Chapter 21 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

THE PENITENT
A week passed peacefully at Roccaleone; so peacefully that it was difficult to conceive that out there in the plain sat Gian Maria with his five-score men besieging them.

This inaction fretted the Count of Aquila, as did the lack of news from Fanfulla; and he wondered vaguely what might be taking place at Babbiano that Gian Maria should be content to sit idly before them, as though he had months at his disposal in which to starve them into yielding. The mystery would have been dispelled had he known that he had Gonzaga to thank for this singular patience of Gian Maria's. For the courtier had found occasion to send another letter-carrying shaft into the Duke's camp, informing him of how and why the last plot had failed, and urging Gian Maria to wait and trust in him to devise a better scheme for delivering the castle into his power. He had promised boldly and confidently enough, and Gian Maria—facts showed—had trusted to that promise of his, and awaited its fulfilment. But tax his mind though he did incessantly, no inspiration came to him, no scheme suggested itself by which he might accomplish his treacherous purpose.

He employed the time cunningly to win back Valentina's favour and confidence. On the morning after his stormy interview with Guidobaldo's niece, he had confessed himself to Fra Domenico, and approached the Sacrament. Every morning thereafter he appeared at Mass, and by the piety and fervour of his devotions became an example to all the others. Now this was not lost on Valentina, who was convent-bred, and in a measure devout. She read in this singular alteration of his ways the undoubtable indication of an altered character. That he had approached the Sacrament on the morning after his wild words to her, she took to mean that he repented him the viciousness of the animosity he had entertained that he continued so extremely devout thereafter she construed into meaning that his repentance was sincere and persistent.

And so she came to ask herself whether, indeed, he had not been as much sinned against as sinning, and she ended by assuring herself that in a measure the fault was hers. Seeing him so penitent, and concluding from it that he was not likely to transgress again, she readmitted him to her favour, and, little by little, the old friendly state was re-established and was the sounder, perhaps, by virtue of her confidence that after what had passed he would not again misunderstand her.

He did not, nor did he again allow his optimism and ever-ready vanity to cozen him with false hopes. He read her with exact precision, and whilst the reading but served to embitter him the more and render him more steadfast in his vengeful purpose, it, nevertheless, made him smile the more sweetly and fawn the more obsequiously.

And not content with this, he did not limit his sycophancy to Valentina, but sought also by a smiling persistence to ingratiate himself with Francesco. No voice in Roccaleone—not even that of the bully Ercole—was raised more often or more enthusiastically to praise and glorify their Provost. Valentina, observing this, and accepting it as another sign of his contrition for the past and purpose of amendment for the future, grew yet more cordial towards him. He was not lacking in astuteness, this pretty Ser Romeo, nor in knowledge of a woman's heart, and the apprehension of the fact that there is no flattery she prefers to that which has for object the man she loves.

Thus did Gonzaga conquer the confidence and esteem of all during that peaceful week. He seemed a changed man, and all save Peppe saw in this change a matter for increased trust and friendship towards him. But the astute fool looked on and pondered. Such transformations as these were not effected in a night. He was no believer in any human chrysalis that shall make of the grub of yesterday the butterfly of to-day. And so, in this fawning, smiling, subservient Gonzaga, he saw nothing but an object of mistrust, a fellow to be watched with the utmost vigilance. To this vigilance the hunchback applied himself with a zeal born of his cordial detestation of the courtier. But Gonzaga, aware of the fool's mistrust and watchfulness, contrived for once to elude him, and to get a letter to Gian Maria setting forth the ingenious plan he had hatched.

The notion had come to him that Sunday at Mass. On all sanctified days it was Monna Valentina's way to insist that the entire garrison, with the exception of one single sentinel—and this only at Francesco's very earnest urging—should attend the morning service. Like an inspiration it came to him that such a half-hour as that would be a most opportune season in which to throw open the gates of Roccaleone to the besiegers. The following Wednesday was the feast of Corpus Christi. Then would be his opportunity.

