Chapter 19 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

PLOT AND COUNTERPLOT
Peppe's quick eyes had seen Gonzaga crumple and drop the paper, no less than he had observed the courtier's startled face, and his suspicions had been aroused. He was by nature prying, and experience had taught him that the things men seek to conceal are usually the very things it imports most to have knowledge of. So when Gonzaga had gone, in obedience to Valentina's summons, the jester peered carefully over the battlements.

At first he saw nothing, and he was concluding with disappointment that the thing Gonzaga had cast from him was lost in the torrential waters of the moat. But presently, lodged on a jutting stone, above the foaming stream into which it would seem that a miracle had prevented it from falling, he espied a ball of crumpled paper. He observed with satisfaction that it lay some ten feet immediately below the postern-gate by the drawbridge.

Secretly, for it was not Peppy's way to take men into his confidence where it might be avoided, he got himself a coil of rope. Having descended and quietly opened the postern, he made one end fast and lowered the other to the water with extreme care, lest he should dislodge, and so lose, that paper.

Assuring himself again that he was unobserved, he went down, hand over hand, like a monkey, his feet against the rough-hewn granite of the wall. Then, with a little swinging of the rope, he brought himself nearer that crumpled ball, his legs now dangling in the angry water, and by a mighty stretch that all but precipitated him into the torrent, he seized the paper and transferred it to his teeth. Then hand over hand again, and with a frantic haste, for he feared observation not only from the castle sentries but also from the watchers in the besieger's camp, he climbed back to the postern, exulting in that he had gone unobserved, and contemptuous for the vigilance of those that should have observed him.

Softly he closed the wicket, locked it and shot home the bolts at top and base, and went to replace the key on its nail in the guard-room, which he found untenanted. Next, with that mysterious letter in his hand, he scampered off across the courtyard and through the porch leading to the domestic quarters, nor paused until he had gained the kitchen, where Fra Domenico was roasting the quarter of a lamb that he had that morning butchered. For now that the siege was established, there was no more fish from the brook, nor hares and ortolans from the country-side.

The friar cursed the fool roundly, as was his wont upon every occasion, for he was none so holy that he disdained the milder forms of objurgatory oaths. But Peppe for once had no vicious answer ready, a matter that led the Dominican to ask him was he ill.

Never heeding him, the fool unfolded and smoothed the crumpled paper in a corner by the fire. He read it and whistled, then stuffed it into the bosom of his absurd tunic.

“What ails you?” quoth the friar. “What have you there?”

“A recipe for a dish of friar's brains. A most rare delicacy, and rendered costly by virtue of the scarcity of the ingredients.” And with that answer Peppe was gone, leaving the monk with an ugly look in his eyes, and an unuttered imprecation on his tongue.

Straight to the Count of Aquila went the fool with his letter. Francesco read it, and questioned him closely as to what he knew of the manner in which it had come into Gonzaga's possession. For the rest, those lines, far from causing him the uneasiness Peppe expected, seemed a source of satisfaction and assurance to him.

“He offers a thousand gold florins,” he muttered, “in addition to Gonzaga's liberty and advancement. Why, then, I have said no more than was true when I assured the men that Gian Maria was but idly threatening us with bombardment. Keep this matter secret, Peppe.”

“But you will watch Messer Gonzaga?” quoth the fool.

“Watch him? Why, where is the need? You do not imagine him so vile that this offer could tempt him?”

Peppe looked up, his great, whimsical face screwed into an expression of cunning doubt.

“You do not think, lord, that he invited it?”

“Now, shame on you for that thought. Messer Gonzaga may be an idle lute-thrummer, a poor-spirited coward; but a traitor——! And to betray Monna Valentina! No, no.”

But the fool was far from reassured. He had had the longer acquaintance of Messer Gonzaga, and his shrewd eyes had long since taken the man's exact measure. Let Francesco scorn the notion of betrayal at Romeo's hands; Peppe would dog him like a shadow. This he did for the remainder of that day, clinging to Gonzaga as if he loved him dearly, and furtively observing the man's demeanour. Yet he saw nothing to confirm his suspicions beyond a certain preoccupied moodiness on the courtier's part.

