Chapter 17 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

The Count leapt from his bed, and hastened to throw wide the door to admit his servant, who with excited face and voice bore him the news that Gian Maria had reached Roccaleone in the night, and was now encamped in the plain before the castle.

He was still at his tale when a page came with the message that Monna Valentina besought Messer Francesco's presence in the great hall. He dressed in all haste, and then, with Lanciotto at his heels, he descended to answer her summons. As he crossed the second courtyard he beheld Valentina's ladies grouped upon the chapel-steps in excited discussion of this happening with Fra Domenico, who, in full canonicals, was waiting to say the morning's Mass. He gave them a courteous “Good morrow,” and passed on to the banqueting-hall, leaving Lanciotto without.

Here he found Valentina in conference with Fortemani. She was pacing the great room as she talked; but, beyond that, there was no sign of excitement in her bearing, and if any fear of the issue touched her heart now that the moment for action was at hand, it was wondrously well-suppressed. At sight of Francesco, a look that was partly dismay and partly pleasure lighted her face. She greeted him with such a smile as she would bestow in that hour upon none but a trusted friend. Then, with a look of regret:

“I am beyond measure grieved, sir, that you should thus stand committed to my fortunes. They will have told you that already we are besieged, and so you will see how your fate is now bound up with ours. For I fear me there is no road hence for you until Gian Maria raises this siege. The choice of going or remaining is no longer mine. We must remain, and fight this battle out.”

“At least, lady,” he answered readily, gaily almost, “I cannot share your regrets for me. The act of yours may be a madness, Madonna, but it is the bravest, sweetest madness that ever was, and I shall be proud to play my part if you'll assign me one.”

“But, sir, I have no claim upon you!”

“The claim that every beset lady has upon a true knight,” he assured her. “I could ask no better employment for these arms of mine than in your defence against the Duke of Babbiano. I am at your service, and with a glad heart, Monna Valentina. I have seen something of war, and you may find me useful.”

“Make him Provost of Roccaleone, Madonna,” urged Fortemani, whose gratitude to the man who had saved his life was blent with an admiring appreciation of his powers, of which the bully had had such practical experience.

“You hear what Ercole says?” she cried, turning to Francesco with a sudden eagerness that showed how welcome that suggestion was.

“It were too great an honour,” he answered solemnly. “Yet, if you were to place in my hands that trust, I would defend it to my last breath.”

And then, before she could answer him, Gonzaga entered by the side-door, and frowned to see Francesco there before him. He was a trifle pale, he carried his cloak on the right shoulder, instead of the left, and in general his apparel was less meticulous than usual, and showed signs of hasty donning. With a curt nod to the Count, and an utter ignoring of Fortemani—who was scowling upon him in memory of yesterday—he bowed low before Valentina.

“I am distraught, Madonna——” he began, when she cut him short.

“You have little cause to be. Have things fallen out other than we expected?”

“Perhaps not. Yet I had hoped that Gian Maria would not allow his humour to carry him so far.”

“You had hoped that—after the message Messer Francesco brought us?” And she looked him over with an eye of sudden understanding. “Yet you expressed no such hope when you advised this flight to Roccaleone. You were all for fighting then. A martial ardour consumed you. Whence this change? Is it the imminence of danger that gives it a reality too grim for your appetite?”

There was a scorn in her words that wounded him as she meant it should. His last night's rashness had shown her the need to leave him in no false opinion of the extent of her esteem, and, in addition, those last words of his had shown him revealed in a new light, and she liked him the less by it.

He inclined his head slightly, shame blazing red in his cheeks, that he should be thus reproved before Fortemani and that upstart Francesco. That Francesco was an upstart was no longer a matter of surmise with him. His soul assured him of it.

“Madonna,” he said, with some show of dignity, ignoring her gibes, “I came to bear you news that a herald from Gian Maria craves a hearing. Shall I hold parley with him for you?”

“You are too good,” she answered sweetly. “I will hear the man myself.”

He bowed submissively, and then his eye moved to Francesco.

“We might arrange with him for the safe-conduct of this gentleman,” he suggested.

“There is no hope they would accord it,” she answered easily. “Nor could I hope so if they would, for Messer Francesco has consented to fill the office of Provost of Roccaleone. But we are keeping the messenger waiting. Sirs, will you attend me to the ramparts?”

