Chapter 24 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

The morning of that Wednesday of Corpus Christi, fateful to all concerned in this chronicle, dawned misty and grey, and the air was chilled by the wind that blew from the sea. The chapel bell tinkled out its summons, and the garrison trooped faithfully to Mass.

Presently came Monna Valentina, followed by her ladies, her pages, and lastly, Peppe, wearing under his thin mask of piety an air of eager anxiety and unrest. Valentina was very pale, and round her eyes there were dark circles that told of sleeplessness, and as she bowed her head in prayer, her ladies observed that tears were falling on the illuminated Mass-book over which she bent. And now came Fra Domenico from the sacristy in the white chasuble that the Church ordains for the Corpus Christi feast, followed by a page in a clerkly gown of black, and the Mass commenced.

There were absent only from the gathering Gonzaga and Fortemani, besides a sentry and the three prisoners. Francesco and his two followers.

Gonzaga had presented himself to Valentina with the plausible tale that, as the events of which Fanfulla's letter had given them knowledge might lead Gian Maria at any moment to desperate measures, it might be well that he should reinforce the single man-at-arms patrolling the walls. Valentina, little recking now whether the castle held or fell, and still less such trifles as Gonzaga's attendance at Mass, had assented without heeding the import of what he said.

And so, his face drawn and his body quivering with the excitement of what he was about to do, Gonzaga had repaired to the ramparts so soon as he had seen them all safely into chapel. The sentinel was that same clerkly youth Aventano, who had read to the soldiers that letter Gian Maria had sent Gonzaga. This the courtier accepted as a good omen. If a man there was among the soldiery at Roccaleone with whom he deemed that he had an account to settle, that man was Aventano.

The mist was rapidly lightening, and the country grew visible for miles around. In the camp of Gian Maria he observed a coming and going of men that argued an inordinate bustle for so early an hour. They awaited his signal.

He approached the young sentinel, growing more and more nervous as the time for action advanced. He cursed Fortemani, who had selfishly refused to take an active part in the admission of Gian Maria. Here was a task that Fortemani could perform more satisfactorily than he. He had urged this fact on Ercole's attention, but the swashbuckler had grinned and shook his head. To Gonzaga fell the greater reward, and so Gonzaga must do the greater work. It was only fair, the knave had urged; and while Gonzaga was about it, he would watch the chapel door against interruption. And so Gonzaga had been forced to come alone to try conclusions with the sentry.

He gave the young man a nervous but pleasant “Good-morrow,” and observed with satisfaction that he wore no body armour. His original intention had been to attempt to suborn him, and render him pliable by bribery; but now that the moment for action was arrived he dared not make the offer. He lacked for words in which to present his proposal, and he was afraid lest the man should resent it, and in a fit of indignation attack him with his partisan. He little imagined that Aventano had been forewarned by Ercole that a bribe would be offered him and that he was to accept it promptly. Ercole had chosen this man because he was intelligent, and had made him understand enough of what was toward, besides offering a substantial reward if he played his part well, and Aventano waited. But Gonzaga, knowing naught of this, abandoned at the last moment the notion of bribing him—which Ercole had enjoined him, and which he in his turn had promised Ercole was the course he would pursue.

“You seem cold, Excellency,” said the young man deferentially, for he had observed that Gonzaga shivered.

“A chill morning, Aventano,” returned the gallant, with a grin.

“True; but the sun is breaking through yonder. It will be warmer soon.”

“Why, yes,” answered the other abstractedly, and still he remained by the sentinel, his hand, under the gay mantle of blue velvet, nervously fingering the hilt of a dagger that he dared not draw. It came to him that moments were passing, and that the thing must be done. Yet Aventano was a sinewy youth, and if the sudden stab he meditated failed him, he would be at the fellow's mercy. At the thought he shivered again, and his face turned grey. He moved away a step, and then inspiration brought him a cruel ruse. He uttered a cry.

“What is that?” he exclaimed, his eyes on the ground.

In an instant Aventano was beside him, for his voice had sounded alarmed—a tone, in his present condition, not difficult to simulate.

“What, Excellency?”

“Down there,” cried Gonzaga excitedly. “There from that fissure in the stone. Saw you nothing?” And he pointed to the ground at a spot where two slabs met.

“I saw nothing, Illustrious.”

“It was like a flash of yellow light below there. What is under us here? I'll swear there's treachery at work. Get down on your knees, and try if anything is to be seen.”

With a wondering glance at the courtier's white, twitching face, the unfortunate young man went down on all fours to do his bidding. After all—poor fellow!—he was hardly intelligent as Fortemani opined.

“There is nothing, Excellency,” he said. “The plaster is cracked. But—— Ah!”

In a panic of haste Gonzaga had whipped the dagger from its sheath and sunk it into the middle of Aventano's broad back. The fellow's arms slid out, and with a long-drawn, gurgling sigh he sank down and stretched himself horribly on the stones.

In that instant the clouds parted overhead and the sun came out in a blaze of golden glory. High above Gonzaga's head a lark burst into song.

