Chapter 20 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

THE LOVERS
“How came that letter to your hands?” Valentina asked Gonzaga, when presently they stood together in the courtyard, whither the courtier had followed her when she descended.

“Wrapped round an arbalest-bolt that fell on the ramparts yesterday whilst I was walking there alone,” returned Gonzaga coolly.

He had by now regained his composure. He saw that he stood in deadly peril, and the very fear that possessed him seemed, by an odd paradox, to lend him the strength to play his part.

Valentina eyed him with a something of mistrust in her glance. But on Francesco's clear countenance no shadow of suspicion showed. His eyes almost smiled as he asked Gonzaga:

“Why did you not bear it to Monna Valentina?”

A flush reddened the courtier's cheeks. He shrugged his shoulders impatiently, and in a voice that choked with anger he delivered his reply.

“To you, sir, who seem bred in camps and reared in guard-rooms, the fulness of this insult offered me by Gian Maria may not be apparent. It may not be yours to perceive that the very contact of that letter soiled my hands, that it shamed me unutterably to think that that loutish Duke should have deemed me a target for such a shaft. It were idle, therefore, to seek to make you understand how little I could bear to submit to the further shame of allowing another to see the affront that I was powerless to avenge. I did, sir, with that letter the only thing conceivable. I crumpled it in my hand and cast it from me, just as I sought to cast its contents from my mind. But your watchful spies, Ser Francesco, bore it to you, and if my shame has been paraded before the eyes of that rabble soldiery, at least it has served the purpose of saving Monna Valentina. To do that, I would, if the need arose, immolate more than the pride that caused me to be silent on the matter of this communication.”

He spoke with such heat of sincerity that he convinced both Francesco and Valentina, and the lady's eyes took on a softer expression as she surveyed Gonzaga—this poor Gonzaga whom, her heart told her, she had sorely wronged in thought. Francesco, ever generous, took his passionate utterances in excellent part.

“Messer Gonzaga, I understand your scruples. You do me wrong to think that I should fail in that.”

He checked the suggestion he was on the point of renewing that, nevertheless, Gonzaga would have been better advised to have laid that letter at once before Monna Valentina. Instead, he dismissed the subject with a laugh, and proposed that they should break their fast so soon as he had put off his harness.

He went to do so, whilst Valentina bent her steps towards the dining-room, attended by Gonzaga, to whom she now sought to make amends for her suspicions by an almost excessive friendliness of bearing.

But there was one whom Gonzaga's high-sounding words in connection with that letter had left cold. This was Peppe, that most wise of fools. He hastened after Francesco, and while the knight was disarming he came to voice his suspicions. But Francesco drove him out with impatience, and Peppe went sorrowing and swearing that the wisdom of the fool was truly better than the folly of the wise.

Throughout that day Gonzaga hardly stirred from Valentina's side. He talked with her in the morning at great length and upon subjects poetical or erudite, by which he meant to display his vast mental superiority over the swashbuckling Francesco. In the evening, when the heat of the day was spent, and whilst that same Messer Francesco was at some defensive measures on the walls, Gonzaga played at bowls with Valentina and her ladies—the latter having now recovered from the panic to which earlier they had been a prey.

That morning Gonzaga had stood at bay, seeing his plans crumble. That evening, after the day spent in Valentina's company—and she so sweet and kind to him—he began to take heart of grace once more, and his volatile mind whispered to his soul the hope that, after all, things might well be as he had first intended, if he but played his cards adroitly, and did not mar his chances by the precipitancy that had once gone near to losing him. His purpose gathered strength from a message that came that evening from Gian Maria, who was by then assured that Gonzaga's plan had failed. He sent word that, being unwilling to provoke the bloodshed threatened by the reckless madman who called himself Monna Valentina's Provost, he would delay the bombardment, hoping that in the meantime hunger would beget in that rebellious garrison a more submissive mood.

Francesco read the message to Madonna's soldiers, and they received it joyously. Their confidence in him increased a hundredfold by this proof of the accuracy of his foresight. They were a gay company at supper in consequence, and gayest of all was Messer Gonzaga, most bravely dressed in a purple suit of taby silk to honour so portentous an occasion.