Kneeling there, with head bent in ecstatic devotion, he matured his treacherous plan. The single sentry he could suborn, or else—if bribery failed—poniard. He realised that single-handed he might not lower the cumbrous drawbridge, nor would it be wise, even if possible, for the noise of it might give the alarm. But there was the postern. Gian Maria must construct him a light, portable bridge, and have it in readiness to span the moat and silently pour his soldiers into the castle through that little gate.

And so, the plot matured and every detail clear, he got him to his chamber and penned the letter that was to rejoice the heart of Gian Maria. He chose a favourable moment to despatch it, as he had despatched the former ones, tied about the quarrel of an arbalest, and he saw Gian Maria's signal—for which the letter had provided—that the plan would be adopted. Humming a gay measure, jubilant at the prospect of seeing himself so amply avenged, Gonzaga passed down and out into the castle gardens to join the ladies in their merry-making over a game of hoodman blind.

Now, however much the Duke of Babbiano may have congratulated himself upon the ally he possessed in Gonzaga, and the cunning scheme the latter had devised for placing him in possession of Roccaleone, there came news to him on the morrow that caused him to rejoice a hundredfold more fervently. His subjects of Babbiano were in a condition approaching open rebellion, resulting from the disquieting rumours that Caesar Borgia was arming at Rome for a decent upon the Duchy, and the continued absence of Gian Maria in such a season, upon a wooing that they deemed ill-timed. A strong party had been formed, and the leaders had nailed upon the Palace gates a proclamation that, unless Gian Maria returned within three days to organise the defence of Babbiano, they would depose him and repair to Aquila to invite his cousin, Francesco del Falco—whose patriotism and military skill were known to all—to assume the crown of Babbiano and protect them.

At the news, and upon reading the proclamation, which Alvari had brought with him, Gian Maria flew into one of those fits of rage that made his name a byword in Babbiano. Presently, however, he cooled. There was Gonzaga yonder, who had promised to admit him to Roccaleone on Wednesday. That left him time to first possess himself of his reluctant bride, and then ride hard to Babbiano, to arrive there before the expiry of the three days' grace his subjects gave him.

He conferred with Guidobaldo, and urged that a priest should be in waiting to wed them so soon as he should have brought her out of the fortress. Upon that detail they were within an ace of quarrelling. Guidobaldo would not at first agree to such hasty nuptials; they were unfitting the dignity and the station of his niece, and if Gian Maria would wed her he must come to Urbino and let the ceremony be performed by a cardinal. Well was it then for Gian Maria that he mastered his wonted hastiness and curbed the hot, defiant retort that rose to his lips. Had he done so, an enduring rupture between them would probably have ensued; for Guidobaldo was not one to permit himself to be hectored, and, after all, he amply realised that Gian Maria had more need of him than he of Gian Maria. And this in that moment the Duke of Babbiano realised too, and realising it he set himself to plead where otherwise he might have demanded, to beg as a favour that which otherwise he might have commanded with a threat. And so he won Guidobaldo—although reluctant—to his wishes in the matter, and in his good-nature the Duke of Urbino consented to pocket the dignity that prompted him to see the ceremony performed with princely pomp.

This being settled, Gian Maria blessed Gonzaga who rendered it all possible, and came most opportunely to his aid where without him he should have been forced to resort to cannon and bloodshed.

With Gonzaga the only shadow of doubt that remained to mar the perfect certainty of his success lay in his appreciation of Francesco's daring character and resourceful mind, and now as if the gods were eager to favour him to the very last degree—a strange weapon to combat this was unexpectedly thrust into his hand.

It happened that Alvari was not the only messenger who travelled that day to Roccaleone. There followed him by some hours, the Count of Aquila's servant, Zaccaria, who rode hard and reached the approaches of the castle by sunset. His destination being the fortress itself, he was forced to wait in the woods until night had fallen, and even then his mission was fraught with peril.