For a moment the assassin remained standing above the body of his victim with head sunk between the shoulders like a man who expects a blow, his face grey, his teeth chattering, and his mouth twitching hideously. A shudder shook him. It was the first life he had taken, and that carrion at his feet filled him with sickly horror. Not for a kingdom—not to save his vile soul from the eternal damnation that act had earned it—would he have dared stoop to pluck the dagger from the back of the wretch he had murdered. With something like a scream he turned, and fled in a panic from the spot. Panting with horror, yet subconsciously aware of the work he had to do, he paused a moment to wave a kerchief, then dashed down the steps to the postern.

With trembling fingers he unlocked the door and set it wide to Gian Maria's men, who, in answer to his signal, were now hurrying forward with a bridge composed of pine trees, that they had hastily and roughly put together during the previous day. This, with some efforts and more noise than Gonzaga relished, was thrust across the moat. One of the men crept across, and assisted Gonzaga to make fast his end.

A moment later Gian Maria and Guidobaldo stood in the castle-yard, and after them came almost every man of the five score that Gian Maria had brought to that siege. This was what Francesco had confidently expected, knowing that it was not his cousin's way to run any risks.

The Duke of Babbiauo, whose face was disfigured by a bristling hedge of reddish stubble—for in obedience to the vow he had made, he now carried a fortnight's growth of beard on his round face—turned to Gonzaga.

“Is all well?” he asked, in a friendly tone, whilst Guidobaldo contemptuously eyed the popinjay.

Gonzaga assured them that the whole thing had been effected without disturbing the garrison at their prayers. Now that he deemed himself well protected his usual serenity of manner returned.

“You may felicitate yourself, Highness,” he ventured to say, with a grin, to Guidobaldo, “that you have reared your niece in devout ways.”

“Did you address me?” quoth the Duke of Urbino coldly. “I trust it may not again be necessary.”

Before the look of loathing in his handsome face Gonzaga cringed. Gian Maria laughed in his piping treble.

“Have I not served your Highness faithfully?” fawned the gallant.

“So has the meanest scullion in my kitchens, the lowliest groom in my stables—and with more honour to himself,” answered the proud Duke. “Yet he does not go the length of jesting with me.” His eye carried a menace so eloquent that Gonzaga drew back, afraid; but Gian Maria clapped him on the shoulder in a friendly manner.

“Be of good heart, Judas,” he laughed, his pale face a-grin, “I shall find room for you in Babbiano, and work too, if you do it as well as this. Come; the men are here now. Let us go forward whilst they are at their prayers. But we must not disturb them,” he added, more seriously. “I will not be guilty of an impiety. We can lie in wait for them without.”

He laughed gaily, for he seemed in a preposterously good humour, and bidding Gonzaga lead the way he followed, with Guidobaldo at his side. They crossed the courtyard, where his men were ranged, armed to the teeth, and at the door of the archway leading to the inner court they paused for Gonzaga to open it.

A moment the gallant stood staring. Then he turned a face of consternation on the Dukes. His knees shook visibly.

“It is locked,” he announced, in a husky voice.

“We made too much noise in entering,” suggested Guidobaldo, “and they have taken the alarm.”

The explanation relieved the growing uneasiness in Gian Maria's mind. He turned with an oath to his men.

“Here, some of you,” his sharp voice commanded. “Beat me down this door. By the Host! Do the fools think to keep me out so easily?”

The door was broken down, and they advanced. But only some half-dozen paces, for at the end of that short gallery they found the second door barring their progress. Through this, too, they broke, Gian Maria fiercely blaspheming at the delay. Yet when it was done he was none so eager to lead the way.

In the second courtyard he deemed it extremely probable that they should find Valentina's soldiers awaiting them. So bidding his men pass on, he remained behind with Guidobaldo until he heard word that the inner court was likewise empty.

And now the entire hundred of his followers were assembled there to overpower the twenty that served Monna Valentina; and Guidobaldo—despite Gian Maria's scruples—strode coolly forward to the chapel door.

Within the chapel Mass had started. Fra Domenico at the foot of the altar had pattered through the Confiteor, his deep voice responded to by the soprano of the ministering page. The Kyrie was being uttered when the attention of the congregation was attracted by the sound of steps approaching the chapel door to the accompaniment of an ominous clank of steel. The men rose in a body, fearing treachery, and cursing—despite the sanctity of the place—the circumstance that they were without weapons.

Then the door opened, and down the steps rang the armed heels of the new-comers, so that every eye was turned upon them, including that of Fra Domenico, who had pronounced the last “Christe eleison” in a quavering voice.

A gasp of relief, followed by an angry cry from Valentina, went up when they recognised those that came. First stepped the Count of Aquila in full armour, sword at side and dagger on hip, carrying his head-piece on the crook of his left arm. Behind him towered the bulk of Fortemani, his great face flushed with a strange excitement, a leather hacketon over his steel cuirass, girt, too, with sword and dagger, and carrying his shining morion in his hand. Last came Lanciotto and Zaccaria, both fully equipped and armed at all points.

“Who are you that come thus accoutred into God's House to interrupt the holy Mass?” cried the bass voice of the friar.

“Patience, good father,” answered Francesco calmly, “The occasion is our justification.”

