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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLove-at-arms - Chapter 1. Vox Populi
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Love-at-arms - Chapter 1. Vox Populi Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :992

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Love-at-arms - Chapter 1. Vox Populi

CHAPTER I. VOX POPULI

From the valley, borne aloft on the wings of the evening breeze, rose faintly the tolling of an Angelus bell, and in a goat-herd's hut on the heights above stood six men with heads uncovered and bowed, obeying its summons to evening prayer. A brass lamp, equipped with three beaks, swung from the grimy ceiling, and, with more smoke than flame, shed an indifferent light, and yet a more indifferent smell, throughout the darkening hovel. But it sufficed at least to reveal in the accoutrements and trappings of that company a richness that was the more striking by contrast with the surrounding squalor.

As the last stroke of the Ave Maria faded on the wind that murmured plaintively through the larches of the hillside, they piously crossed themselves, and leisurely resuming their head-gear, they looked at one another with questioning glances. Yet before any could voice the inquiry that was in the minds of all, a knock fell upon the rotten timbers of the door.

"At last!" exclaimed old Fabrizio da Lodi, in a voice charged with relief, whilst a younger man of good shape and gay garments strode to the door in obedience to Fabrizio's glance, and set it wide.

Across the threshold stepped a tall figure under a wide, featherless hat, and wrapped in a cloak which he loosened as he entered, revealing the very plainest of raiment beneath. A leather hacketon was tightened at the waist by a girdle of hammered steel, from which depended on his left a long sword with ringed, steel quillons, whilst from behind his right hip peeped the hilt of a stout Pistoja dagger. His hose of red cloth vanished into boots of untanned leather, laced in front and turned down at the knees, and completed in him the general appearance of a mercenary in time of peace, in spite of which the six nobles, in that place of paradoxes, bared their heads anew, and stood in attitudes of deferential attention.

He paused a moment to throw off his cloak, of which the young man who had admitted him hastened to relieve him as readily as if he had been born a servitor. He next removed his hat, and allowed it to remain slung from his shoulders, displaying, together with a still youthful countenance of surpassing strength and nobility, a mane of jet-black hair coiffed in a broad net of gold thread--the only article of apparel that might have suggested his station to be higher than at first had seemed.

He stepped briskly to the coarse and grease-stained table, about which the company was standing, and his black eyes ran swiftly over the faces that confronted him.

"Sirs," he said at last, "I am here. My horse went lame a half-league beyond Sant' Angelo, and I was constrained to end the journey on foot."

"Your Excellency will be tired," cried Fabrizio, with that ready solicitude which is ever at the orders of the great. "A cup of Puglia wine, my lord. Here, Fanfulla," he called, to the young nobleman who had acted as usher. But the new-comer silenced him and put the matter aside with a gesture.

"Let that wait. Time imports as you little dream. It may well be, illustrious sirs, that had I not come thus I had not come at all."

"How?" cried one, expressing the wonder that rose in every mind, even as on every countenance some consternation showed. "Are we betrayed?"

"If you are in case to fear betrayal, it may well be, my friends. As I crossed the bridge over the Metauro and took the path that leads hither, my eyes were caught by a crimson light shining from a tangle of bushes by the roadside. That crimson flame was a reflection of the setting sun flashed from the steel cap of a hidden watcher. The path took me nearer, and with my hat so set that it might best conceal my face, I was all eyes. And as I passed the spot where that spy was ambushed, I discerned among the leaves that might so well have screened him, but that the sun had found his helmet out, the evil face of Masuccio Torri." There was a stir among the listeners, and their consternation increased, whilst one or two changed colour. "For whom did he wait? That was the question that I asked myself, and I found the answer that it was for me. If I was right, he must also know the distance I had come, so that he would not look to see me afoot, nor yet, perhaps, in garments such as these. And so, thanks to all this and to the hat and cloak in which I closely masked myself, he let me pass unchallenged."

"By the Virgin!" exclaimed Fabrizio hotly, "I'll swear your conclusions were wrong. In all Italy it was known to no man beyond us six that you were to meet us here, and with my hand upon the Gospels I could swear that not one of us has breathed of it."

He looked round at his companions as if inviting them to bear out his words, and they were not slow to confirm what he had sworn, in terms as vehement as his own, until in the end the new-comer waved them into silence.