Francesco was the first to quit the table, craving Monna Valentina's leave to be about some duty that took him to the walls. She let him go, and afterwards sat pensive, nor heeded now Romeo's light chatter, nor yet the sonnet of Petrarca that presently he sang the company. Her thoughts were all with him that had left the board. Scarcely a word had she exchanged with Francesco since that delirious moment when they had looked into each other's eyes upon the ramparts, and seen the secret that each was keeping from the other. Why had he not come to her? she asked herself. And then she bethought her of how Gonzaga had all day long been glued to her side, and she realised, too, that it was she had shunned Francesco's company, grown of a sudden strangely shy.

But greater than her shyness was now her desire to be near him, and to hear his voice; to have him look again upon her as he had looked that morning, when in terror for him she had sought to dissuade him from opposing the craven impulse of her men-at-arms. A woman of mature age, or one riper in experience, would have waited for him to seek her out. But Valentina, in her sweet naturalness, thought never of subterfuge or of dalliant wiles. She rose quietly from the table ere Gonzaga's song was done, and as quietly she slipped from the room.

It was a fine night, the air heavy with the vernal scent of fertile lands, and the deep cobalt of the heavens a glittering, star-flecked dome in a lighter space of which floated the half-disk of the growing moon. Such a moon, she bethought her, as she had looked at with thoughts of him, the night after their brief meeting at Acquasparta. She had gained that north rampart on which he had announced that duty took him, and yonder she saw a man—-the only tenant of the wall—leaning upon the embattled parapet, looking down at the lights of Gian Maria's camp. He was bareheaded, and by the gold coif that gleamed in his hair she knew him. Softly she stole up behind him.

“Do we dream here, Messer Francesco?” she asked him, as she reached his side, and there was laughter running through her words.

He started round at the sound of her voice, then he laughed too, softly and gladly.

“It is a night for dreams, and I was dreaming indeed. But you have scattered them.”

“You grieve me,” she rallied him. “For assuredly they were pleasant, since, to come here and indulge them, you left—us.”

“Aye—they were pleasant,” he answered. “And yet, they were fraught with a certain sadness, but idle as is the stuff of dreams. They were yours to dispel, for they were of you.”

“Of me?” she questioned, her heart-beats quickening and bringing to her cheeks a flush that she thanked the night for concealing.

“Yes, Madonna—of you and our first meeting in the woods at Acquasparta. Do you recall it?”

“I do, I do,” she murmured fondly.

“And do you recall how I then swore myself your knight and ever your champion? Little did we dream how the honour that I sighed for was to be mine.”

She made him no answer, her mind harking back to that first meeting on which so often and so fondly she had pondered.

“I was thinking, too,” he said presently, “of that man Gian Maria in the plain yonder, and of this shameful siege.”

“You—you have no misgivings?” she faltered, for his words had disappointed her a little.

“Misgivings?”

“For being here with me. For being implicated in what they call my rebellion?”

He laughed softly, his eyes upon the silver gleam of waters below.

“My misgivings are all for the time when this siege shall be ended; when you and I shall have gone each our separate way,” he answered boldly. He turned to face her now, and his voice rang a little tense. “But for being here to guide this fine resistance and lend you the little aid I can—— No, no, I have no misgiving for that. It is the dearest frolic ever my soldiering led me into. I came to Roccaleone with a message of warning; but underneath, deep down in my heart, I bore the hope that mine should be more than a messenger's part; that mine it might be to remain by you and do such work as I am doing.”

“Without you they would have forced me by now to surrender.”

“Perhaps they would. But while I am here I do not think they will. I burn for news of Babbiano. If I could but tell what is happening there I might cheer you with the assurance that this siege can last but a few days longer. Gian Maria must get him home or submit to the loss of his throne. And if he loses that your uncle would no longer support so strenuously his suit with you. To you, Madonna, this must be a cheering thought. To me—alas! Why should I hope for it?”

He was looking away now into the night, but his voice quivered with the emotion that was in him. She was silent, and emboldened perhaps by that silence of hers, encouraged by the memory of what he had seen that morning reflected in her eyes:

“Madonna,” he cried, “I would it might be mine to cut a road for you through that besieging camp, and bear you away to some blessed place where there are neither courts nor princes. But since this may not be, Madonna mia, I would that this siege might last for ever.”

And then—was it the night breeze faintly stirring through his hair that mocked him with the whisper, “So indeed would I?” He turned to her, his hand, brown and nervous, fell upon hers, ivory-white, where it rested on the stone.