“What does this mean, Fortemani?” demanded Valentina imperiously, her eyes angrily set upon her captain, utterly ignoring the Count. “Do you betray me too?”

“It means, Madonna,” answered the giant bluntly, “that your lap-dog, Messer Gonzaga, is at this very moment admitting Gian Maria and his forces to Roccaleone, by the postern.”

There was a hoarse cry from the men, which Francesco silenced by a wave of his mailed hand.

Valentina looked wildly at Fortemani, and then, as if drawn by a greater will than her own, her eyes were forced to travel to the Count. He instantly advanced, and bowed his head before her.

“Madonna, this is no hour for explanations. Action is needed, and that at once. I was wrong in not disclosing my identity to you before you discovered it by such unfortunate means and with the assistance of the only traitor Roccaleone has harboured, Romeo Gonzaga—who, as Fortemani has just told you, is at this moment admitting my cousin and your uncle to the castle. But that my object was ever other than to serve you, or that I sought, as was represented to you, to turn this siege to my own political profit, that, Madonna, I implore you in your own interests to believe untrue.”

She sank on to her knees and with folded hands began to pray to the Mother of Mercy, deeming herself lost, for his tone carried conviction, and he had said that Gian Maria was entering the castle.

“Madonna,” he cried, touching her lightly on the shoulder; “let your prayers wait until they can be of thanksgiving. Listen. By the vigilance of Peppe there, who, good soul that he is, never lost faith in me or deemed me a dastard, we were informed last night—Fortemani and I—of this that Gonzaga was preparing. And we have made our plans and prepared the ground. When Gian Maria's soldiers enter, they will find the outer doors barred and locked, and we shall gain a little time while they break through them. My men, as you will observe, are even now barring the door of the chapel to impose a further obstacle. Now while they are thus engaged we must act. Briefly, then, if you will trust us we will bear you out of this, for we four have worked through the night to some purpose.”

She looked at him through a film of tears, her face drawn and startled. Then she put her hands to her brow in a gesture of bewildered helplessness.

“But they will follow us,” she complained.

“Not so,” he answered, smiling. “For that, too, have we provided. Come, Madonna, time presses.”

A long moment she looked at him. Then brushing aside the tears that dimmed her sight, she set a hand on either of his shoulders, and stood so, before them all, gazing up into his calm face.

“How shall I know that what you say is true—that I may trust you?” she asked, but her voice was not the voice of one that demands an overwhelming proof ere she will believe.

“By my honour and my knighthood,” he answered, in a ringing voice, “I make oath here, at the foot of God's altar, that my purpose—my only purpose—has been, is, and shall be to serve you, Monna Valentina.”

“I believe you,” she cried; to sob a moment later:

“Forgive me, Francesco, and may God, too, forgive my lack of faith in you.”

He softly breathed her name in such sweet accents that a happy peace pervaded her, and the bright courage of yore shone in her brown eyes.

“Come, sirs!” he cried now, with a sudden briskness that startled them into feverish obedience. “You, Fra Domenico, cut off your sacerdotals, and gird high your habit. There is climbing for you. Here, a couple of you, move aside that altar-step. My men and I have spent the night in loosening its old hinges.”

They raised the slab, and in the gap beneath it was disclosed a flight of steps leading down to the dungeons and cellars of Roccaleone.

Down this they went in haste but in good order, marshalled by Francesco, and when the last had passed down, he and Lanciotto, aided by others below, who had seized a rope that he had lowered them, replaced the slab from underneath, so that no trace should remain of the way by which they had come.

A postern had been unbarred below by Fortemani, who had led the way with a half-dozen of the men; and a huge scaling ladder that lay in readiness in that subterranean gallery was rushed out across the moat, which at this point was a roaring torrent.

Fortemani was the first to descend that sloping bridge, and upon reaching the ground he made fast the lower end.

Next went a dozen men at Francesco's bidding, armed with the pikes that had been left overnight in the gallery. At a word of command they slipped quietly away. Then came the women, and lastly, the remainder of the men.

Of the enemy they caught no glimpse; not so much as a sentry, for every one of Gian Maria's men had been pressed into the investment of the castle. Thus they emerged from Roccaleone, and made their way down that rough bridge into the pleasant meadows to the south. Already Fortemani and his dozen men had disappeared at the trot, making for the front of the castle, when Francesco stepped last upon the bridge, and closed the postern after him. Then he glided rapidly to the ground, and with the assistance of a dozen ready hands he dragged away the scaling ladder. They carried it some yards from the brink of the torrent, and deposited it in the meadow. With a laugh of purest relish Francesco stepped to Valentina's side.

“It will exercise their minds to discover how we got out,” he cried, “and they will be forced to the conclusion that we are angels all, with wings beneath our armour. We have not left them a single ladder or a strand of rope in Roccaleone by which to attempt to follow us, even if they discover how we came. But come, Valentina mia, the comedy is not finished yet. Already Fortemani will have removed the bridge by which they entered and engaged such few men as may have been left behind, and we have the High and Mighty Gian Maria in the tightest trap that was ever fashioned.”