"Nor have I breathed it," he assured them, "for I respected your injunction, Messer Fabrizio. Still--what did Masuccio there, hidden like a thief, by the roadside? Sirs," he continued, in a slightly altered tone, "I know not to what end you have bidden me hither, but if aught of treason lurks in your designs, I cry you beware! The Duke has knowledge of it, or at least, suspicion. If that spy was not set to watch for me, why, then, he was set to watch for all, that he may anon inform his master what men were present at this meeting."

Fabrizio shrugged his shoulders in a contemptuous indifference which was voiced by his neighbour Ferrabraccio.

"Let him be informed," sneered the latter, a grim smile upon his rugged face. "The knowledge will come to him too late."

The new-comer threw back his head, and a look that was half wonder, half enlightenment gleamed in the black depths of his imperious eyes. He took a deep breath.

"It would seem, sirs, that I was right," said he, with a touch of sternness, "and that treason is indeed your business."

"My Lord of Aquila," Fabrizio answered him, "we are traitors to a man that we may remain faithful and loyal to a State."

"What State?" barked the Lord of Aquila contemptuously.

"The Duchy of Babbiano," came the answer.

"You would be false to the Duke that you may be faithful to the Duchy?" he questioned, scorn running ever stronger in his voice. "Sirs, it is a riddle I'll not pretend to solve."

There fell a pause in which they eyed one another, and their glances were almost as the glances of baffled men. They had not looked for such a tone from him, and they questioned with their eyes and minds the wisdom of going further. At last, with a half-sigh, Fabrizio da Lodi turned once more to Aquila.

"Lord Count," he began, in a calm, impressive voice, "I am an old man; the name I bear and the family from which I spring are honourable alike. You cannot think so vilely of me as to opine that in my old age I should do aught to smirch the fair fame of the one or of the other. To be named a traitor, sir, is to be given a harsh title, and one, I think, that could fit no man less than it fits me or any of these my companions. Will you do me the honour, then, to hear me out, Excellency; and when you have heard me, judge us. Nay, more than judgment we ask of you, Lord Count. We ask for guidance that we may save our country from the ruin that threatens it, and we promise you that we will take no step that has not your sanction--that is not urged by you."

Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila, eyed the old noble with a glance that had changed whilst he spoke, so that from scornful that it had been, it had now grown full of mild wonder and inquiry. He slightly inclined his head in token of acquiescence.

"I beg that you will speak," was all he said, and Fabrizio would forthwith have spoken but that Ferrabraccio intervened to demand that Aquila should pass them his knightly word not to betray them in the event of his rejection of the proposals they had to make. When he had given them his promise, and they had seated themselves upon such rude stools as the place afforded, Fabrizio resumed his office of spokesman, and unfolded the business upon which he had invited the Count among them.

In a brief preamble he touched upon the character of Gian Maria Sforza, the reigning Duke of Babbiano--seated upon its throne by his powerful uncle, Lodovico Sforza, Lord of Milan. He exposed the man's reckless extravagances, his continued self-indulgence, his carelessness in matters of statecraft, and his apparent disinclination to fulfil the duties which his high station imposed upon him. On all this Fabrizio touched with most commendable discretion and restraint, as was demanded by the circumstance that in Francesco del Falco he was addressing the Duke's own cousin.

"So far, Excellency," he continued, "you cannot be in ignorance of the general dissatisfaction prevailing among our most illustrious cousin's subjects. There was the conspiracy of Bacolino, a year ago, which, had it succeeded, would have cast us into the hands of Florence. It failed, but another such might not fail again. The increased disfavour of his Highness may bring more adherents to a fresh conspiracy of this character, and we should be lost as an independent state. And the peril that menaces us is the peril of being so lost. Not only by defection of our own, but by the force of arms of another. That other is Caesar Borgia. His dominion is spreading like a plague upon the face of this Italy, which he has threatened to eat up like an artichoke--leaf by leaf. Already his greedy eyes are turned upon us, and what power have we--all unready as we are--wherewith successfully to oppose the overwhelming might of the Duke of Valentinois? All this his Highness realises, for we have made it more than clear to him, as we have, too, made clear the remedy. Yet does he seem as indifferent to his danger as to his salvation. His time is spent in orgies, in dancing, in hawking and in shameful dalliance, and if we dare throw out a word of warning, threats and curses are the only answer we receive."

Da Lodi paused, as if growing conscious that his manner was becoming over-vehement. But of this, his companions, at least, were all unconscious, for they filled the pause with a murmur of angry confirmation. Francesco wrinkled his brow, and sighed.

"I am--alas!--most fully conscious of this danger you speak of. But--what do you expect of me? Why bear me your grievance? I am no statesman."