They bowed, and followed her, Gonzaga coming last, his tread heavy as a drunkard's, his face white to the lips in the bitter rage with which he saw himself superseded, and read his answer to the hot words that last night he had whispered in Valentina's ear.

As they crossed the courtyard Francesco discharged the first act of his new office in ordering a half-dozen men-at-arms to fall in behind them, to the end that they might make some show upon the wall when they came to parley with the herald.

They found a tall man on a tall, grey horse, whose polished helm shone like silver in the morning sun, and whose haubergeon was almost hidden under a crimson tabard ornamented with the Sforza lion. He bowed low as Valentina appeared, followed by her escort, foremost in which stood the Count of Aquila, his broad castor pulled down upon his brow, so that it left his face in shadow.

“In the name of my master, the High and Mighty Lord Gian Maria Sforza, Duke of Babbiano, I call upon you to yield, lady, laying down your arms and throwing open your gates.”

There followed a pause, at the end of which she asked him was that the sum of his message, or was there something that he had forgotten. The herald, bowing gracefully upon the arched neck of his caracoling palfrey, answered her that what he had said was all he had been bidden say.

She turned with a bewildered and rather helpless look to those behind her. She wished that the matter might be conducted with due dignity, and her convent rearing left her in doubt of how this might best be achieved. She addressed herself to Francesco.

“Will you give him his answer, my Lord Provost,” she said, with a smile, and Francesco, stepping forward and leaning on a merlon of that embattled wall, obeyed her.

“Sir Herald,” he said, in a gruff voice that was unlike his own, “will you tell me since when has the Duke of Babbiano been at war with Urbino that he should thus beset one of its fortresses, and demand the surrender of it?”

“His Highness,” replied the herald, “is acting with the full sanction of the Duke of Urbino in sending this message to the Lady Valentina della Rovere.”

At that Valentina elbowed the Count aside, and forgetting her purpose of conducting this affair with dignity, she let her woman's tongue deliver the answer of her heart.

“This message, sir, and the presence here of your master, is but another of the impertinences that I have suffered at his hands, and it is the crowning one. Take you that message back to him, and tell him that when I am instructed by what right he dares to send you upon such an errand, I may render him an answer more germane with his challenge.”

“Would you prefer, Madonna, that his Highness should come himself to speak with you?”

“There is nothing I should prefer less. Already has necessity compelled me to have more to say to Gian Maria than I could have wished.” And with a proud gesture she signified that the audience was at an end, and turned to quit the wall.

She had a brief conference with Francesco, during which he consulted her as to certain measures of defence to be taken, and made suggestions, to all of which she agreed, her hopes rising fast to see that here, at least, she had a man with knowledge of the work to which he had set his hand. It lightened her heart and gave her a glad confidence to look on that straight, martial figure, the hand so familiarly resting on the hilt of the sword that seemed a part of him, and the eyes so calm; whilst when he spoke of perils, they seemed to dwindle 'neath the disdain of them so manifest in his tone.

With Fortemani at his heels he went about the execution of the measures he had suggested, the bully following him now with the faithful wonder of a dog for its master, realising that here, indeed, was a soldier of fortune by comparison with whom the likes of himself were no better than camp-followers. Confidence, too, did Ercole gather from that magnetism of Francesco's unfaltering confidence; for he seemed to treat the matter as a great jest, a comedy played for the Duke of Babbiano and at that same Duke's expense. And just as Francesco's brisk tone breathed confidence into Fortemani and Valentina, so, too, did it breathe it into Fortemani's wretched followers. They grew zestful in the reflection of his zest, and out of admiration for him they came to admire the business on which they were engaged, and, finally, to take a pride in the part he assigned to each of them. Within an hour there was such diligent bustle in Roccaleone, such an air of grim gaiety and high spirits, that Valentina, observing it, wondered what manner of magician was this she had raised to the command of her fortress, who in so little time could work so marvellous a change in the demeanour of her garrison.

Once only did Francesco's light-heartedness fail him, and this was when, upon visiting the armoury, he found but one single cask of gunpowder stored there. He turned to Fortemani to inquire where Gonzaga had bestowed it, and Fortemani being as ignorant as himself upon the subject he went forthwith in quest of Gonzaga. After ransacking the castle for him, he found him pacing the vine-alley in the garden in animated conversation with Valentina. At his approach the courtier's manner grew more subdued, and his brows sullen.

