Chapter 22 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

“Francesco,” said Valentina, and the name came from her lips as if it were an endearment, “why that frowning, care­worn look?”

They were in the dining-room alone, where the others had left them, and they were still seated at the table at which they had supped. Francesco raised his dark, thoughtful eyes, and as they lighted now on Valentina the thoughtfulness that was in them gave place to tenderness.

“I am fretted by this lack of news,” he acknowledged. “I would I knew what is being done in Babbiano. I had thought that ere now Caesar Borgia had stirred Gian Maria's subjects into some manner of action. I would I knew!”

She rose, and coming close to him, she stood with one hand resting upon his shoulder, her eyes smiling down upon his upturned face.

“And shall such a trifle fret you—you who professed a week ago that you would this siege might last for ever?”

“Account me not fickle, anima mia,” he answered her, and he kissed the ivory fingers that rested on his shoulder. “For that was before the world changed for me at the magic of your bidding. And so,” he repeated, “I would I knew what is toward at Babbiano!”

“But why sigh over a wish so idle?” she exclaimed. “By what means can news reach you here of the happenings of the world without?”

He pondered a moment, seeking words in which to answer her. A score of times during that week had he been on the point of disclosing himself, of telling her who and what he was. Yet ever had he hesitated, putting off that disclosure until the season should appear more fitting. This he now considered the present. She trusted him, and there was no reason to remain silent longer. Perhaps already he had delayed too long, and so he was about to speak when she started from his side, and crossed hastily to the window, alarmed by the sound of approaching steps. A second later the door opened, and Gonzaga appeared.

A moment he hesitated in the doorway, looking from one to the other, and Francesco, lazily regarding him in his turn, noted that his cheeks were pale and that his eyes glittered like those of a man with the fever. Then he stepped forward, and, leaving the door open behind him, he advanced into the room.

“Monna Valentina, I have something to communicate to you.” His voice shook slightly. “Messer—Francesco, will you give us leave?” And his feverish eyes moved to the open door with an eloquence that asked no words.

Francesco rose slowly, endeavouring to repress his surprise and glanced across at Valentina, as if awaiting her confirmation or refusal of this request that he should leave them.

“A communication for me?” she marvelled, a slight frown drawing her brows together. “Of what nature, sir?”

“Of a nature as important as it is private.”

She raised her chin, and with a patient smile she seemed to beg of Francesco that he would suffer her to humour this mood of Gonzaga's. In quick obedience Francesco inclined his head.

“I shall be in my chamber until the hour of my rounds, Madonna,” he announced, and with that took his departure.

Gonzaga attended him to the door, which he closed after him, and composing his features to an expression of sorrowing indignation, he came back and stood facing Valentina across the table.

“Madonna,” he said, “I would to Heaven this communication I have to make to you came from other lips. In the light of what has passed—here at Roccaleone—through my folly—you—you may think my mission charged with vindictiveness.”

Perplexity stared at him from her eyes.

“You fill me with alarm, my good Gonzaga,” she answered him, though smiling.

“Alas it has fallen to my unfortunate lot to do more than that. I have made the discovery of as foul a piece of treachery here in your fortress as ever traitor hatched.”

She looked at him more seriously now. The vehemence of his tone, and the suggestion of sorrow that ran through it and gave it so frank an accent, commanded her attention.

“Treachery!” she echoed, in a low voice, her eyes dilating. “And from whom?”

He hesitated a moment, then waving his hand:

“Will you not sit, Madonna?” he suggested nervously.

Mechanically she seated herself at the table, her eyes ever on his face, alarm spreading in her heart, born of suspense.

“Be seated too,” she bade him, “and tell me.”

He drew up a chair, sat down opposite to her, and taking a deep breath: “Heard you ever of the Count of Aquila?” he inquired.

“It were odd if I had not. The most valiant knight in Italy, fame dubs him.”

His eyes were intently on her face, and what he saw there satisfied him.

“You know how he stands with the people of Babbiano?”

“I know that he is beloved of them.”

“And do you know that he is a pretender to the throne of Babbiano? You will remember that he is cousin to Gian Maria?”

“His relationship to Gian Maria I know. That he pretends to the throne of Babbiano I was not aware. But whither are we straying?”

“We are not straying, Madonna,” answered Gonzaga, “we are making a straight line for the very heart and soul of this treachery I spoke of. Would you believe me if I told you that here, in Roccaleone, we have an agent of the Count of Aquila one who in the Count's interest is protracting this siege with the pretended aim of driving Gian Maria off.”

“Gonzaga——” she began, more than half guessing the drift of his explanation. But he interrupted her with unusual brusqueness.

“Wait, Madonna,” he cried, his eyes upon her face, his hand imperiously raised. “Hear me out in patience. I am not talking idly. Of what I tell you I am armed with proof and witness. Such an agent of—of the Count's interests we have among us, and his true object in protracting this siege, and encouraging and aiding you in your resistance, is to outwear the patience of the people of Babbiano with Gian Maria, and drive them in the hour of their approaching peril from Caesar Borgia's armies to bestow the throne on Aquila.”