That night, as they supped, Gonzaga pleaded toothache, and with Valentina's leave he quitted the table at the very outset of the meal. Peppe rose to follow him, but as he reached the door, his natural enemy, the friar—ever anxious to thwart him where he could—caught him by the nape of the neck, and flung him unceremoniously back into the room.

“Have you a toothache too, good-for-naught?” quoth the frate. “Stay you here and help me to wait upon the company.”

“Let me go, good Fra Domenico,” the fool whispered, in a voice so earnest that the monk left his way clear. But Valentina's voice now bade him stay with them, and so his opportunity was lost.

He moved about the room a very dispirited, moody fool with no quip for anyone, for his thoughts were all on Gonzaga and the treason that he was sure he was hatching. Yet faithful to Francesco, who sat all unconcerned, and not wishing to alarm Valentina, he choked back the warning that rose to his lips, seeking to convince himself that his fears sprang perhaps from an excess of suspicion. Had he known how well-founded indeed they were he might have practised less self-restraint.

For whilst he moved sullenly about the room, assisting Fra Domenico with the dishes and platters, Gonzaga paced the ramparts beside Cappoccio, who was on sentry duty on the north wall.

His business called for no great diplomacy, nor did Gonzaga employ much. He bluntly told Cappoccio that he and his comrades had allowed Messer Francesco's glib tongue to befool them that morning, and that the assurances Francesco had given them were not worthy of an intelligent man's consideration.

“I tell you, Cappoccio,” he ended, “that to remain here and protract this hopeless resistance will cost you your life at the unsavoury hands of the hangman. You see I am frank with you.”

Now for all that what Gonzaga told him might sort excellently well with the ideas he had himself entertained, Cappoccio was of a suspicious nature, and his suspicions whispered to him now that Gonzaga was actuated by some purpose he could not gauge.

He stood still, and leaning with both hands upon his partisan, he sought to make out the courtier's features in the dim light of the rising moon.

“Do you mean,” he asked, and in his voice sounded the surprise with which Gonzaga's odd speech had filled him, “that we are foolish to have listened to Messer Francesco, and that we should be better advised to march out of Roccaleone?”

“Yes; that is what I mean.”

“But why,” he insisted, his surprise increasing, “do you urge such a course upon us?”

“Because, Cappoccio,” was the plausible reply, “like yourselves, I was lured into this business by insidious misrepresentations. The assurances that I gave Fortemani, and with which he enrolled you into his service, were those that had been given to me. I did not bargain with such a death as awaits us here, and I frankly tell you that I have no stomach for it.”

“I begin to understand,” murmured Cappoccio, sagely wagging his head, and there was a shrewd insolence in his tone and manner. “When we leave Roccaleone you come with us?”

Gonzaga nodded.

“But why do you not say these things to Fortemani?” questioned Cappoccio, still doubting.

“Fortemani!” echoed Gonzaga. “By the Host, no! The man is bewitched by that plausible rogue, Francesco. Far from resenting the fellow's treatment of him, he follows and obeys his every word, like the mean-spirited dog that he is.”

Again Cappoccio sought to scrutinise Gonzaga's face. But the light was indifferent.

“Are you dealing with me fairly?” he asked. “Or does some deeper purpose lie under your wish that we should rebel against the lady?”

“My friend,” answered Gonzaga, “do you but wait until Gian Maria's herald comes for his answer in the morning. Then you will learn again the terms on which your lives are offered you. Do nothing until then. But when you hear yourselves threatened with the rope and the wheel, bethink you of what course you will be best advised in pursuing. You ask me what purpose inspires me. I have already told you—for I am as open as the daylight with you—that I am inspired by the purpose of saving my own neck. Is not that purpose enough?”

A laugh of such understanding as would have set a better man on fire with indignation was the answer he received.

