Chapter 25 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

In the sunshine of that bright May morning Francesco and his men went merrily to work to possess themselves of the ducal camp, and the first business of the day was to arm those soldiers who had come out unarmed. Of weapons there was no lack, and to these they helped themselves in liberal fashion, whilst here and there a man would pause to don a haubergeon or press a steel cap on his head.

Three sentries only had been left to guard the tents, and of these Fortemani and a couple of his men had made prisoners whilst the others were removing the bridge by which the invaders had entered. And now beneath the open postern by the drawbridge gaped a surging torrent that no man would have the hardihood to attempt to swim.

In that opening, presently, appeared Gian Maria, his face red for once, and behind him a clamouring crowd of men-at-arms who shared their master's rage at the manner in which they had been trapped.

At the rear of the tents Valentina and her ladies awaited the issue of the parley that now seemed toward. The bulk of the men were busy at Gian Maria's cannons, and under Francesco's supervision they were training them upon the drawbridge.

From the castle a mighty shout went up. The men disappeared from the postern to reappear a moment later on the ramparts, and Francesco laughed deep down in his throat as he perceived the purpose of this. They had bethought them of the guns that were mounted there, and were gone to use them against Valentina's little army. Gun after gun they tried, and a fierce cry of rage burst forth when they realised by what dummies they had been held in check during the past week. This was followed by a silence of some moments, terminated at last by the sound of a bugle.

Answering that summons to a parley, and with a last word of injunction to Fortemani, who was left in charge of the men at the guns, Francesco rode forward on one of Gian Maria's horses, escorted by Lanciotto and Zaccaria similarly mounted, and each armed with a loaded arquebuse.

Under the walls of Roccaleone he drew rein, laughing to himself at this monstrous change of sides. As he halted—helmet on head, but beaver open—a body came hurtling over the battlements and splashed into the foaming waters below. It was the corpse of Aventano, which Gian Maria had peremptorily bidden them to remove from his sight.

“I desire to speak with Monna Valentina della Rovere,” cried the furious Duke.

“You may speak with me, Gian Maria,” answered Francesco's voice, clear and metallic. “I am her representative, her sometime Provost of Roccaleone.”

“Who are you?” quoth the Duke, struck by a familiar note in that mocking voice.

“Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila.”

“By God! You!”

“An age of marvels, is it not?” laughed Francesco.

“Which will you lose, my cousin—a wife or a duchy?”

Rage struck Gian Maria speechless for a moment. Then he turned to Guidobaldo and whispered something; but Guidobaldo, who seemed vastly interested now in this knight below, merely shrugged his shoulders.

“I will lose neither, Messer Francesco,” roared the Duke. “Neither, by God!” he screamed. “Neither, do you hear me?”

“I should be deaf else,” was the easy answer, “But you are gravely at fault. One or the other you must relinquish, and it is yours to make a choice between them. The game has gone against you, Gian Maria, and you must pay.”

“But have I no voice in the bartering of my niece?” asked Guidobaldo, with cold dignity. “Is it for you, Lord Count, to say whether your cousin shall wed her or not?”

“Why, no. He may wed her if he will, but he will be a duke no longer. In fact, he will be an outcast with no title to lay claim to, if indeed the Babbianians will leave him a head at all; whilst I, at least, though not a duke with a tottering throne, am a count with lands, small but securely held, and shall become a duke if Gian Maria refuses to relinquish me your niece. So that if he be disposed to marry her, will you be disposed to let her marry a homeless vagrant or a headless corpse?”

Guidobaldo's face seemed to change, and his eyes looked curiously at the white-faced Duke beside him.

“So you are the other pretender to my niece's hand, Lord Count?” he asked, in his coldest voice.

“I am, Highness,” answered Francesco quietly. “The matter stands thus: Unless Gian Maria is in Babbiano by morning, he forfeits his crown, and it passes to me by the voice of the people; but if he will relinquish his claim to Monna Valentina in my favour, then I shall journey straight to Aquila, and I shall trouble Babbiano no more. If he refuses, and insists upon this wedding, abhorrent to Monna Valentina, why, then, my men shall hold him captive behind those walls until it be too late for him to reach his duchy in time to save the crown. In the meantime I will ride to Babbiano in his stead, and—reluctant though I be to play the duke—I shall accept the throne and silence the people's importunities. He can then endeavour to win your Highness's consent to the union.”

For perhaps the first time in his life Guidobaldo was guilty of an act of positive discourtesy. He broke into a laugh—a boisterous, amused laugh that cut into Gian Maria's heart like a knife.

“Why, Lord Count,” he said, “I confess that you have us very much in your hands to mould us as you will. Now, you are such a soldier and such a strategist as it would pleasure me to have about my person in Urbino. What says your Highness?” he continued, turning now to the almost speechless Gian Maria. “I have yet another niece with whom we might cement the union of the two duchies; and she might prove more willing. Women, it seems, will insist upon being women. Do you not think that Monna Valentina and this your valiant cousin——”

“Heed him not!” screamed Gian Maria, now in a white heat of passion. “He is a smooth-tongued dog that would argue the very devil out of hell. Make no terms with the hind! I have a hundred men, and——” He swung suddenly round. “Let down that drawbridge, cowards!” he bawled at them, “and sweep me those animals from my tents.”

“Gian Maria, I give you warning,” cried Francesco, loudly and firmly. “I have trained your own guns on to that bridge, and at the first attempt to lower it I'll blow it into splinters. You come not out of Roccaleone save at my pleasure and upon my terms, and if you lose your duchy by your obstinacy, it will be your own work; but answer me now, that I may take my course.”

