Chapter 18 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

TREACHERY
“Sir,” gulped Gonzaga, as they were descending from the battlements, “you will end by having us all hanged. Was that a way to address a prince?”

Valentina frowned that he should dare rebuke her knight. But Francesco only laughed.

“By St. Paul! How would you have had me address him?” he inquired. “Would you have had me use cajolery with him—the lout? Would you have had me plead mercy from him, and beg him, in honeyed words, to be patient with a wilful lady? Let be, Messer Gonzaga, we shall weather it yet, never doubt it.”

“Messer Gonzaga's courage seems of a quality that wanes as the need for it increases,” said Valentina.

“You are confounding courage, Madonna, with foolhardy recklessness,” the courtier returned. “You may learn it to your undoing.”

That Gonzaga was not the only one entertaining this opinion they were soon to learn, for, as they reached the courtyard a burly, black-browed ruffian, Cappoccio by name, thrust himself in their path.

“A word with you, Messer Gonzaga, and you, Ser Ercole.” His attitude was full of truculent insolence, and all paused, Francesco and Valentina turning from him to the two men whom he addressed, and waiting to hear what he might have to say to them. “When I accepted service under you, I was given to understand that I was entering a business that should entail little risk to my skin. I was told that probably there would be no fighting, and that if there were, it would be no more than a brush with the Duke's men. So, too, did you assure my comrades.”

“Did you indeed?” quoth Valentina, intervening, and addressing herself to Fortemani, to whom Cappoccio's words had been directed.

“I did, Madonna,” answered Ercole. “But I had Messer Gonzaga's word for it.”

“Did you,” she continued, turning to Gonzaga, “permit their engagement on that understanding?”

“On some such understanding, yes, Madonna,” he was forced to confess.

She looked at him a moment in amazement. Then:

“Msser Gonzaga,” she said at length, “I think that I begin to know you.”

But Cappoccio, who was nowise interested in the extent of Valentina's knowledge of the man, broke in impetuously:

“Now we have heard what has passed between this new Provost here and his Highness of Babbiano. We have heard the terms that were offered, and his rejection of them, and I am come to tell you, Ser Ercole, and you, Messer Gonzaga, that I for one will not remain here to be hanged when Roccaleone shall fall into the hands of Gian Maria. And there are others of my comrades who are of the same mind.”

Valentina looked at the rugged, determined features of the man, and fear for the first time stole into her heart and was reflected on her countenance. She was half-turning to Gonzaga, to vent upon him some of the bitterness of her humour—for him she accounted to blame—when once again Francesco came to the rescue.

“Now, shame on you, Cappoccio, for a paltry hind! Are these words for the ears of a besieged and sorely harassed lady, craven?”

“I am no craven,” the man answered hoarsely, his face flushing under the whip of Francesco's scorn. “Out in the open I will take my chances, and fight in any cause that pays me. But this is not my trade—this waiting for the death of a trapped rat.”

Francesco met his eyes steadily for a moment, then glanced at the other men, to the number of a half-score or so—all, in fact, whom the duties he had apportioned them did not hold elsewhere. They hung in the rear of Cappoccio, all ears for what was being said, and their countenances plainly showing how their feelings were in sympathy with their spokesman.

“And you a soldier, Cappoccio?” sneered Francesco. “Shall I tell you in what Fortemani was wrong when he enlisted you? He was wrong in not hiring you for scullion duty in the castle kitchen.”

“Sir Knight!”

“Bah! Do you raise your voice to me? Do you think I am of your kind, animal, to be affrighted by sounds—however hideous?”

“I am not affrighted by sounds.”

“Are you not? Why, then, all this ado about a bunch of empty threats cast at us by the Duke of Babbiano? If you were indeed the soldier you would have us think you, would you come here and say, 'I will not die this way, or that'? Confess yourself a boaster when you tell us that you are ready to die in the open.”

“Nay! That am I not.”

“Then, if you are ready to die out there, why not in here? Shall it signify aught to him that dies where he gets his dying done? But reassure yourself, you woman,” he added, with a laugh, and in a voice loud enough to be heard by the others, “you are not going to die—neither here, nor there.”

“When Roccaleone capitulates——”

“It will not capitulate,” thundered Francesco.

“Well, then—when it is taken.”

“Nor will it be taken,” the Provost insisted, with an assurance that carried conviction. “If Gian Maria had time unlimited at his command, he might starve us into submission. But he has not. An enemy is menacing his own frontiers, and in a few days—a week, at most—he will be forced to get him hence to defend his crown.”