It befell that somewhere near the second hour of night, the moon being overcast at the time—for there were threats of a storm in the sky—the sentinel on the eastern wall heard a sound of splashing in the moat below, accompanied by the stertorous breathing of a swimmer whose mouth is not well above water. He challenged the sound, but receiving no reply he turned to go and give the alarm, and ran into the arms of Gonzaga, who had come up to take the air.

“Illustrious,” he exclaimed, “there is someone swimming the moat.”

“Eh?” cried Gonzaga, a hundred suspicions of Gian Maria running through his mind. “Treachery?”

“It is what I thought.”

Gonzaga took the man by the sleeve of his doublet, and drew him back to the parapet. They peered over, and from out of the blackness they were hailed by a faint “Olá!”

“Who goes there?” demanded Romeo.

“A friend,” came the answer softly. “A messenger from Babbiano with letters for the Lord Count of Aquila. Throw me a rope, friends, before I drown in this trough.”

“You rave, fool!” answered him Gonzaga. “We have no counts at Roccaleone.”

“Surely, sir sentinel,” replied the voice, “my master, Messer Francesco del Falco, is here. Throw me a rope, I say.”

“Messer Fran——” began Gonzaga. Then he made a noise like a man choking. It was as if a sudden light of revelation had flooded his brain. “Get a rope,” he harshly bade the sentry. “In the armoury yard. Despatch, fool!” he added sharply, now fearing interruption.

In a moment the man was back, and the rope was lowered to the visitor below. A few seconds later Zaccaria stood on the ramparts of Roccaleone, the water dripping from his sodden garments, and gathering in a pool about his feet.

“This way,” said Gonzaga, leading the man towards the armoury tower, where a lanthorn was burning. By the light of it he surveyed the newcomer, and bade the sentry close the door and remain within call, without.

Zaccaria looked startled at the order. This was scarcely the reception he had expected after so imperilling his life to reach the castle with his letter.

“Where is my lord?” he inquired, through teeth that chattered from the cold of his immersion, wondering vaguely who this very magnificent gentleman might be.

“Is Messer Francesco del Falco your lord?” asked Romeo.

“He is, sir. I have had the honour to serve him these ten years. I bring him letters from Messer Fanfulla degli Arcipreti. They are very urgent. Will you lead me to him?”

“You are very wet,” murmured Gonzaga solicitously. “You will take your death from cold, and the death of a man so brave as to have found a way through Gian Maria's lines were truly deplorable.” He stepped to the door. “Olá!” he called to the sentry. “Take this brave fellow up there and find him a change of raiment.” He pointed to the upper chamber of the tower, where, indeed, such things were stored.

“But my letters, sir!” cried Zaccaria impatiently. “They are very urgent, and hours have I wasted already in waiting for the night.”

“Surely you can wait until you have changed your garments? Your life, I take it, is of more account than the loss of a few moments.”

“But my orders from Messer degli Arcipreti were that I must not lose an instant.”

“Oh, si, si!” cried Gonzaga, with a show of good-tempered impatience. “Give me the letters, then, and I will take them to the Count while you are stripping those wet clothes.”

Zaccaria eyed him a moment in doubt. But he looked so harmless in his finery, and the expression of his comely face was so winning and honest, that the man's hesitancy faded as soon as it sprang up. Removing his cap, he drew from within the crown the letter, which he had placed there to keep dry. This package he now handed to Gonzaga, who, with a final word of instruction to the sentry touching the finding of raiment for the messenger, stepped out to go his errand. But outside the door he paused, and called the sentry to him again.

“Here is a ducat for you,” he whispered. “Do my bidding and you shall have more. Detain him in the tower till I return, and on no account let him be seen or heard by anyone.”

“Yes, Excellency,” the man replied. “But what if the captain comes and finds me absent from my post?”

“I will provide for that. I will tell Messer Fortemani that I have employed you on a special matter, and ask him to replace you. You are dispensed sentry duty for to-night.”

The man bowed, and quietly withdrew to attend to his prisoner, for in that light he now regarded Zaccaria.