“Where learnt you this foul lie?” she asked him, her cheeks crimson, her eyes on fire.

“Madonna,” he said, in a patient voice, “this that you call a lie is already an accomplished fact. I am not laying before you the fruits of idle speculation. I have upon me the most positive proof that such a result as was hoped for has already been reached. Gian Maria has received from his subjects a notification that unless he is in his capital within three days from this, they will invest the Lord of Aquila with the ducal crown.”

She rose, her anger well controlled, her voice calm.

“Where is this proof? No, no; I don't need to see it. Whatever it is, what shall it prove to me? That your words, in so far as the politics of Babbiano are concerned, may be true; our resistance of Gian Maria may indeed be losing him his throne and doing good service to the cause of the Count of Aquila; but how shall all this prove that lie of yours, that Messer Francesco—for it is clearly of him you speak—that Messer Francesco should be this agent of the Count's? It is a lie, Gonzaga, for which you shall be punished as you deserve.”

She ceased, and stood awaiting his reply, and as she watched him his calm demeanour struck a chill into her heart. He was so confident, so full of assurance; and that, in Gonzaga, she had learnt to know meant a strong bulwark 'twixt himself and danger. He sighed profoundly.

“Madonna, these cruel words of yours do not wound me, since they are no more than I expected. But it will wound me—and sorely—if when you shall have learnt the rest you do not humbly acknowledge how you have wronged me, how grossly you have misjudged me. You think I come to you with evil in my heart, urged by a spirit of vindictiveness against Messer Francesco. Instead, I come to you with nothing but a profound sorrow that mine must be the voice to disillusion you, and a deep indignation against him that has so foully used you to his own ends. Wait, Madonna! In a measure you are right. It was not strictly true to say that this Messer Francesco is the agent of the Count of Aquila.”

“Ah! You are recanting already?”

“Only a little—an insignificant little. He is no agent because——” He hesitated, and glanced swiftly up. Then he sighed, lowered his voice, and with consummately simulated sorrow, he concluded “Because he is, himself, Francesco del Falco. Count of Aquila.”

She swayed a moment, and the colour died from her cheeks, leaving them ivory pale. She leaned heavily against the table, and turned over in her mind what she had heard. And then, as suddenly as it had gone, the blood rushed back into her face, mounting to her very temples.

“It's a lie!” she blazed at him; “a lie for which you shall be whipped.”

He shrugged his shoulders, and cast Francesco's letter on to the table.

“There, Madonna, is something that will prove all that I have said.”

She eyed the paper coldly. Her first impulse was to call Fortemani and carry out her threat of having Gonzaga whipped, refusing so much as to see this thing that he so confidently termed a proof; but it may be that his confidence wrought upon her, touching a chord of feminine curiosity. That he was wrong she never doubted; but that he believed himself right she was also assured, and she wondered what this thing might be that had so convinced him. Still she did not touch it, but asked in an indifferent voice:

“What is it?”

“A letter that was brought hither to-night by a man who swam the moat, and whom I have ordered to be detained in the armoury tower. It is from Fanfulla degli Arcipreti to the Count of Aquila. If your memory will bear you back to a certain day at Acquasparta, you may recall that Fanfulla was the name of a very gallant cavalier who addressed this Messer Francesco with marked respect.”

She took that backward mental glance he bade her, and remembered. Then she remembered, too, how that very evening Francesco had said that he was fretting for news of Babbiano, and that when she had asked how he hoped that news could reach him at Roccaleone, Gonzaga had entered before he answered her. Indeed, he had seemed to hesitate upon that answer. A sudden chill encompassed her at that reflection. Oh, it was impossible, absurd! And yet she took the letter from the table. With knit brows she read it, whilst Gonzaga watched her, scarce able to keep the satisfaction from gleaming in his eyes.

She read it slowly, and as she read her face grew deathly pale. When she had finished she stood silent for a long minute, her eyes upon the signature and her mind harking back to what Gonzaga had said, and drawing comparison between that and such things as had been done and uttered, and nowhere did she find the slightest gleam of that discrepancy which so ardently she sought.

It was as if a hand were crushing the heart in her bosom. This man whom she had trusted, this peerless champion of her cause, to be nothing but a self-seeker, an intriguer, who, to advance his own ends, had made a pawn of her. She thought of how for a moment he had held her in his arms and kissed her, and at that her whole soul revolted against the notion that here was no more than treachery.

“It's all a plot against him!” she cried, her cheeks scarlet again. “It's an infamous thing of your devising, Messer Gonzaga, an odious lie!”

“Madonna, the man that brought the letter is still detained. Confront him with Messer Francesco; or apply the question to him, and learn his master's true name and station. As for the rest, if that letter is insufficient proof for you, I beg that you will look back at facts. Why should he lie to you? and say that his name was Francesco Franceschi? Why should he have urged you—against all reason—to remain here, when he brought you news that Gian Maria was advancing? Surely had he but sought to serve you he had better accomplished this by placing his own castle of Aquila at your disposal, and leaving here an empty nest for Gian Maria, as I urged.”

