Chapter 23 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

The rough stones of the inner courtyard shone clean and bright in the morning sun, still wet with the heavy rains that had washed them yesternight.

The fool sat on a rude stool within the porch of the long gallery, and, moodily eyeing that glistening pavement, ruminated. He was angry, which, saving where Fra Domenico was concerned, was a rare thing with good-humoured Peppe. He had sought to reason with Monna Valentina touching the imprisonment in his chamber of Messer Francesco, and she had bidden him confine his attention to his capers with a harshness he had never known in her before. But he had braved her commands, and astonished her with the information that the true identity of this Messer Francesco had been known to him since that day when they had first met him at Acquasparta. He had meant to say more. He had meant to add the announcement of Francesco's banishment from Babbiano and his notorious unwillingness to mount his cousin's throne. He had meant to make her understand that had Francesco been so minded, he had no need to stoop to such an act as this that she imputed to him. But she had cut him short, and with angry words and angrier threats she had driven him from her presence.

And so she was gone to Mass, and the fool had taken shelter in the porch of the gallery, that there he might vent some of his ill-humour—or indeed indulge it—in pondering the obtuseness of woman and the insidiousness of Gonzaga, to whom he never doubted that this miserable state of things was due.

And as he sat there—a grotesque, misshapen figure in gaudy motley—an ungovernable rage possessed him. What was to become of them now? Without the Count of Aquila's stern support the garrison would have forced her to capitulate a week ago. What would betide, now that the restraint of his formidable command was withdrawn?

“She will know her folly when it's too late. It's the way of women,” he assured himself. And, loving his mistress as he did, his faithful soul was stricken at the thought. He would wait there until she returned from Mass, and then she should hear him—all should hear him. He would not permit himself to be driven away again so easily. He was intently turning over in his mind what he would say, with what startling, pregnant sentence he would compel attention, when he was startled by the appearance of a figure on the chapel steps. Sudden and quietly as an apparition it came, but it bore the semblance of Romeo Gonzaga.

At sight of him, Peppe instinctively drew back into the shadows of the porch, his eyes discerning the suspicious furtiveness of the courtier's movements, and watching them with a grim eagerness. He saw Romeo look carefully about him, and then descend the steps on tiptoe, evidently so that no echo of his footfalls should reach those within the chapel. Then, never suspecting the presence of Peppe, he sped briskly across the yard and vanished through the archway that led to the outer court. And the fool, assured that some knowledge of the courtier's purpose would not be amiss, set out to follow him.

In his room under the Lion's Tower the Count of Aquila had spent a restless night, exercised by those same fears touching the fate of the castle that had beset the fool, but less readily attributing his confinement to Gonzaga's scheming. Zaccaria's presence had told him that Fanfulla must at last have written, and he could but assume that the letter, falling into Monna Valentina's hands, should have contained something that she construed into treason on his part.

Bitterly he reproached himself now with not having from the very outset been frank with her touching his identity; bitterly he reproached her with not so much as giving a hearing to the man she had professed to love. Had she but told him upon what grounds her suspicions against him had been founded, he was assured that he could have dispelled them at a word, making clear their baselessness and his own honesty of purpose towards her. Most of all was he fretted by the fact that Zaccaria's presence, after a coming so long expected and so long delayed, argued that the news he bore was momentous. From this it might result that Gian Maria should move at any moment and that his action might be of a desperate character.

Now through the ranks of Fortemani's men there had run an inevitable dismay at Francesco's arrest, and a resentment against Valentina who had encompassed it. His hand it was that had held them together, his judgment—of which they had had unequivocal signs—that had given them courage. He was a leader who had shown himself capable of leading, and out of confidence for whom they would have undertaken anything that he bade them. Whom had they now? Fortemani was but one of themselves, placed in command over them by an event purely adventitious. Gonzaga was a fop whose capers they mimicked and whose wits they despised; whilst Valentina, though brave enough and high-spirited, remained a girl of no worldly and less military knowledge, whose orders it might be suicidal to carry out.

Now by none were these opinions more strongly entertained than by Ercole Fortemani himself. Never had he performed anything with greater reluctance than the apprehension of Francesco, and when he thought of what was likely to follow his consternation knew no bounds. He had come to respect and, in his rough way, even to love their masterful Provost, and since learning his true identity, in the hour of arresting him, his admiration had grown to something akin to reverence for the condottiero whose name to the men-at-arms of Italy was like the name of some patron saint.