"Here is no statesman needed, lord. It is a soldier Babbiano requires; a martial spirit to organise an army against the invasion that must come--that is coming already. In short, Lord Count, we need such a warrior as are you. What man is there in all Italy--or, indeed, what woman or what child--that has not heard of the prowess of the Lord of Aquila? Your knightly deeds in the wars 'twixt Pisa and Florence, your feats of arms and generalship in the service of the Venetians, are matters for the making of epic song."

"Messer Fabrizio!" murmured Paolo, seeking to restrain his eulogistic interlocutor, what time a faint tinge crept into his bronzed cheeks. But Da Lodi continued, all unheeding:

"And shall you, my lord, who have borne yourself so valiantly as a condottiero in the service of the stranger, hesitate to employ your skill and valour against the enemies of your own homeland? Not so, Excellency. We know the patriotic soul of Francesco del Falco, and we count upon it."

"And you do well," he answered firmly. "When the time comes you shall find me ready. But until then, and touching such preparation as must be made--why do you not address his Highness as you do me?"

A sad smile crossed the noble face of Lodi, whilst Ferrabraccio laughed outright in chill contempt, and with characteristic roughness made answer:

"Shall we speak to him," he cried, "of knightly deeds, of prowess, and of valour? I would as lief enjoin Roderigo Borgia to fulfil the sacred duties of his Vicarship; I might as profitably sprinkle incense on a dunghill. What we could say to Gian Maria we have said, and since it had been idle to have appealed to him as we have appealed to you, we have shown him yet another way by which Babbiano might be saved and Valentino's onslaught averted."

"Ah! And this other way?" inquired the Count, his glance wandering back to Fabrizio.

"An alliance with the house of Urbino," answered Lodi. "Guidobaldo has two nieces. We have sounded him, and we have found him well disposed towards such a marriage as we suggested. Allied thus to the house of Montefeltro, we should receive not only assistance from Guidobaldo, but also from the lords of Bologna, Perugia, Camerino, and some smaller states whose fortunes are linked already to that of Urbino. Thus we should present to Cesar Borgia a coalition so strong that he would never dare to bring a lance into our territory."

"I heard some talk of it," said Paolo. "It would have been a wise step indeed. Pity that the negotiations came to naught!"

"But why did they come to naught? Body of Satan!--why?" roared the impetuous Ferrabraccio, as with his mighty fist he smote the table a blow that well-nigh shattered it. "Because Gian Maria was not in a marrying mood! The girl we proposed to him was beautiful as an angel; but he would not so much as look. There was a woman in Babbiano who----"

"My lord," cut in Fabrizio hastily, fearing the lengths to which the other might go, "it is as Ferrabraccio says. His Highness would not marry. And this it is has led us to invite you to meet us here to-night. His Highness will do nothing to save the Duchy, and so we turn to you. The people are with us; in every street of Babbiano are you spoken of openly as the duke they would have govern them and defend their homes. In the sacred name of the people, then," the old man concluded, rising, and speaking in a voice shaken by emotion, "and with the people's voice, of which we are but the mouthpiece, we now offer you the crown of Babbiano. Return with us to-night, my lord, and to-morrow, with but twenty spears for escort, we shall ride into Babbiano and proclaim you Duke. Nor need you fear the slightest opposition. One man only of Babbiano--that same Masuccio whom you tell us that you saw to-night--remains faithful to Gian Maria; faithful because he and the fifty Swiss mercenaries at his heels are paid to be so. Up, my lord! Let your own good sense tell you whether an honest man need scruple to depose a prince whose throne knows no defence beyond the hired protection of fifty foreign spears."

A silence followed that impassioned speech. Lodi remained standing, the others sat, their eager glances turned upon the Count, their ears anxiously alert for his reply. Thus they remained for a brief spell, Aquila himself so still that he scarcely seemed to breathe.