Gonzaga sought Fortemani in the guard-room below, and did as he had promised the sentry.

“But,” snapped Ercole, reddening, “by whose authority have you done this? By what right do you send sentinels on missions of your own? Christo Santo! Is the castle to be invaded while you send my watchmen to fetch your comfit­box or a book of verses?”

“You will remember——” began Romeo, with an air of overwhelming dignity.

“Devil take you and him that sent you!” broke in the bully. “The Messer Provost shall hear of this.”

“On no account,” cried Gonzaga, now passing from anger to alarm, and snatching the skirts of Fortemani's cloak as the captain was in the act of going out to execute his threat. “Ser Ercole be reasonable, I beg of you. Are we to alarm the castle and disturb Monna Valentina over a trumpery affair such as this? Man, they will laugh at you.”

“Eh?” There was nothing Ercole relished less than to be laughed at. He pondered a moment, and it occurred to him that perhaps he was making much of nothing. Then:

“You, Aventano,” he called, “take your partisan, and patrol the eastern rampart. There, Messer Gonzaga, I have obeyed your wishes; but Messer Francesco shall hear of it when he comes his rounds.”

Gonzaga left him. Francesco would not make his rounds for another hour, and by then it would not matter what Fortemani told him. In one way or another he would be able to account for his action.

He crossed the courtyard, and mounted the steps leading to his own chamber. Once there, he closed and barred the door. He kindled a light, and flinging the letter on the table, he sat and contemplated its exterior and the great red seal that gleamed in the yellow light of his taper.

So! This knight-errant, this man whom he had accounted a low-born hind, was none other than the famous Count of Aquila, the well-beloved of the people of Babbiano, the beau-ideal of all military folk from Sicily to the Alps. And he had never suspected it! Dull-witted did he now account himself. Enough descriptions had he heard of that famous condottiero, that mirror of Italian chivalry. He might have known that there did not live two men of such commanding ways as he had seen instanced at Roccaleone. What was his object there? Was it love of Valentina, or was it——? He paused, as in his mind he made a swift review of the politics of Babbiano. A sudden possibility occurred to him that made his eyes sparkle and his hands tremble with eagerness. Was this but a political scheme to undermine his cousin's throne, to which Gonzaga had heard it rumoured that Francesco del Falco was an aspirant? If it were so, what a vengeance would be his to unmask him! How it must humble Valentina! The letter lay before him. Within it the true facts would be disclosed. What did his friend Fanfulla write him?

He took the letter up and made a close inspection of the seal. Then softly, quietly, slowly he drew his dagger. If his suspicions were unfounded, his dagger heated in the taper should afford him the means to conceal the fact that he had tampered with that missive. He slipped his blade under the seal, and worked it cautiously until it came up and set the letter open. He unfolded it, and as he read his eyes dilated. He seemed to crouch on his chair, and the hand that held the paper shook. He drew the candle nearer, and shading his eyes he read it again, word for word:

“MY DEAR LORD COUNT,—I have delayed writing until the time when the signs I observed should have become more definite, as they have now done, so that I may delay no longer. This, then, goes by the hand of Zaccaria, to tell you that to-day has word been sent Gian Maria giving him three days in which to return to Babbiano, or to abandon all hope of his crown, of which the people will send the offer then to you at Aquila, where you are believed to be. So now, my dear lord, you have the tyrant at your mercy, tossed between Scylla and Charybdis. Yours it is to resolve how you will act; but I rejoice in being the one to send you word that your presence at Roccaleone and your stubborn defence of the fortress has not been vain, and that presently you are to reap the well-earned reward of it. The people have been stirred to this extreme action by the confusion prevailing here.

“News has reached us that Caesar Borgia is arming, at Rome, a condotta to invade Babbiano, and the people are exasperated at Gian Maria's continued absence in such a season. They are short-sighted in this, for they overlook the results that must attend the alliance with Urbino. May God protect and prosper your Excellency, whose most devoted servant is

“FANFULLA DEGLI AROIPRETI.”