“Messer Gonzaga,” Francesco hailed him. The courtier, surprised, looked up. “Where have you hidden your store of powder?”

“Powder?” faltered Gonzaga, chilled by a sudden apprehension. “Is there none in the armoury?”

“Yes—one small cask, enough to load a cannon once or twice, leaving us nothing for our hand-guns. Is that your store?”

“If that is all there is in the armoury, that is all we have.”

Franceseo stood speechless, staring at him, a dull flush creeping into his cheeks. In that moment of wrath he forgot their positions, and gave never a thought to the smarting that must be with Gonzaga at the loss of rank he had suffered since Valentina had appointed a provost.

“And are these your methods of fortifying Roccaleone?” he asked, in a voice that cut like a knife. “You have laid in good store of wine, a flock of sheep, and endless delicacies, sir,” he jeered. “Did you expect to pelt the enemy with these, or did you reckon upon no enemy at all?”

Now this question touched so closely upon the truth, that it fired in Gonzaga's bosom an anger that for the moment made a man of him. It was the last breath that blew into a blaze the smouldering wrath he carried in his soul.

His retort came fierce and hot. It was as unmeasured and contemptuous as Francesco's erst recriminations, and it terminated in a challenge to the Count to meet him on horse or foot, with sword or lance, and that as soon as might be.

But Valentina intervened, and rebuked them both. Yet to Francesco her rebuke was courteous, and ended in a prayer that he should do the best with such resources as Roccaleone offered; to Gonzaga it was contemptuous in the last degree, for Francesco's question—which Gonzaga had left unanswered—coming at a moment when she was full of suspicions of Gonzaga, and the ends he had sought to serve in advising her upon a course which he had since shown himself so utterly unfitted to guide, had opened wide her eyes. She remembered how strangely moved he had been upon learning yesterday that Gian Maria was marching upon Roccaleone, and how ardently he had advised flight from the fortress—he that had so bravely talked of holding it against the Duke.

They were still wrangling there in a most unseemly fashion when a trumpet-blast reached them from beyond the walls.

“The herald again,” she cried. “Come, Messer Francesco, let us hear what fresh message he brings.”

She led Francesco away, leaving Gonzaga in the shadow of the vines, reduced well-nigh to tears in the extremity of his mortification.

The herald was returned with the announcement that Valentina's answer left Gian Maria no alternative but to await the arrival of Duke Guidobaldo, who was then marching to join him. The Duke of Urbino's presence would be, he thought, ample justification in her eyes for the challenge Gian Maria had sent, and which he would send again when her uncle arrived to confirm it.

Thereafter, the remainder of the day was passed in peace at Roccaleone, if we except the very hell of unrest that surged in the heart of Romeo Gonzaga. He sat disregarded at supper that evening, save by Valentina's ladies and the fool, who occasionally rallied him upon his glumness. Valentina herself turned her whole attention to the Count, and whilst Gonzaga—Gonzaga, the poet of burning fancy, the gay songster, the acknowledged wit, the mirror of courtliness—was silent and tongue-tied, this ruffling, upstart swashbuckler entertained them with a sprightliness that won him every heart—always excepting that of Romeo Gonzaga.

Francesco made light of the siege in a manner that enlivened every soul present with relief. He grew merry at the expense of Gian Maria, and made it very plain that he could have found naught more captivating to his warlike fancy than this business upon which an accident had embarked him. He was as full of confidence for the issue as he was full of eager anticipation of the fray itself.

Is it wonderful that—never having known any but artificial men; men of court and ante-chamber; men of dainty ways and mincing, affected tricks of speech; in short, such men as circumstance ordains shall surround the great—Monna Valentina's eyes should open very wide, the better to behold this new pattern of a man, who, whilst clearly a gentleman of high degree, carried with him an air of the camp rather than the camerion, was imbued by a spirit of chivalry and adventure, and ignored with a certain lofty dignity, as if beneath his observance, the poses that she was wont to see characterising the demeanour of the gentlemen of his Highness, her uncle.

He was young, moreover, yet no longer callow; comely, yet with a strong male comeliness; he had a pleasantly modulated voice, yet one that they had heard swell into a compelling note of command; he had the most joyous, careless laugh in all the world—such a laugh as endears a man to all that hear it—and he indulged it without stint.