“The greater reason for him to use stern measures and bombard us as he threatens,” answered Cappoccio shrewdly but rather in the tone of a man who expects to have his argument disproved. And Francesco, if he could not disprove it, could at least contradict it.

“Believe it not,” he cried, with a scornful laugh. “I tell you that Gian Maria will never dare so much. And if he did, are these walls that will crumble at a few cannon-shots? Assault he might attempt; but I need not tell a soldier that twenty men who are stout and resolute, as I will believe you are for all your craven words, could hold so strong a place as this against the assault of twenty times the men the Duke has with him. And for the rest, if you think I tell you more than I believe myself, I ask you to remember how I am included in Gian Maria's threat. I am but a soldier like you, and such risks as are yours are mine as well. Do you see any sign of faltering in me, any sign of doubting the issue, or any fear of a rope that shall touch me no more than it shall touch you? There, Cappoccio! A less merciful provost would have hanged you for your words—for they reek of sedition. Yet I have stood and argued with you, because I cannot spare a brave man such as you will prove yourself. Let us hear no more of your doubtings. They are unworthy. Be brave and resolute, and you shall find yourself well rewarded when the baffled Duke shall be forced to raise this siege.”

He turned without waiting for the reply of Cappoccio—who stood crestfallen, his cheeks reddened by shame of his threat to get him hence—and conducted Valentina calmly across the yard and up the steps of the hall.

It was his way never to show a doubt that his orders would be obeyed, yet on this occasion scarce had the door of the hall closed after them when he turned sharply to the following Ercole.

“Get you an arquebuse,” he said quickly, “and take my man Lanciotto, with you. Should those dogs still prove mutinous, fire into any that attempt the gates—fire to kill—and send me word. But above all, Ercole, do not let them see you or suspect your presence; that were to undermine such effect as my words may have produced.”

From out of a woefully pale face Valentina raised her brown eyes to his, in a look that was as a stab to the observing Gonzaga.

“I needed a man here,” she said, “and I think that Heaven it must have been that sent you to my aid. But do you think,” she asked, and with her eyes she closely scanned his face for any sign of doubt, “that they are pacified?”

“I am assured of it, Madonna. Come, there are signs of tears in your eyes, and—by my soul!—there is naught to weep at.”

“I am but a woman, after all,” she smiled up at him, “and so, subject to a woman's weakness. It seemed as if the end were indeed come just now. It had come, but for you. If they should mutiny——”

“They shall not, while I am here,” he answered, with a cheering confidence. And she, full of faith in this true knight of hers, went to seek her ladies, and to soothe in her turn any alarm to which they might have fallen a prey.

Francesco went to disarm, and Gonzaga to take the air upon the ramparts, his heart a very bag of gall. His hatred for the interloper was as nothing now to his rage against Valentina, a rage that had its birth in a wondering uncomprehension of how she should prefer that coarse, swashbuckling bully to himself, the peerless Gonzaga. And as he walked there, under the noontide sky, the memory of Francesco's assurance that the men would not mutiny returned to him, and he caught himself most ardently desiring that they might, if only to bear it home to Valentina how misplaced was her trust, how foolish her belief in that loud boaster. He thought next—and with increasing bitterness—of his own brave schemes, of his love for Valentina, and of how assured he had been that his affections were returned, before this ruffler came amongst them. He laughed in bitter scorn as the thought returned to her preferring Francesco to himself. Well, it might be so now—now that the times were warlike, and this Francesco was such a man as shone at his best in them. But what manner of companion would this sbirro make in times of peace? Had he the wit, the grace, the beauty even that was Gonzaga's? Circumstance, it seemed to him, was here to blame, and he roundly cursed that same Circumstance. In other surroundings, he was assured that she would not have cast an eye upon Francesco whilst he, himself, was by; and if he recalled their first meeting at Acquasparta, it was again to curse Circumstance for having placed the knight in such case as to appeal to the tenderness that is a part of woman's nature.

He reflected—assured that he was right—that if Francesco had not come to Roccaleone, he might by now have been wed to Valentina; and once wed, he could throw down the bridge and march out of Roccaleone, assured that Gian Maria would not care to espouse his widow, and no less assured that Guidobaldo—who was at heart a kind and clement prince—would be content to let be what was accomplished, since there would be naught gained beyond his niece's widowhood in hanging Gonzaga. It was the specious argument that had lured him upon this rash enterprise, the hopes that he was confident would have fructified but for the interloping of Francesco.