“Valentina!” he cried, his voice no louder than a whisper, his eyes ardently seeking her averted ones. And then, as suddenly as it had leapt up, was the fire in his glance extinguished. He withdrew his hand from hers, he sighed, and shifted his gaze to the camp once more. “Forgive, forget, Madonna,” he murmured bitterly, “that which in my madness I have presumed.”

Silent she stood for a long moment; then she edged nearer to him, and her voice murmured back: “What if I account it no presumption?”

With a gasp he swung round to face her, and they stood very close, glance holding glance, and hers the less timid of the two. They thus remained for a little space. Then shaking his head and speaking with an infinite sadness:

“It were better that you did, Madonna,” he made answer.

“Better? But why?”

“Because I am no duke, Madonna.”

“And what of that?” she cried, to add with scorn: “Out yonder sits a duke. Oh, sir, how shall I account presumptuous in you the very words that I would hear? What does your rank signify to me? I know you for the truest knight, the noblest gentleman, and the most valiant friend that ever came to the aid of distressed maiden. Do you forget the very principles that have led me to make this resistance? That I am a woman, and ask of life no more than is a woman's due—and no less.”

There she stopped; again the blood suffused her cheeks as she bethought her of how fast she talked, and of how bold her words might sound. She turned slightly from him, and leant now upon the parapet, gazing out into the night. And as she stood thus, a very ardent voice it was that whispered in her ear:

“Valentina, by my soul, I love you!” And there that whisper, which filled her with an ecstasy that was almost painful in its poignancy, ended sharply as if throttled. Again his hand sought hers, which was yielded to him as she would have yielded her whole life at his sweet bidding, and now his voice came less passionately.

“Why delude ourselves with cruel hopes, my Valentina?” he was saying. “There is the future. There is the time when this siege shall be done with, and when, Gian Maria having got him home, you will be free to depart. Whither will you go?”

She looked at him as if she did not understand the question, and her eyes were troubled, although in such light as there was he could scarce see this.

“I will go whither you bid me. Where else have I to go?” she added, with a note of bitterness.

He started. Her answer was so far from what he had expected.

“But your uncle——?”

“What duty do I owe to him? Oh, I have thought of it, and until—until this morning, it seemed that a convent must be my ultimate refuge. I have spent most of my young life at Santa Sofia, and the little that I have seen of the world at my uncle's court scarce invites me to see more of it. The Mother Abbess loved me a little. She would take me back, unless——”

She broke off and looked at him, and before that look of absolute and sweet surrender his senses swam. That she was niece to the Duke of Urbino he remembered no more than that he was Count of Aquila, well-born, but of none too rich estate, and certainly no more a match for her in Guidobaldo's eyes than if he had been the simple knight-errant that he seemed.

He moved closer to her, his hands—as if obeying a bidding greater than his will, the bidding of that glance of hers, perhaps—took her by the shoulders, whilst his whole soul looked at her from his eyes. Then, with a stifled cry, he caught her to him. For a moment she lay, palpitant, within his arms, her tall, bronze head on a level with his chin, her heart beating against his heart. Stooping suddenly, he kissed her on the lips. She suffered it with an unresistance that invited. But when it was done, she gently put him from her; and he, obedient to her slightest wish, curbed the wild ardour of his mood, and set her free.

“Anima mia!” he cried rapturously. “You are mine now, betide what may. Not Gian Maria nor all the dukes in Christendom shall take you from me.”

She set her hand upon his lips to silence him, and he kissed the palm, so that laughing she drew back again. And now from laughter she passed to a great solemnity, and with arm outstretched towards the ducal camp: “Win me a way through those lines,” said she, “and bear me away from Urbino—far away where Guidobaldo's power and the vengeance of Gian Maria may not follow us—and you shall have won me for your own. But until then, let there be a truce to—to this, between us. Here is a man's work to be done, and if I am weak as to-night, I may weaken you, and then we should both be undone. It is upon your strength I count, Franceschino mio, my true knight.”

He would have answered her. He had much to tell her—who and what he was. But she pointed to the head of the steps, where a man's figure loomed.

“Yonder comes the sentinel,” she said. “Leave me now, dear Francesco. Go. It is growing late.”

He bowed low before her, obedient ever, like the true knight he was, and took his leave of her, his soul on fire.