Gonzaga sat glum and moody, his heart bursting with the resentment of the mean and the incompetent for the man of brilliant parts. But the morrow was to bring him worse.

The Duke of Urbino arrived next morning, and rode up to the moat in person, attended only by a trumpeter, who, for the third time, wound a note of challenge to the fortress.

As on the previous day, Valentina answered the summons, attended by Francesco, Fortemani and Gonzaga—the latter uninvited yet not denied, and following sullenly in her train, in a last, despairing attempt to assert himself one of her captains.

Francesco had put on his harness, and came arrayed from head to foot in resplendent steel, to do worthy honour to the occasion. A bunch of plumes nodded in his helm, and for all that his beaver was open, yet the shadows of the head-piece afforded at the distance sufficient concealment to his features.

The sight of her uncle left Valentina unmoved. Well-beloved though he was of his people, between himself and his niece he had made no effort ever to establish relations of affection. Less than ever did he now seek to prevail by the voice of kinship. He came in the panoply of war, as a prince to a rebel subject, and in precisely such a tone did he greet her.

“Monna Valentina,” he said—seeming entirely to overlook the circumstance that she was his kinswoman—“deeply though this rebellion grieves me, you are not to think that your sex shall gain you any privileges or any clemency. We will treat you precisely as we would any other rebel subject who acted as you have done.”

“Highness,” she replied, “I solicit no privilege beyond that to which my sex gives me the absolute right, and which has no concern with war and arms. I allude to the privilege of disposing of myself, my hand and heart, as it shall please me. Until you come to recognise that I am a woman endowed with a woman's nature, and until, having realised it, you are prepared to submit to it, and pass me your princely word to urge the Duke of Babbiano's suit no further with me, here will I stay in spite of you, your men-at-arms, and your paltry ally, Gian Maria, who imagines that love may be made successfully in armour, and that a way to a woman's heart is to be opened with cannon-shot.”

“I think we shall bring you to a more subjective and dutiful frame of mind, Madonna,” was the grim answer.

“Dutiful to whom?”

“To the State, a princess of which you have had the honour to be born.”

“And what of my duty to myself, to my heart, and to my womanhood? Is no account to be taken of that?”

“These are matters, Madonna, that are not to be discussed in shouts from the walls of a castle—nor, indeed, do I wish to discuss them anywhere. I am here to summon you to surrender. If you resist us, you do so at your peril.”

“Then at my peril I will resist you—gladly. I defy you. Do your worst against me, disgrace your manhood and the very name of chivalry by whatsoever violence may occur to you, yet I promise you that Valentina della Rovere never shall become the wife of his Highness of Babbiano.”

“You refuse to open your gates?” he returned, in a voice that shook with anger.

“Utterly and finally.”

“And you think to persist in this?”

“As long as I have life.”

The Prince laughed sardonically.

“I wash my hands of the affair and of its consequences,” he answered grimly. “I leave it in the care of your future husband, Gian Maria Sforza, and if, in his very natural eagerness for the nuptials, he uses your castle roughly, the blame of it must rest with you. But what he does, he does with my full sanction, and I have come hither to advise you of it since you appeared in doubt. I beg that you will remain there for a few moments, to hear what his Highness himself may have to say. I trust his eloquence may prove more persuasive.”

He saluted ceremoniously, and, wheeling his horse about, he rode away. Valentina would have withdrawn, but Francesco urged her to remain, and await the Duke of Babbiano's coming. And so they paced the battlements, Valentina in earnest talk with Francesco, Gonzaga following in moody silence with Fortemani, and devouring them with his eyes.

From their eminence they surveyed the bustling camp in the plain, where tents, green, brown, and white, were being hastily erected by half-stripped soldiers. The little army altogether, may have numbered a hundred men, which, in his vainglory, Gian Maria accounted all that would be needed to reduce Roccaleone. But the most formidable portion of his forces rolled into the field even as they watched. It was heralded by a hoarse groaning of the wheels of bullock-carts to the number of ten, on each of which was borne a cannon. Other carts followed with ammunition and victuals for the men encamped.