“Why, yes, it is more than enough. To-morrow, then, my comrades and I march out of Roccaleone. Count upon that.”

“But do not accept my word. Wait until the herald comes again. Do nothing until you have heard the terms he brings.”

“Why, no, assuredly not.”

“And do not let it transpire among your fellows that it is I who have suggested this.”

“Why no. I'll keep your secret,” laughed the bravo offensively, shouldering his partisan and resuming his sentinel's pacing.

Gonzaga sought his bed. A fierce joy consumed him at having so consummately planned Valentina's ruin, yet he did not wish to face her again that night.

But when on the morrow the herald wound his horn again beneath the castle walls, Gonzaga was prominent in the little group that attended Monna Valentina. The Count of Aquila was superintending the work to which he had set a half-score of men. With a great show, and as much noise as possible—by which Francesco intended that the herald should be impressed—they were rolling forward four small culverins and some three cannons of larger calibre, and planting them so that they made a menacing show in the crenels of the parapet.

Whilst watching and directing the men, he kept his ears open for the message, and he heard the herald again recite the terms on which the garrison might surrender, and again the threat to hang every man from the castle-walls if they compelled him to reduce them by force of arms. He brought his message to an end by announcing that in his extreme clemency Gian Maria accorded them another half-hour's grace in which to resolve themselves upon their course. Should the end of that time still find them obstinate, the bombardment would commence. Such was the message that in another of his arrow-borne letters Gonzaga had suggested Gian Maria should send.

It was Francesco who stepped forward to reply. He had been stooping over one of the guns, as if to assure himself of the accuracy of its aim, and as he rose he pronounced himself satisfied in a voice loud enough for the herald's hearing. Then he advanced to Valentina's side, and whilst he stood there delivering his answer he never noticed the silent departure of the men from the wall.

“You will tell his Highness of Babbiano,” he replied, “that he reminds us of the boy in the fable who cried 'Wolf!' too often. Tell him, sir, that his threats leave this garrison as unmoved as do his promises. If so be that he intends in truth to bombard us, let him begin forthwith. We are ready for him, as you perceive. Maybe he did not suppose us equipped with cannon; but there they stand. Those guns are trained upon his camp, and the first shot he fires upon us shall be a signal for such a reply as he little dreams of. Tell him, too, that we expect no quarter, and will yield none. We are unwilling for bloodshed, but if he drives us to it and executes his purpose of employing cannon, then the consequences be upon his own head. Bear him that answer, and tell him to send you no more with empty threats.”

The herald bowed upon the withers of his horse. The arrogance, the cold imperiousness of the message struck him dumb with amazement. Amazement was his, too, that Roccaleone should be armed with cannon, as with his own eyes he saw. That those guns were empty he could not guess, nor could Gian Maria when he heard a message that filled him with rage, and would have filled him with dismay, but that he counted upon the mutiny which Gonzaga had pledged himself to stir up.

As the herald was riding away a gruff laugh broke from Fortemani, who stood behind the Count.

Valentina turned to Francesco with eyes that beamed admiration and a singular tenderness.

“Oh, what had I done without you, Messer Francesco?” she cried, for surely the twentieth time since his coming. “I tremble to think how things had gone without your wit and valour to assist me.” She never noticed the malicious smile that trembled on Gonzaga's pretty face. “Where did you find the powder?” she asked innocently, for her mind had not yet caught that humour of the situation that had drawn a laugh from Fortemani.

“I found none,” answered Francesco, smiling from the shadow of his helm. “My threats”—and he waved his hand in the direction of that formidable array of guns—“are as empty as Gian Maria's. Yet I think they will impress him more than his do us. I will answer for it, Madonna, that they deter him from bombarding us—if so be that he ever intended to. So let us go and break our fast with a glad courage.”

“Those guns are empty?” she gasped. “And you could talk so boldly and threaten so defiantly!”