She sank to a chair, a fever in her mind.

“I tell you, Madonna, there is no mistake. What I have said is true. Another three days would he have held Gian Maria here, whilst if you gave him that letter, it is odds he would slip away in the night of to-morrow, that he might be in Babbiano on the third day to take the throne his cousin treats so lightly. Sainted God!” he cried out. “I think this is the most diabolically treacherous plot that ever mind of man conceived and human heartlessness executed.”

“But—but——” she faltered, “all this is presupposing that Messer Francesco is indeed the Count of Aquila. May there—may it not be that this letter was meant for some other destination?”

“Will you confront this messenger with the Count?”

“With the Count?” she inquired dully. “With Messer Francesco, you mean?” She shuddered, and with strange inconsistence: “No,” she said, in a choking voice, her lip twisting oddly at the corner. “I do not wish to see his face again.”

A light gleamed in Gonzaga's eye, and was extinguished on the instant.

“Best make certain,” he suggested, rising. “I have ordered Fortemani to bring Lanciotto here. He will be waiting now, without. Shall I admit them?”

She nodded without speaking, and Gonzaga opened the door, and called Fortemani. A voice answered him from the gloom of the banqueting-hall.

“Bring Lanciotto here,” he commanded.

When Francesco's servant entered, a look of surprise on his face at these mysterious proceedings, it was Valentina who questioned him, and that in a voice as cold as though the issue concerned her no whit.

“Tell me, sirrah,” she said, “and as you value your neck, see that you answer me truly—what is your master's name?”

Lanciotto looked from her to Gonzaga, who stood by, a cynical curl on his sensual lips.

“Answer Monna Valentina,” the courtier urged him. “State your master's true name and station.”

“But, lady,” began Lanciotto, bewildered.

“Answer me!” she stormed, her small clenched hands beating the table in harsh impatience. And Lanciotto, seeing no help for it, answered:

“Messer Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila.”

Something that began in a sob and ended in a laugh burst from the lips of Valentina. Ercole's eyes were wide at the news, and he might have gone the length of interposing a question, when Gonzaga curtly bade him go to the armoury tower, and bring thence the soldier and the man Gonzaga had left in his care.

“I will leave no shadow of doubt in your mind, Madonna,” he said in explanation.

They waited in silence—for Lanciotto's presence hindered conversation—until Ercole returned accompanied by the man-at-arms and Zaccaria, who had now changed his raiment. Before they could question the new-comer, such questions as they might have put were answered by the greeting that passed between him and his fellow-servant Lanciotto.

Gonzaga turned to Valentina. She sat very still, her tawny head bowed and in her eyes a look of sore distress. And in that instant a brisk step sounded without. The door was thrust open, and Francesco himself stood upon the threshold, with Peppe's alarmed face showing behind him. Gonzaga instinctively drew back a pace, and his countenance lost some of its colour.

At sight of Francesco, Zaccaria rushed forward and bowed profoundly.

“My lord!” he greeted him.

And if one little thing had been wanting to complete the evidence against the Count, that thing, by an odd mischance, Francesco himself seemed to supply. The strange group in that dining-room claiming his attention, and the portentous air that hung about those present, confirmed the warning Peppe had brought him that something was amiss. He disregarded utterly his servant's greeting, and with eyes of a perplexity that may have worn the look of alarm he sought the face of Valentina.

She rose upon the instant, an angry red colouring her cheeks. His very glance, it seemed, was become an affront unbearable after what had passed—for the memory of his kiss bit like a poisoned fang into her brain. An odd laugh broke from her. She made a gesture towards Francesco.

“Fortemani, you will place the Count of Aquila under arrest,” she commanded, in a stern, steady voice, “and as you value your life you will see that he does not elude you.”

The great bully hesitated. His knowledge of Francesco's methods was not encouraging.

“Madonna!” gasped Francesco, his bewilderment increasing.

“Did you hear me, Fortemani,” she demanded. “Remove him.”

“My lord?” cried Lanciotto, laying hand to his sword his eyes upon his master's, ready to draw and lay about him at a glance of bidding.

“Sh! Let be,” answered Franeesco coldly. “Here, Messer Fortemani.” And he proffered his dagger, the only weapon that he carried.

Valentina, calling Gonzaga to attend her, made shift to quit the apartment. At that Francesco seemed to awaken to his position.

“Madonna, wait,” he cried, and he stepped deliberately before her. “You must hear me. I have surrendered in earnest of my faith and confident that once you have heard me——”

“Captain Fortemani,” she cried, almost angrily, “will you restrain your prisoner? I wish to pass.”

Ercole, with visible reluctance, laid a hand on Francesco's shoulder; but it was unnecessary. Before her words, the Count recoiled as if he had been struck. He stood clear of her path with a gasp at once of unbelief and angry resignation. An instant his eyes rested on Gonzaga, so fiercely that the faint smile withered on the courtier's lips, and his knees trembled under him as he hastened from the room in Valentina's wake.