Valentina watched his retreating figure until it had vanished round the angle of the wall. Then with a profound sigh, that was as a prayer of thanksgiving for this great good that had come into her life, she leaned upon the parapet and looked out into the darkness, her cheeks flushed, her heart still beating high. She laughed softly to herself out of the pure happiness of her mood. The camp of Gian Maria became a subject for her scorn. What should his might avail whilst she had such a champion to defend her now and hereafter?

There was an irony in that siege on which her fancy fastened. By coming thus in arms against her Gian Maria sought to win her for his wife; yet all that he had accomplished was to place her in the arms of the one man whom she had learnt to love by virtue of this very siege. The mellow warmth of the night, the ambient perfume of the fields were well-sorted to her mood, and the faint breeze that breathed caressingly upon her cheek seemed to re-echo the melodies her heart was giving forth. In that hour those old grey walls of Roccaleone seemed to enclose for her a very paradise, and the snatch of an old love song stole softly from her parted lips. But like a paradise—alas!—it had its snake that crept up unheard behind her, and was presently hissing in her ear. And its voice was the voice of Romeo Gonzaga.

“It comforts me, Madonna, that there is one, at least, in Roccaleone has the heart to sing.”

Startled out of her happy pensiveness by that smooth and now unutterably sinister voice, she turned to face its owner.

She saw the white gleam of his face and something of the anger that smouldered in his eye, and despite herself a thrill of alarm ran through her like a shudder. She looked beyond him to a spot where lately she had seen the sentry. There was no one there nor anywhere upon that wall. They were alone, and Messer Gonzaga looked singularly evil.

For a moment there was a tense silence, broken only by the tumbling waters of the torrent-moat and the hoarse challenge of a sentry's “Chi va là?” in Gian Maria's camp. Then she turned nervously, wondering how much he might have heard of what had passed between herself and Francesco, how much have seen.

“And yet, Gonzaga,” she answered him, “I left you singing below when I came away.”

“—To wanton it here in the moonlight with that damned swashbuckler, that brigand, that kennel-bred beast of a sbirro!”

“Gonzaga! You would dare!”

“Dare?” he mocked her, beside himself with passion. “Is it you who speak of daring—you, the niece of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, a lady of the noble and illustrious house of Rovere, who cast yourself into the arms of a low-born vassal such as that, a masnadiero, a bandit, a bravo? And can you yet speak of daring, and take that tone with me, when shame should strike you either dead or dumb?”

“Gonzaga,” she answered him, her face as white as his own, but her voice steady and hard with anger, “leave me now—upon the instant, or I will have you flogged—flogged to the bone.”

A moment he stared at her like a man dazed. Then he tossed his arms to Heaven, and letting them fall heavily to his sides, he shrugged his shoulders and laughed evilly. But of going he made no shift.

“Call your men,” he answered her, in a choking voice. “Do your will on me. Flog me to the bone or to the death—let that be the reward of all that I have done, all that I have risked, all that I have sacrificed to serve you. It were of a piece with your other actions.”

Her eyes sought his in the gloom, her bosom heaving wildly in her endeavours to master herself before she spoke.

“Messer Gonzaga,” said she at last, “I'll not deny that you served me faithfully in the matter of my escape from Urbino——”

“Why speak of it?” he sneered. “It was a service of which you but avail yourself until another offered on whom you might bestow your favour and the supreme command of your fortress. Why speak of it?”

“To show you that the service you allude to is now paid,” she riposted sternly. “By reproaching me you have taken payment, and by insulting me you have stamped out my gratitude.”

“A most convenient logic yours,” he mocked. “I am cast aside like an outworn garment, and the garment is accounted paid for because through much hard usage it has come to look a little threadbare.”

And now it entered her mind that perhaps there was some justice in what he said. Perhaps she had used him a little hardly.

“Do you think, Gonzaga,” she said, and her tone was now a shade more gentle, “that because you have served me you may affront me, and that knight who has served me, also, and——”

“In what can such service as his compare with mine? What has he done that I have not done more?”

“Why, when the men rebelled here——”

“Bah! Cite me not that. Body of God! it is his trade to lead such swine. He is one of themselves. But for the rest, what has such a man as this to lose by his share in your rebellion, compared with such a loss as mine must be?”

“Why, if things go ill, I take it he may lose his life,” she answered, in a low voice. “Can you lose more?”

He made a gesture of impatience.

