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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLove-at-arms - Chapter 13. Gian Maria Makes A Vow
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Love-at-arms - Chapter 13. Gian Maria Makes A Vow Post by :Oracle Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1661

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Love-at-arms - Chapter 13. Gian Maria Makes A Vow

CHAPTER XIII. GIAN MARIA MAKES A VOW

In a measure the events that followed would almost tend to show that the fool was right. For even if the notion of besieging Valentina and reducing her by force of arms was not Guidobaldo's own in the first place, yet he lent a very willing ear to the counsel that they should thus proceed, when angrily urged two days thereafter by the Duke of Babbiano.

Upon hearing the news Gian Maria had abandoned himself to such a licence of rage as made those about him tremble from the highest to the meanest. The disappointment of his passion was in itself justification enough for this; but, in addition, Gian Maria beheld in the flight of Valentina the frustration of those bold schemes of which had talked so loudly to his councillors and his mother. It was his confidence in those same schemes that had induced him to send that defiant answer to Caesar Borgia. As a consequence of this there was haste--most desperate haste--that he should wed, since wedding was to lend him the power to carry out his brave promises of protecting his crown from the Duke of Valentinois, not to speak of the utter routing of the Borgia which he had wildly undertaken to accomplish.

That the destinies of States should be tossed to the winds of Heaven by a slip of a girl was to him something as insufferable as it had been unexpected.

"She must be brought back!" he had screeched, in his towering passion. "She must be brought back at once."

"True!" answered Guidobaldo, in his serene way; "she must be brought back. So far, I agree with you entirely. Tell me, now, how the thing is to be accomplished." And there was sarcasm in his voice.

"What difficulties does it present?" inquired Gian Maria.

"No difficulties," was the ironical reply. "She has shut herself up in the stoutest castle in Italy, and tells me that she will not come forth until I promise her freedom of choice in the matter of marriage. Clearly, there are no difficulties attached to her being brought back."

Gian Maria showed his teeth.

"Do you give me leave to go about it in my own way?" he asked.

"Not only do I give you leave, but I'll render you all the assistance in my power, if you can devise a means for luring her from Roccaleone."

"I hesitate no longer. Your niece, Lord Duke, is a rebel, and as a rebel is she to be treated. She has garrisoned a castle, and hurled defiance at the ruler of the land. It is a declaration of war, Highness, and war we shall have."

"You would resort to force?" asked Guidobaldo, disapproval lurking in his voice.

"To the force of arms, your Highness," answered Gian Maria, with prompt fierceness. "I will lay siege to this castle of hers, and I shall tear it stone from stone. Oh, I would have wooed her nicely had she let me, with gentle words and mincing ways that maidens love. But since she defies us, I'll woo her with arquebuse and cannon, and seek by starvation to make her surrender to my suit. My love shall put on armour to subject her, and I vow to God that I shall not shave my beard until I am inside her castle."

Guidobaldo looked grave.

"I should counsel gentler measures," said he. "Besiege her if you will, but do not resort to too much violence. Cut off their resources and let hunger be your advocate. Even so, I fear me, you will be laughed at by all Italy," he added bluntly.

"A fig for that! Let the fools laugh if they be minded to. What forces has she at Roccaleone?"

At the question Guidobaldo's brow grew dark. It was as if he had recalled some circumstance that had lain forgotten.

"Some twenty knaves led by a notorious ruffian of the name of Fortemani. The company was enrolled, they tell me, by a gentleman of my court, a kinsman of my Duchess, Messer Romeo Gonzaga."

"Is he with her now?" gasped Gian Maria.

"It would seem he is."

"By the Virgin's Ring of Perugia!" spluttered Gian Maria in increased dismay. "Do you suggest that they fled together?"

"My lord!" Guidobaldo's voice rang sharp and threatening. "It is of my niece that you are speaking. She took this gentleman with her just as she took three of her ladies and a page or two, to form such attendance as befits her birth."

Gian Maria took a turn in the apartment, a frown wrinkling his brow, and his lips pressed tight. Guidobaldo's proud words by no means convinced him. But the one preponderating desire in his heart just then was to humble the girl who had dared to flout him, to make her bend her stubborn neck. At last:

"I may indeed become the laughing-stock of Italy," he muttered, in a concentrated voice, "but I shall carry my resolve through, and my first act upon entering Roccaleone will be to hang this knave Gonzaga from its highest turret."

That very day Gian Maria began his preparations for the expedition against Roccaleone, and word of it was carried by Fanfulla to Francesco--for the latter had left his quarters at the palace upon hearing of Gian Maria's coming, and was now lodging at the sign of the "Sun."

Upon hearing the news he swore a mighty oath in which he consigned his cousin to the devil, by whom, in that moment, he pronounced him begotten.

"Do you think," he asked, when he was calmer, "that this man Gonzaga is her lover?"

"It is more than I can say," answered Fanfulla. "There is the fact that she fled with him. Though when I questioned Peppe on this same subject he first laughed the notion to scorn, and then grew grave. 'She loves him not, the popinjay,' he said; 'but he loves her, or I am blind else, and he's a villain, I know.'"