To ensure the safe keeping of his captive, he had been ordered by Gonzaga, who now resumed command of Roccaleone, to spend the night in the ante-room of Francesco's chamber. These orders he had exceeded by spending a considerable portion of the night in the Count's very room.

“You have but to speak,” the bully had sworn, by way of showing Francesco the true nature of his feelings, “and the castle is yours. At a word from you my men will flock to obey you, and you may do your will at Roccaleone.”

“Foul traitor that you are,” Francesco had laughed at him. “Do you forget under whom you have taken service? Let be what is, Ercole. But if a favour you would do me, let me see Zaccaria—the man that came to Roccaleone to-night.”

This Ercole had done for him. Now Zaccaria was fully aware of the contents of the letter he had carried, having been instructed by Fanfulla against the chance arising of his being compelled, for his safety, to destroy it—an expedient to which he now bitterly repented him that he had not had recourse. From Zaccaria, then, Francesco learnt all that there was to learn, and since the knowledge but confirmed his fears that Gian Maria would delay action no longer, he fell a prey to the most passionate impatience at his own detention.

In the grey hours of the morning he grew calmer, and by the light of a lamp that he had called Ercole to replenish, he sat down to write a letter to Valentina, which he thought should carry conviction of his honesty to her heart. Since she would not hear him, this was the only course. At the end of an hour—his moribund light grown yellow now that the sun was risen—his letter was accomplished, and he summoned Ercole again, to charge him to deliver it at once to Monna Valentina.

“I shall await her return from chapel,” answered Ercole. He took the letter and departed. As he emerged into the courtyard he was startled to see the fool dash towards him, gasping for breath, and with excitement in every line of his quaint face.

“Quickly, Ercole!” Peppe enjoined him. “Come with me.”

“Devil take you, spawn of Satan—whither?” growled the soldier.

“I will tell you as we go. We have not a moment to spare. There is treachery afoot—— Gonzaga——” he gasped, and ended desperately: “Will you come?”

Fortemani needed no second bidding. The chance of catching pretty Messer Romeo at a treachery was too sweet a lure. Snorting and puffing—for hard drinking had sorely impaired his wind—the great captain hurried the fool along, listening as they went to the gasps in which he brought out his story. It was not much, after all. Peppe had seen Messer Gonzaga repair to the armoury tower. Through an arrow-slit he had watched him take down and examine an arbalest, place it on the table and sit down to write.

“Well?” demanded Ercole. “What else?”

“Naught else. That is all,” answered the hunchback.

“Heaven and hell!” roared the swashbuckler, coming to a standstill and glowering down upon his impatient companion. “And you have made me run for this?”

“And is it not enough?” retorted Peppe testily. “Will you come on?”

“Not a foot farther,” returned the captain, getting very angry. “Is this a miserable jest? What of the treachery you spoke of?”

“A letter and an arbalest!” panted the maddened Peppe, grimacing horribly at this delay. “God, was there ever such a fool! Does this mean nothing to that thick, empty thing you call a head? Have you forgotten how Gian Maria's offer of a thousand florins came to Roccaleone? On an arbalest quarrel, stupid! Come on, I say, and afterwards you shall have my motley—the only livery you have a right to wear.”

In the shock of enlightenment Ercole forgot to cuff the jester for his insolence, and allowed himself once more to be hurried along, across the outer court and up the steps that led to the battlements.

“You think——” he began.

“I think you had best tread more softly,” snapped the fool, under his breath, “and control that thunderous wheeze, if you would surprise Ser Romeo.”

Ercole accepted the hint, meek as a lamb, and leaving the fool behind him on the steps, he went softly up, and approached the armoury tower. Peering cautiously through the arrow-slit, and favoured by the fact that Gonzaga's back was towards him, he saw that he was no more than in time.

The courtier was bending down, and by the creaking sound that reached him Ercole guessed his occupation to be the winding of the arbalest string. On the table at his side lay a quarrel swathed in a sheet of paper.

Swiftly and silently Ercole moved round the tower, and the next instant he had pushed open the unfastened door and entered.

A scream of terror greeted him, and a very startled face was turned upon him by Gonzaga, who instantly sprang upright. Then, seeing who it was, the courtier's face reassumed some of its normal composure, but his glance was uneasy and his cheek pale.