Guidobaldo, too, restrained Gian Maria, and countermanded his order for the lowering of the bridge. And now on his other side Gonzaga crept up to him, and whispered into his ear the suggestion that he should wait until night had fallen.

“Wait until night, fool!” blazed the Duke, turning on him, in a fierce joy at finding one whom he might rend. “If I wait until then, my throne is lost to me. This comes of sorting with traitors. It is your fault, you Judas!” he cried more fiercely still, his face distorted; “but you at least shall pay for what you have done.”

Gonzaga saw a sudden flash of steel before his eyes, and a piercing scream broke from him as Gian Maria's dagger buried itself in his breast. Too late Guidobaldo put forward a hand to stay the Duke.

And so, by a strangely avenging justice, the magnificent Gonzaga sank dead on the very spot on which he had so cravenly and dastardly poniarded Aventano.

“Throw me that carrion into the moat,” growled Gian Maria, still quivering with rage that had prompted his ferocious act.

He was obeyed, and thus murdered and murderer were united in a common grave.

After the first attempt to restrain Gian Maria, Guidobaldo had looked on in unconcern, deeming the act a very fitting punishment of a man with whose treachery he, at least, had never been in sympathy.

As he saw the body vanish in the torrent below, Gian Maria seemed to realise what he had done. His anger fell from him, and with bent head he piously crossed himself. Then turning to an attendant who stood at his elbow:

“See that a Mass is said for his soul to-morrow,” he solemnly bade him.

As if the act had served to pacify him and restore him to his senses, Gian Maria now stepped forward and asked his cousin, in calmer tones than he had hitherto employed, to make clear the terms on which he would permit him to return to Babbiano within the time to which his people limited him.

“They are no more than that you relinquish your claim to Monna Valentina, and that you find consolation—as I think his Highness of Urbino has himself suggested—in the Lord Guidobaldo's younger niece.”

Before he could reply Guidobaldo was urging him, in a low voice to accept the terms.

“What else is there for you?” Montefeltro ended pregnantly.

“And this other niece of yours——?” quoth Gian Maria lamely.

“I have already passed my word,” answered Guidobaldo.

“And Monna Valentina?” the other almost whined.

“May wed this headstrong condottiero of hers. I'll not withstand them. Come; I am your friend in this. I am even sacrificing Valentina to your interests. For if you persist, he will ruin you. The game is his, my lord. Acknowledge your defeat, as I acknowledge mine, and pay.”

“But what is your defeat to mine?” cried Gian Maria, who saw through Guidobaldo's appreciation of the fact that such a nephew-in-law as Francesco del Falco was far from undesirable in the troublous times that threatened.

“It is at least as absolute,” returned Guidobaldo, with a shrug. And in this vein the Duke of Urbino continued for some moments, till, in the end, Gian Maria found himself not only deserted by his ally, but having this ally now combating on his cousin's side and pressing him to accept his cousin's terms, distasteful though they were. Thus urged, Gian Maria lamely acknowledged his defeat and his willingness to pay the forfeit. With that he asked how soon he might be permitted to leave the castle.

“Why, at once, now that I have your word,” answered Francesco readily, whereat treachery gleamed from Gian Maria's eye, to be swiftly quenched by Francesco's next words. “But lest your men and mine should come to trouble with one another, you will order yours to come forth without arms or armour, and you will depose your own. His Highness Guidobaldo is the only man in whose favour I can make an exception to this condition. Let it be broken, and I promise you that you will very bitterly regret it. At sight of the first armed man issuing from those gates, I'll give the word to fire on you, and your own guns shall work your destruction.”

Thus was the second siege of Roccaleone ended almost as soon as it was begun, and thus did Gian Maria capitulate to the conqueror. The Duke of Babbiano and his men marched out sheepishly and silently, and took their way to Babbiano, no word—not even so much as a glance—passing between Gian Maria and the lady who had been the cause of his discomfiture, and who blithely looked on at his departure.

Guidobaldo and his few attendants lingered after his late ally had gone. Then he bade Francesco lead him to his niece, in which Francesco readily obeyed him.

The Duke embraced her coldly—still that he embraced her at all after what was passed augured well.

“You will come with me to Urbino, Lord Count?” he said suddenly to Francesco. “It were best to celebrate the nuptials there. Everything is in readiness—for all had been prepared for Gian Maria.”

A great joy came into Valentina's eyes; her cheeks flushed and her glance fell; but Francesco scanned the Duke's face with the keen eye of one who is incredulous of so much good fortune.

“Your Highness means me well?” he made bold to ask. Guidobaldo stiffened, and a frown broke the serenity of his lofty brow.

“You have my princely word,” he answered solemnly, at which, with bended knee, Francesco stooped to kiss his ducal hand.

And so they departed on the horses that they kept as the spoils of war. They made a goodly show, Guidobaldo riding at their head, with Francesco and Valentina, whilst the rear was brought up by Peppe and Fra Domenico, who, touched by this epidemic of goodwill, were at last fraternising with each other.

And as they rode it chanced that presently Guidobaldo fell behind, so that for a moment Francesco and Valentina found themselves alone a little ahead of the others. She turned to him, a shyness in her brown eyes, a tremble at the corners of her red lips:

“You have not yet said that you forgive me, Francesco,” she complained, in a timerous whisper. “Were it not seemly that you did since we are to be wed so soon?”