Francesco stood up, his face mighty serious, and his dark eyes full of uneasy thought.

"By the Host! It is a shameful thing," he cried out at last. "This poor lady so beset on every hand by a parcel of villains, each more unscrupulous than the other. Fanfulla, send for Peppe. We must despatch the fool to her with warning of Gian Maria's coming, and warning, too, against this man of Mantua she has fled with."

"Too late," answered Fanfulla. "The fool departed this morning for Roccaleone, to join his patrona."

Francesco looked his dismay.

"She will be undone," he groaned. "Thus between the upper and the nether stone--between Gian Maria and Romeo Gonzaga. Gesu! she will be undone! And she so brave and so high-spirited!"

He moved slowly to the casement, and stood staring at the windows across the street, on which the setting sun fell in a ruddy glow. But it was not the windows that he saw. It was a scene in the woods at Acquasparta on that morning after the mountain fight; a man lying wounded in the bracken, and over him a gentle lady bending with eyes of pity and solicitude. Often since had his thoughts revisited that scene, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a sigh, and sometimes with both at once.

He turned suddenly upon Fanfulla. "I will go myself," he announced.

"You?" echoed Fanfulla. "But the Venetians?"

By a gesture the Count signified how little the Venetians weighed with him when compared with the fortunes of this lady.

"I am going to Roccaleone," he insisted, "now--at once." And striding to the door he beat his hands together and called Lanciotto.

"You said, Fanfulla, that in these days there are no longer maidens held in bondage to whom a knight-errant may lend aid. You were at fault, for in Monna Valentina we have the captive maiden, in my cousin the dragon, in Gonzaga another, and in me the errant knight who is destined--I hope--to save her."

"You will save her from Gian Maria?" questioned Fanfulla incredulously.

"I will attempt it."

He turned to his servant, who entered as he spoke.

"We set out in a quarter of an hour, Lanciotto," said he. "Saddle for me and for yourself. You are to go with me. Zaccaria may remain with Messer degli Arcipreti. You will care for him, Fanfulla, and he will serve you well."

"But what of me?" cried Fanfulla. "Do I not accompany you?"

"If you will, yes. But you might serve me better by returning to Babbiano and watching the events there, sending me word of what befalls--for great things will befall soon if my cousin returns not and the Borga advances. It is upon this that I am founding such hopes as I have."

"But whither shall I send you word? To Roccaleone?"

Francesco reflected a moment. "If you do not hear from me, then send your news to Roccaleone, for if I should linger there and we are besieged, it will perhaps be impossible to send a message to you. But if--as I hope--I go to Aquila, I will send you word of it."

"To Aquila?"

"Yes. It may be that I shall be at Aquila before the week is out. But keep it secret, Fanfulla, and I'll fool these dukes to the very top of their unhealthy bent."

A half-hour later the Count of Aquila, mounted on a stout Calabrian horse, and attended by Lanciotto on a mule, rode gently down towards the valley. They went unnoticed, for what cared for them the peasants that sang at their labours in the contado?

They met a merchant, whose servant was urging his laden sumpters up the hilly road to the city on the heights, and they passed him with a courteous greeting. Farther they came upon a mounted company of nobles and ladies, returning from a hawking party, and followed by attendants bearing their hooded falcons, and their gay laughter still rang in Francesco's ears after he had passed from their sight and vanished in the purple mists of eventide that came up to meet him from the river.

They turned westward towards the Apennines, and pushed on after night had fallen, until the fourth hour, when at Francesco's suggestion they drew rein before a sleepy, wayside locanda, and awoke the host to demand shelter. There they slept no longer than until matins, so that the grey light of dawn saw them once more upon their way, and by the time the sun had struck with its first golden shaft the grey crest of the old hills, they drew rein on the brink of the roaring torrent at the foot of the mighty crag that was crowned by the Castle of Roccaleone.

Grim and gaunt it loomed above the fertile vale, with that torrent circling it in a natural moat, like a giant sentinel of the Apennines that were its background. And now the sunlight raced down the slopes of the old mountains like a tide. It smote the square tower of the keep, then flowed adown the wall, setting the old grey stone a-gleaming, and flashing back from a mullioned window placed high up. Lower it came, revealing grotesque gargoyles, flooding the crenellated battlements and turning green the ivy and lichen that but a moment back had blackened the stout, projecting buttresses. Thence it leapt to the ground, and drove the shadow before it down the grassy slope, until it reached the stream and sparkled on its foaming, tumbling waters, scattering a hundred colours through the flying spray.

And all that time, until the sun had reached him and included him in the picture it was awakening, the Count of Aquila sat in his saddle, with thoughtful eyes uplifted to the fortress.

Then, Lanciotto following him, he walked his horse round the western side, where the torrent was replaced by a smooth arm of water, for which a cutting had been made to complete the isolation of the crag of Roccaleone. But here, where the castle might more easily have become vulnerable, a blank wall greeted him, broken by no more than a narrow slit or two midway below the battlements. He rode on towards the northern side, crossing a footbridge that spanned the river, and at last coming to a halt before the entrance tower. Here again the moat was formed by the torrential waters of the mountain stream.