“Sant Iddio!” he gasped. “You startled me, Ercole. I did not hear you coming.”

And now something in the bully's face heightened the alarm in Gonzaga. He still made an effort at self-control, as planting himself between Ercole and the table, so as to screen the tell-tale shaft, he asked him what he sought there.

“That letter you have written Gian Maria,” was the gruff, uncompromising answer, for Ercole reeked nothing of diplomatic issues.

Gonzaga's mouth jerked itself open, and his upper lip shuddered against his teeth.

“What—— Wha——”

“Give me that letter,” Ercole insisted, now advancing upon him, and wearing an air of ferocity that drove back into Gonzaga's throat such resentful words as he bethought him of. Then, like an animal at bay—and even a rat will assert itself then—he swung aloft the heavy arbalest he held, and stood barring Ercole's way.

“Stand back!” he cried; “or by God and His saints, I'll beat your brains out.”

There was a guttural laugh from the swashbuckler, and then his arms were round Gonzaga's shapely waist, and the popinjay was lifted from his feet. Viciously he brought down the cross-bow, as he had threatened; but it smote the empty air. The next instant Gonzaga was hurtled, bruised, into a corner of the tower.

In a rage so great that he felt it draining him of his very strength and choking the breath in his body, he made a movement to rise and fling himself again upon his aggressor. But Fortemani was down upon him, and for all his struggles contrived to turn him over on his face, twisting his arms behind him, and making them fast with a belt that lay at hand.

“Lie still, you scorpion!” growled the ruffler, breathing hard from his exertions. He rose, took the shaft with the letter tied about it, read the superscription—“To the High and Mighty Lord Gian Maria Sforza”—and with a chuckle of mingled relish and scorn, he was gone, locking the door.

Left alone, Gonzaga lay face downward where he had been flung, able to do little more than groan and sweat in the extremity of his despair, whilst he awaited the coming of those who would probably make an end of him. Not even from Valentina could he hope for mercy, so incriminating was the note he had penned. His letter was to enjoin the Duke to hold his men in readiness at the hour of the Angelus next morning, and to wait until Gonzaga should wave a handkerchief from the battlements. At that he was to advance immediately to the postern, which he would find open, and the rest, Gonzaga promised him, would be easy. He would take the whole garrison at their prayers and weaponless.

When Francesco read it a light leapt to his eye and an oath to his lips; but neither glance nor oath were of execration, as Ercole stood expecting. A sudden idea flashed through the Count's mind, so strange and humorous and yet so full of promise of easy accomplishment, that he burst into a laugh.

“Now may God bless this fool for the most opportune of traitors!” he exclaimed, in surprise at which Fortemani's mouth fell open, and the eyes of Peppe grew very round.

“Ercole, my friend, here is a bait to trap that lout my cousin, such as I could never have devised myself.”

“You mean——?”

“Take it back to him,” cried the Count, holding out the letter with a hand that trembled in the eagerness of his spirit. “Take it back, and get him by fair means or foul to shoot it as he intended; or if he refuses, why, then, do you seal it up and shoot it yourself. But see that it gets to Gian Maria!”

“May I not know what you intend?” quoth the bewildered Ercole.

“All in good time, my friend. First do my bidding with that letter. Listen! It were best that having read it you agree to join him in his betrayal of Roccaleone, your own fears as to the ultimate fate awaiting you at Gian Maria's hands being aroused. Urge him to promise you money, immunity, what you will, as your reward; but make him believe you sincere, and induce him to shoot his precious bolt. Now go! Lose no time, or they may be returning from chapel, and your opportunity will be lost. Come to me here, afterwards, and I will tell you what is in my mind. We shall have a busy night of it to-night, Ercole, and you must set me free when the others are abed. Now go!”

Ercole went, and Peppe, remaining, plagued the Count with questions which he answered until in the end the fool caught the drift of his scheme, and swore impudently that a greater jester than his Excellency did not live. Then Ercole returned.

“Is it done? Has the letter gone?” cried Francesco. Fortemani nodded.

“We are sworn brothers in this business, he and I. He added a line to his note to say that he had gained my cooperation, and that, therefore, immunity was expected for me too.”

“You have done well, Ercole.” Francesco applauded him. “Now return me the letter I gave you for Monna Valentina. There is no longer the need for it. But return to me to-night toward the fourth hour, when all are abed, and bring with you my men, Lanciotto and Zaccaria.”