Mirth crept now into her face, and thrust back the alarm, a little of which had peeped from her eyes even as she was extolling Francesco.

“There!” he cried joyously. “You are smiling now, Madonna. Nor have you cause for aught else. Shall we descend? This early morning work has given me the hunger of a wolf.”

She turned to go with him, and in that moment, Peppe, his owlish face spread over with alarm, dashed up the steps from the courtyard.

“Madonna!” he gasped, breathless. “Messer Francesco! The men—Cappoccio—— He is haranguing them. He—is inciting them to treachery.”

So, in gasps, he got out his tale, which swept the mirth again from Valentina's eyes, and painted very white her cheek. Strong and brave though she was, she felt her senses swimming at that sudden revulsion from confidence to fear. Was all indeed ended at the very moment when hope had reached its high meridian?

“You are faint, Madonna; lean on me.”

It was Gonzaga who spoke. But beyond the fact that the words had been uttered, she realised nothing. She saw an arm advanced, and she took it. Then she dragged Gonzaga with her to the side overlooking the courtyard, that with her own eyes she might have evidence of what was toward.

She heard an oath—a vigorous, wicked oath—from Francesco, followed by a command, sharp and rasping.

“To the armoury yonder, Peppe! Fetch me a two-handed sword—the stoutest you can find. Ercole, come with me. Gonzaga—— Nay, you had best stay here. See to Monna Valentina.”

He stepped to her side now, and rapidly surveyed the surging scene below, where Cappoccio was still addressing the men. At sight of Francesco, they raised a fierce yell, as might a pack of dogs that have sighted their quarry.

“To the gates!” was the shout. “Down the draw­bridge! We accept the terms of Gian Maria. We will not die like rats.”

“By God, but you shall, if I so will it!” snarled Francesco through his set teeth. Then turning his head in a fever of impatience “Peppe,” he shouted, “will you never bring that sword?”

The fool came up at that moment, staggering under the weight of a great, double-edged two-hander, equipped with lugs, and measuring a good six feet from point to pummel. Francesco caught it from him, and bending, he muttered a swift order in Peppino's ear.

“...In the box that stands upon the table in my chamber,” Gonzaga overheard him say. “Now go, and bring it to me in the yard. Speed you, Peppino!”

A look of understanding flashed up from the hunchback's eyes, and as he departed at a run Francesco hoisted the mighty sword to his shoulder as though its weight were that of a feather. In that instant Valentina's white hand was laid upon the brassart that steeled his fore-arm.

“What will you do?” she questioned, in a whisper, her eyes dilating with alarm.

“Stem the treachery of that rabble,” he answered shortly. “Stay you here, Madonna. Fortemani and I will pacify them—or make an end of them.” And so grimly did he say it that Gonzaga believed it to lie within his power.

“But you are mad!” she cried, and the fear in her eyes increased. “What can you do against twenty?”

“What God pleases,” he answered, and for a second put the ferocity from his heart that he might smile reassurance.

“But you will be killed,” she cried. “Oh! don't go, don't go! Let them have their way, Messer Francesco. Let Gian Maria invest the castle. I care not, so that you do not go.”

Her voice, and the tale it told of sweet anxiety for his fate overruling everything else in that moment—even her horror of Gian Maria—quickened his blood to the pace of ecstasy. He was taken by a wild longing to catch her in his arms—this lady hitherto so brave and daunted now by the fear of his peril only. Every fibre of his being urged him to gather her to his breast, whilst he poured courage and comfort into her ear. He fainted almost with desire to kiss those tender eyes, upturned to his in her piteous pleading that he should not endanger his own life. But suppressing all, he only smiled, though very tenderly.

“Be brave, Madonna, and trust in me a little. Have I failed you yet? Need you then fear that I shall fail you now?”

At that she seemed to gather courage. The words reawakened her confidence in his splendid strength.

“We shall laugh over this when we break our fast,” he cried. “Come, Ercole!” And without waiting for more, he leapt down the steps with an agility surprising in one so heavily armed as he.

