafter, that, deeming presumptuous, she would keep at greater distance.

But he, dreaming little of this as he paced his chamber, smiled at his thoughts, which flowed with ready optimism. He had been a fool to give way so soon, perhaps. The season was not yet; the fruit was not ripe enough for plucking; still, what should it signify that he had given the tree a slight premonitory shake? A little premature, perhaps, but it would predispose the fruit to fall. He bethought him of her never-varying kindness to him, her fond gentleness, and he lacked the wit to see that this was no more than the natural sweetness that flowed from her as freely as flows the perfume from the flower—because Nature has so fashioned it, and not because Messer Gonzaga likes the smell. Lacking that wit, he went in blissful confidence to bed, and smiled himself softly to his sleep.

Away in the room under the Lion's Tower, the Count of Aquila, too, paced his chamber ere he sought his couch, and in his pacing caught sight of something that arrested his attention, and provoked a smile. In a corner, among his harness which Lanciotto had piled there, his shield threw back the light, displaying the Sforza lion quartered with the Aquila eagle.

“Did my sweet Gonzaga get a glimpse of that he would have no further need to pry into my parentage,” he mused. And dragging the escutcheon from amongst that heap of armour, he softly opened his window and flung it far out, so that it dropped with a splash into the moat. That done, he went to bed, and he, too, fell asleep with a smile upon his lips, and in his mind a floating vision of Valentina. She needed a strong and ready hand to guide her in this rebellion against the love-at-arms of Gian Maria, and that hand he swore should be his, unless she scorned the offer of it. And so, murmuring her name with a lingering fervour, of whose true significance he was all-nescient, he sank to sleep, nor waked again until a thundering at his door aroused him. And to his still dormant senses came the voice of Lanciotto, laden with hurry and alarm.

“Awake, lord! Up, afoot! We are beset.”