They looked on with interest at the busy scene that was toward, and as they watched they saw Guidobaldo ride into the heart of the camp, and dismount. Then from out of a tent more roomy and imposing than the rest advanced the short, stout figure of Gian Maria, not to be recognised at that distance save by the keen eyes of Francesco that were familiar with his shape.

A groom held a horse for him and assisted him to mount, and then, attended by the same trumpeter that had escorted Guidobaldo, he rode forward towards the castle. At the edge of the moat he halted, and at sight of Valentina and her company, he doffed his feathered hat, and bowed his straw-coloured head.

“Monna Valentina,” he called, and when she stepped forth in answer, he raised his little, cruel eyes in a malicious glance and showed the round moon of his white face to be whiter even, than its wont—a pallor atrabilious and almost green.

“I am grieved that his Highness, your uncle, should not have prevailed with you. Where he has failed, I may have little hope of succeeding—by the persuasion of words. Yet I would beg you to allow me to have speech of your captain, whoever he may be.”

“My captains are here in attendance,” she answered tranquilly.

“So! You have a plurality of them; to command—how many men?”

“Enough,” roared Francesco, interposing, his voice sounding hollow from his helmet, “to blow you and your woman besieging scullions to perdition.”

The Duke stirred on his horse, and peered up at the speaker. But there was too little of his face visible for recognition, whilst his voice was altered and his figure dissembled in its steel casing.

“Who are you, rogue?” he asked.

“Rogue in your teeth, be you twenty times a Duke,” returned the other, at which Valentina laughed outright.

Never from the day when he had uttered his first wail had his Highness of Babbiano heard words of such import from the lips of living man. A purple flush mottled his cheeks at the indignity of it.

“Attend to me, knave!” he bellowed. “Whatever betide the rest of this misguided garrison when ultimately it falls into my hands, for you I can promise a rope and a cross-beam.”

“Bah!” sneered the knight. “First catch your bird. Be none so sure that Roccaleone ever will fall into your hands. While I live you do not enter here, and my life, Highness, is for me a precious thing, which I'll not part with lightly.”

Valentina's eyes were mirthless now as she turned them upon that gleaming, martial figure standing so proudly at her side, and seeming so well-attuned to the proud defiance he hurled at the princely bully below.

“Hush, sir!” she murmured. “Do not anger him further.”

“Aye,” groaned Gonzaga, “in God's name say no more, or you'll undo us hopelessly.”

“Madonna,” said the Duke, without further heeding Francesco, “I give you twenty-four hours in which to resolve upon your action. Yonder you see them bringing the cannon into camp. When you wake to-morrow you shall find those guns trained upon your walls. Meanwhile, enough said. May I speak a word with Messer Gonzaga ere I depart.”

“So that you depart, you may say a word to whom you will,” she answered contemptuously. And, turning aside, she motioned Gonzaga to the crenel she abandoned.

“I'll swear that mincing jester is trembling already with the fear of what is to come,” bawled the Duke, “and perhaps fear will show him the way to reason. Messer Gonzaga!” he called, raising his voice. “As I believe the men of Roccaleone are in your service, I call upon you to bid them throw down that drawbridge, and in the name of Guidobaldo as well as my own, I promise them free pardon and no hurt—saving only that rascal at your side. But if your knaves resist me, I promise you that when I shall have dashed Roccaleone stone from stone, not a man of you all will I spare.”

Shaking like an aspen Gonzaga stood there, his voice palsied and making no reply, whereupon Francesco leant forward again.

“We have heard your terms,” he answered, “and we are not like to heed them. Waste not the day in vain threats.”

“Sir, my terms were not for you. I know you not; I addressed you not, nor will I suffer myself to be addressed by you.”

“Linger there another moment,” answered the vibrating voice of the knight, “and you will find yourself addressed with a volley of arquebuse-shot. Olá, there!” he commanded, turning and addressing an imaginary body of men on the lower ramparts of the garden, to his left. “Arquebusiers to the postern! Blow your matches! Make ready! Now, my Lord Duke, will you draw off, or must we blow you off?”

The Duke's reply took the form of a bunch of blasphemous threats of how he would serve his interlocutor when he came to set hands on him.

“Present arms!” roared the knight to his imaginary arquebusiers, whereupon, without another word, the Duke turned his horse and rode off in disgraceful haste, his trumpeter following hot upon his heels, pursued by a derisive burst of laughter from Francesco.