They were no more than in time. As they gained the courtyard the men came sweeping along towards the gates, their voices raucous and threatening. They were full of assurance. All hell they thought could not have hindered them, and yet at sight of that tall figure, bright as an angel, in his panoply of glittering steel, with that great sword poised on his left shoulder, some of the impetuousness seemed to fall from them.

Still they advanced, Cappoccio's voice shouting encouragement. Almost were they within range of that lengthy sword, when of a sudden it flashed from his shoulder, and swept a half-circle of dazzling light before their eyes. Round his head it went, and back again before them, handled as though it had been a whip, and bringing them, silent, to a standstill. He bore it back to his shoulder, and alert for the first movement, his blood on fire, and ready to slay a man or two should the example become necessary, he addressed them.

“You see what awaits you if you persist in this,” he said, in a dangerously quiet voice. “Have you no shame, you herd of cowardly animals! You are loud-voiced enough where treason to the hand that pays you is in question; but there, it seems, your valour ends.”

He spoke to them now in burning words. He recapitulated the arguments which yesterday he had made use of to quell the mutinous spirit of Cappoccio. He assured them that Gian Maria threatened more than he could accomplish; and so, perhaps, more than he would fulfil if they were so foolish as to place themselves in his power. Their safety, he pointed out to them, lay here, behind these walls. The siege could not long endure. They had a stout ally in Caesar Borgia, and he was marching upon Babbiano by then, so that Gian Maria must get him home perforce ere long. Their pay was good, he reminded them, and if the siege were soon raised they should be well rewarded.

“Gian Maria threatens to hang you when he captures Roccaleone. But even should he capture it, do you think he would be allowed to carry out so inhuman a threat? You are mercenaries, after all, in the pay of Monna Valentina, on whom and her captains the blame must fall. This is Urbino, not Babbiano, and Gian Maria is not master here. Do you think the noble and magnanimous Guidobaldo would let you hang? Have you so poor an opinion of your Duke? Fools! You are as safe from violence as are those ladies in the gallery up there. For Guidobaldo would no more think of harming you than of permitting harm to come to them. If any hanging there is it will be for me, and perhaps for Messer Gonzaga who hired you. Yet, do I talk of throwing down my arms? What think you holds me here? Interest—just as interest holds you—and if I think the risk worth taking, why should not you? Are you so tame and so poor-spirited that a threat is to vanquish you? Will you become a byword in Italy, and when men speak of cowardice, will you have them say: 'Craven as Monna Valentina's garrison'?”

In this strain he talked to them, now smiting hard with his scorn, now cajoling them with his assurances, and breeding confidence anew in their shaken spirits. It was a thing that went afterwards to the making of an epic that was sung from Calabria to Piedmont, how this brave knight, by his words, by the power of his will and the might of his presence, curbed and subdued that turbulent score of rebellious hinds.

And from the wall above Valentina watched him, her eyes sparkling with tears that had not their source in sorrow nor yet in fear, for she knew that he must prevail. How could it be else with one so dauntless?

Thus thought she now. But in the moment of his going, fear had chilled her to the heart, and when she first saw him take his stand before them, she had turned half-distraught, and begged Gonzaga not to linger at her side, but to go lend what aid he could to that brave knight who stood so sorely in need of it. And Gonzaga had smiled a smile as pale as January sunshine, and his soft blue eyes had hardened in their glance. Not weakness now was it that held him there, well out of the dangerous turmoil. For he felt that had he possessed the strength of Hercules, and the courage of Achilles, he would not in that instant have moved a step to Francesco's aid. And as much he told her.

“Why should I, Madonna?” he had returned coldly. “Why should I raise a hand to help the man whom you prefer to me? Why should I draw sword in the cause of this fortress?”

She looked at him with troubled eyes. “What are you saying, my good Gonzaga?”