He sat, gripping the arms of his chair, his head fallen forward until his chin rested on his breast, a frown darkening his lofty brow. And whilst they waited for his answer, a mighty battle was fought out within his soul. The power so suddenly, so unexpectedly, thrust within his reach, and offered him if he would but open his hands to grasp it, dazzled him for one little moment. As in a flash he saw himself Lord of Babbiano. He beheld a proud career of knightly deeds that should cause his name and that of Babbiano to ring throughout the length and breadth of Italy. From the obscure state that it was, his patriotism and his skill as a condottiero should render it one of the great Italian powers--the rival of Florence, of Venice or Milan. He had a vision of widened territories, and of neighbouring lords becoming vassals to his might. He saw himself wresting Romagna mile by mile from the sway of the ribald Borgia, hunting him to the death as he was wont to hunt the boar in the marshes of Commachio, or driving him into the very Vatican to seek shelter within his father's gates--the last strip of soil that he would leave him to lord it over. He dreamt of a Babbiano courted by the great republics, and the honour of its alliance craved by them that they might withstand the onslaughts of French and Spaniard. All this he saw in that fleeting vision of his, and Temptation caught his martial spirit in a grip of steel. And then another picture rose before his eyes. What would he do in times of peace? His was a soul that pined in palaces. He was born to the camp, and not to the vapid air of courts. In exchange for this power that was offered him what must he give? His glorious liberty. Become their lord in many things, to be their slave in more. Nominally to rule, but actually to be ruled, until, should he fail to do his rulers' will, there would be some night another meeting such as this, in which men would plot to encompass his downfall and to supplant him as he was invited to supplant Gian Maria. Lastly, he bethought him of the man whose power he was bidden to usurp. His own cousin, his father's sister's son, in whose veins ran the same blood as in his own.

He raised his head at last, and met those anxious faces on which the fitful light was casting harsh shadows. The pale ghost of a smile hovered for a second on the corners of his stern mouth.

"I thank you, sirs, for the honour you have done me," he made answer slowly, "an honour of which I fear I am all unworthy."

In strenuous chorus their voices rose to contradict him.

"At least, then, an honour which I cannot accept."

There was a moment's silence, and their faces from eager that they had been, grew downcast to the point of sullenness.

"But why, my lord?" cried old Fabrizio at last, his arms outstretched towards the Count, his voice quivering with intensity. "Santissima Vergine! Why?"

"Because--to give you but one reason out of many--the man you ask me to overthrow and supplant is of my own blood." And but that his tone was calm they might have held that he rebuked them.

"I had thought," hazarded seriously the gay Fanfulla, "that with such a man as your Excellency, patriotism and the love of Babbiano would have weighed even more than the ties of blood."

"And you had thought well, Fanfulla. Did I not say that the reason I gave you was but one of many? Tell me, sirs, what cause have you to believe that I should rule you wisely and well? It so chances that in the crisis now threatening Babbiano a captain is needed for its ruler. But let not this delude you, for there may come a season in the fortunes of the State when such a man might be as unfitted for dominion as is the present Duke in this. What then? A good knight-errant is an indifferent courtier and a bad statesman. Lastly, my friends--since you must know all that is in my heart--there remains the fact that I love myself a little. I love my liberty too well, and I have no mind to stifle in the scented atmosphere of courts. You see I am frank with you. It is my pleasure to roam the world, my harness on my back, free as the blessed wind of heaven. Shall a ducal crown and a cloak of purple----" He broke off sharply with a laugh. "There, my friends! You have had reasons and to spare. Again I thank you, and deplore that being such as I am, I may not become such as you would have me."

He sank back in his chair, eyeing them with a glance never so wistful, and after a second's silence, Da Lodi's voice implored him, in accents that trembled with pathetic emphasis, to reconsider his resolve. The old man would have proceeded to fresh argument, but Aquila cut him short.

"I have already so well considered it, Messer Fabrizio," he answered resolutely, "that nothing now could sway me. But this, sirs, I will promise you: I will ride with you to Babbiano, and I will seek to reason with my cousin. More will I do; I will seek at his hands the office of Gonfalonier, and if he grant it me; I will so reorganise our forces, and enter into such alliances with our neighbours as shall ensure, at least in some degree, the safety of our State."

Still they endeavoured to cajole him, but he held firm against their efforts, until in the end, with a sorrowful mien, Da Lodi thanked him for his promise to use his influence with Gian Maria.

"For this, at least, we thank your Excellency, and on our part we shall exert such power as we still wield in Babbiano to the end that the high office of Gonfalonier be conferred upon you. We had preferred to see you fill with honour a position higher still, and should you later come to consider----"

"Dismiss your hopes of that," put in the Count, with a solemn shake of his head. And then, before another word was uttered, young Fanfulla degli Arcipreti leapt of a sudden to his feet, his brows knit, and an expression of alarm spreading upon his comely face. A second he remained thus; then, going swiftly to the door, he opened it, and stood listening, followed by the surprised glances of the assembled company. But it needed not the warning cry with which he turned, to afford them the explanation of his odd behaviour. In the moment's tense silence that had followed his sudden opening of the door they had caught from without the distant fall of marching feet.

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