“If things go ill—yes. It may cost him dearly. But if they go well, and this siege is raised, he has nothing more to fear. Mine is a parlous case. However ends this siege, for me there will be no escape from the vengeance of Gian Maria and Guidobaldo. They know my share in it. They know that your action was helped by me, and that without me you could never have equipped yourself for such resistance. Whatever may betide you and this Ser Franceseo, for me there will be no escape.”

She drew a deep breath, then set him the obvious question:

“Did you not consider it—did you not weigh these chances—before you embarked upon this business, before you, yourself, urged me to this step?”

“Aye, did I,” he answered sullenly.

“Then, why these complaints now?”

He was singularly, madly frank with her in his reply. He told her that he had done it because he loved her, because she had given him signs that his love was not in vain.

“I gave you signs?” she interrupted him. “Mother in Heaven! Recite these signs that I may know them.”

“Were you not ever kind to me?” he demanded. “Did you not ever manifest a liking for my company? Were you not ever pleased that I should sing to you the songs that in your honour I had made? Was it not to me you turned in the hour of your need?”

“See now how poor a thing you are, Gonzaga?” she answered witheringly. “A woman may not smile on you, may not give you a kind word, may not suffer you to sing to her, but you must conclude she is enamoured of you. And if I turned to you in my hour of need, as you remind me, needs that be a sign of my infatuation? Does every cavalier so think when a helpless woman turns to him in her distress? But even so,” she continued, “how should all that diminish the peril you now talk of? Even were your suit with me to prosper, would that make you any the less Romeo Gonzaga, the butt of the anger of my uncle and Gian Maria? Rather do I think that it should make you more.”

But he disillusioned her. He did not scruple, in his angry mood, to lay before her his reasonings that as her husband he would be screened.

She laughed aloud at that.

“And so it is by such sophistries as these that your presumption came to life?”

That stung him. Quivering with the passion that obsessed him, he stepped close up to her.

“Tell me, Madonna—why shall we account presumption in Romeo Gonzaga a suit that in a nameless adventurer we encourage?” he asked, his voice thick and tremulous.

“Have a care,” she bade him.

“A care of what?” he flashed back. “Answer me, Monna Valentina. Am I so base a man that by the very thought of love for you I must presume, whilst you can give yourself into the arms of this swashbuckling bravo, and take his kisses? Your reasoning sorts ill with your deeds.”

“Craven!” she answered him. “Dog that you are!” And before the blaze of passion in her eyes he recoiled, his courage faltering. She cropped her anger in mid-career, and in a dangerously calm voice she bade him see to it that by morning he was no longer in Roccaleone. “Profit by the night,” she counselled him, “and escape the vigilance of Gian Maria as best you can. Here you shall not stay.”

At that a great fear took possession of him, putting to flight the last remnant of his anger. Nor fear alone was it, to do him full justice. It was also the realisation that if he would take payment from her for this treatment of him, if he would slake his vengeance, he must stay. One plan had failed him. But his mind was fertile, and he might devise another that might succeed and place Gian Maria in Roccaleone. Thus should he be amply venged. She was turning away, having pronounced his banishment, but he sprang after her, and upon his knees he now besought her piteously to hear him yet awhile.

And she, regretting her already of her harshness, and thinking that perhaps in his jealousy he had been scarce responsible for what he had said, stood still to hear him.

“Not that, not that, Madonna,” he wailed, his tone suggesting the imminence of tears. “Do not send me away. If die I must, let me die here at Roccaleone, helping the defence to my last breath. But do not cast me out to fall into the hands of Gian Maria. He will hang me for my share in this business. Do not requite me thus, Madonna. You owe me a little, surely, and if I was mad when I talked to you just now, it was love of you that drove me—love of you and suspicion of that man of whom none of us know anything. Madonna, be pitiful a little. Suffer me to remain.”

She looked down at him, her mind swayed between pity and contempt. Then pity won the day in the wayward but ever gentle heart of Valentina. She bade him rise.

“And go, Gonzaga. Get you to bed, and sleep you into a saner frame of mind. We will forget all this that you have said, so that you never speak of it again—nor of this love you say you bear me.”

The hypocrite caught the hem of her cloak, and bore it to his lips.

“May God keep your heart ever as pure and noble and forgiving,” he murmured brokenly. “I know how little I am deserving of your clemency. But I shall repay you, Madonna,” he protested—and truly meant it, though not in the sense it seemed.