“Aye—your good Gonzaga!” he mocked her bitterly. “Your lap-dog, your lute-thrummer; but not man enough to be your captain; not man enough to earn a thought that is kinder than any earned by Peppe or your hounds. I may endanger my neck to serve you, to bring you hither to a place of safety from Gian Maria's persecution, and be cast aside for one who, it happens, has a little more knowledge of this coarse trade of arms. Cast me aside if you will,” he pursued, with increasing bitterness, “but having done so, do not ask me to serve you again. Let Messer Francesco fight it out——”

“Hush, Gonzaga!” she interrupted. “Let me hear what he is saying.”

And her tone told the courtier that his words had been lost upon the morning air. Engrossed in the scene below she had not so much as listened to his bitter tirade. For now Francesco was behaving oddly. The fool was returned from the errand on which he had been despatched, and Francesco called him to his side. Lowering his sword he received a paper from Peppe's hand.

Burning with indignation at having gone unheeded, Gonzaga stood gnawing his lip, whilst Valentina craned forward to catch Francesco's words.

“I have here a proof,” he cried, “of what I tell you; proof of how little Gian Maria is prepared to carry out his threats of cannon. It is that fellow Cappoccio has seduced you with his talk. And you, like the sheep you are, let yourselves be driven by his foul tongue. Now listen to the bribe that Gian Maria offers to one within these walls if he can contrive a means to deliver Roccaleone into his hands.” And to Gonzaga's paralysing consternation, he heard Francesco read the letter with which Gian Maria had answered his proposed betrayal of the fortress. He went white with fear and he leant against the low wall to steady the tell-tale trembling that had seized him. Then Francesco's voice, scornful and confident, floated up to his ears. “I ask you, my friends, would his Highness of Babbiano be disposed to the payment of a thousand gold florins if by bombardment he thought to break a way into Roccaleone? This letter was written yesterday. Since then we have made a brave display of cannon ourselves; and if yesterday he dared not fire, think you he will to-day? But here, assure yourselves, if there is one amongst you that can read.”

He held out the letter to them. Cappoccio took it, and calling one Aventano, he held it out in his turn. This Aventano, a youth who had been partly educated for the Church, but had fallen from that lofty purpose, now stood forward and took the letter. He scrutinised it, read it aloud, and pronounced it genuine.

“Whom is it addressed to?” demanded Cappoccio.

“Nay, nay!” cried Francesco. “What need for that?”

“Let be,” Cappoccio answered, almost fiercely. “If you would have us remain in Roccaleone, let be. Aventano, tell me.”

“To Messer Romeo Gonzaga,” answered the youth, in a voice of wonder.

So evil a light leapt to Cappoccio's eye that Francesco carried his free hand to the sword which he had lowered. But Cappoccio only looked up at Gonzaga, and grinned malevolently. It had penetrated his dull wits that he had been the tool of a judas, who sought to sell the castle for a thousand florins. Further than that Cappoccio did not see; nor was he very resentful, and his grin was rather of mockery than of anger. He was troubled by no lofty notions of honour that should cause him to see in this deed of Gonzaga's anything more than such a trickster's act as it is always agreeable to foil. And then, to the others, who knew naught of what was passing in Cappoccio's mind, he did a mighty strange thing. From being the one to instigate them to treachery and mutiny, he was the one now to raise his voice in a stout argument of loyalty. He agreed with all that Messer Francesco had said, and he, for one, ranged himself on Messer Francesco's side to defend the gates from any traitors who sought to open them to Gian Maria Sforza.

His defection from the cause of mutiny was the signal for the utter abandoning of that cause itself, and another stout ally came opportunely to weigh in Francesco's favour was the fact that the half-hour of grace was now elapsed, and Gian Maria's guns continued silent. He drew their attention to the fact with a laugh, and bade them go in peace, adding the fresh assurance that those guns would not speak that day, nor the next, nor indeed ever.

Utterly conquered by Francesco and—perhaps even more—by his unexpected ally, Cappoccio, they slunk shamefacedly away to the food and drink that he bade them seek at Fra Domenico's hands.