He stood looking down at the tented plain, with black rage and black despair blotting the beauty from the sunlight of that May morning, and then it came to him that since there was naught to be hoped from his old plans, might it not be wise to turn his attention to new ones that would, at least, save him from hanging? For he was assured that whatever might betide the others, his own fate was sealed, whether Roccaleone fell or not. It would be remembered against him that the affair was of his instigating, and from neither Gian Maria nor Guidobaldo might he look for mercy.

And now the thought of extricating himself from his desperate peril turned him cold by its suddenness. He stood very still a moment; then looked about him as though he feared that some watching spy might read on him the ugly intention that of a sudden had leapt to life in his heart. Swiftly it spread, and took more definite shape, the reflection of it showing now upon his smooth, handsome face, and disfiguring it beyond belief. He drew away from the wall, and took a turn or two upon the ramparts, one hand behind him, the other raised to support his drooping chin. Thus he brooded for a little while. Then, with another of his furtive glances, he turned to the north-western tower, and entered the armoury. There he rummaged until he had found the pen, ink and paper that he sought, and with the door wide open—the better that he might hear the sound of approaching steps—he set himself feverishly to write. It was soon done, and he stood up, waving the sheet to dry the ink. Then he looked it over again, and this is what he had written:

“I have it in my power to stir the garrison to mutiny and to throw open the gates of Roccaleone. Thus shall the castle fall immediately into your hands, and you shall have a proof of how little I am in sympathy with this rebellion of Monna Valentina's. What terms do you offer me if I accomplish this? Answer me now, and by the same means as I am employing, but dispatch not your answer if I show myself upon the ramparts.

“ROMEO GONZAGA.”

He folded the paper, and on the back he wrote the superscription—“To the High and Mighty Duke of Babbiano.” Then opening a large chest that stood against the wall, he rummaged a moment, and at last withdrew an arbalest quarrel. About the body of this he tied his note. Next, from the wall he took down a cross-bow, and from a corner a moulinet for winding it. With his foot in the stirrup he made the cord taut and set the shaft in position.

And now he closed the door, and, going to the window, which was little more than an arrow-slit, he shouldered his arbalest. He took careful aim in the direction of the ducal tent, and loosed the quarrel. He watched its light, and it almost thrilled him with pride in his archery to see it strike the tent at which he had aimed, and set the canvas shuddering.

In a moment there was a commotion. Men ran to the spot, others emerged from the tent, and amongst the latter Gonzaga recognised the figures of Gian Maria and Guidobaldo.

The bolt was delivered to the Duke of Babbiano, who, with an upward glance at the ramparts, vanished into the tent once more.

Gonzaga moved from his eerie, and set wide the door of the tower, so that his eyes could range the whole of the sun-bathed ramparts. Returning to his window, he waited impatiently for the answer. Nor was his impatience to endure long. At the end of some ten minutes Gian Maria reappeared, and, summoning an archer to his side, he delivered him something and made a motion of his hand towards Roccaleone. Gonzaga moved to the door, and stood listening breathlessly. At the least sign of an approach, he would have shown himself, and thus, by the provision made in his letter have cautioned the archer against shooting his bolt. But all was quiet, and so Gonzaga remained where he was until something flashed like a bird across his vision, struck sharply against the posterior wall, and fell with a tinkle on the broad stones of the rampart. A moment later the answer from Gian Maria was in his hands.

He swiftly unwound it from the shaft that had brought it, and dropped the bolt into a corner. Then unfolding the letter, he read it, leaning against one of the merlons of the wall.

“If you can devise a means to deliver Roccaleone at once into my hands you shall earn my gratitude, full pardon for your share in Monna Valentina's rebellion, and the sum of a thousand gold florins.

“GIAN MARIA.”

As he read, a light of joy leapt to his eyes. Gian Maria's terms were very generous. He would accept them, and Valentina should realise when too late upon what manner of broken reed she leaned in relying upon Messer Francesco. Would he save her now, as he so loudly boasted? Would there indeed be no mutiny, as he so confidently prophesied? Gonzaga chuckled evilly to himself. She should learn her lesson, and when she was Gian Maria's wife, she might perhaps repent her of her treatment of Romeo Gonzaga.

He laughed softly to himself. Then suddenly he turned cold, and he felt his skin roughening. A stealthy step sounded behind him.

He crumpled the Duke's letter in his hand, and in the alarm of the moment, he dropped it over the wall. Seeking vainly to compose the features that a chilling fear had now disturbed, he turned to see who came.

Behind him stood Peppe, his solemn eyes bent with uncanny intentness upon Gonzaga's face.

“You were seeking me?” quoth Romeo, and the quaver in his voice sorted ill with his arrogance.

The fool made him a grotesque bow.

“Monna Valentina desires that you attend her in the garden, Illustrious.”