He bade his servant rouse the inmates, and Lanciotto hallooed in a voice that nature had made deep and powerful. The echo of it went booming up to scare the birds on the hillside, but evoked no answer from the silent castle.

"They keep a zealous watch," laughed the Count. "Again, Lanciotto."

The man obeyed him, and again and again his deep voice rang out like a trumpet-call before sign was made from within that it had been heard. At length, above the parapet of the tower appeared a stunted figure with head unkempt, as grotesque almost as any of the gargoyles beneath, and an owlish face peered at them from one of the crenels of the battlement, and demanded, in surly, croaking tones their business. Instantly the Count recognised Peppe.

"Good morrow, fool," he bade him.

"You, my lord?" exclaimed the jester.

"You sleep soundly at Roccaleone," quoth Francesco. "Bestir that knavish garrison of yours, and bid the lazy dogs let down the bridge. I have news for Monna Valentina."

"At once, Excellency," the fool replied, and would have gone upon the instant but that Francesco recalled him.

"Say, Peppe, a knight--the knight she met at Acquasparta, if you will. But leave my name unspoken."

With the assurance that he would obey his wishes Peppe went his errand. A slight delay ensued, and then upon the battlements appeared Gonzaga, sleepy and contentious, attended by a couple of Fortemani's knaves, who came to ask the nature of Francesco's business.

"It is with Monna Valentina," answered him Francesco, raising head and voice, so that Gonzaga recognised him for the wounded knight of Acquasparta, remembered and scowled.

"I am Monna Valentina's captain here," he announced, with arrogance. "And you may deliver to me such messages as you bear."

There followed a contention, conducted ill-humouredly on the part of Gonzaga and scarcely less so on the Count's, Francesco stoutly refusing to communicate his business to any but Valentina, and Gonzaga as stoutly refusing to disturb the lady at that hour, or to lower the bridge. Words flew between them across the waters of the moat, and grew hotter at each fresh exchange, till in the end they were abruptly terminated by the appearance of Valentina herself, attended by Peppino.

"What is this, Gonzaga?" she inquired, her manner excited, for the fool had told her that it was the knight Francesco who sought admittance, and at the very mention of the name she had flushed, then paled, then started for the ramparts. "Why is this knight denied admittance since he bears a message for me?" And from where she stood she sought with admiring eyes the graceful shape of the Count of Aquila--the knight-errant of her dreams. Francesco bared his head, and bent to the withers of his horse in courteous greeting. She turned to Gonzaga impatiently.

"For what do you wait?" she cried. "Have you not understood my wishes? Let the bridge be lowered."

"Bethink you, Madonna," he remonstrated. "You do not know this man. He may be a spy of Gian Maria's--a hireling paid to betray us."

"You fool," she answered sharply. "Do you not see that it is the wounded knight we met that day you were escorting me to Urbino?"

"What shall that signify?" demanded he. "Is it proof of his honesty of purpose or loyalty to you? Be advised, Madonna, and let him deliver his message from where he is. He is safer there."

She measured him with a determined eye.

"Messer Gonzaga, order them to lower the bridge," she bade him.

"But, lady, bethink you of your peril."

"Peril?" she echoed. "Peril from two men, and we a garrison of over twenty? Surely the man is a coward who talks so readily of perils. Have the drawbridge lowered."

"But if----" he began, with a desperate vehemence, when again she cut him short.

"Am I to be obeyed? Am I mistress, and will you bid them lower the bridge, or must I, myself, go see to it?"

With a look of despairing anger and a shrug of the shoulders he turned from her, and despatched one of his men with an order. A few moments later, with a creaking of hinges and a clanking of chains, the great bridge swung down and dropped with a thud to span the gulf. Instantly the Count spurred his horse forward, and followed by Lanciotto rode across the plank and under the archway of the entrance tower into the first courtyard.

Now, scarcely had he drawn rein there when through a door at the far end appeared the gigantic figure of Fortemani, half-clad and sword in hand. At sight of Francesco the fellow leaped down a half-dozen steps, and advanced towards him with a burst of oaths.

"To me!" he shouted, in a voice that might have waked the dead. "Ola! Ola! What devil's work is this? How come you here? By whose orders was the bridge let down?"

"By the orders of Monna Valentina's captain," answered Francesco, wondering what madman might be this.

"Captain?" cried the other, coming to a standstill and his face turning purple. "Body of Satan! What captain? I am captain here."

The Count looked him over in surprise.

"Why, then," said he, "you are the very man I seek. I congratulate you on the watch you keep, Messer Capitano. Your castle is so excellently patrolled that had I been minded for a climb I had scaled your walls and got within your gates without arousing any of your slumbering sentries."

Fortemani eyed him with a lowering glance. The prosperity of the past four days had increased the insolence inherent in the man.

"Is that your affair?" he growled menacingly. "You are over-bold, sir stranger, to seek a quarrel with me, and over-pert to tell me how I shall discharge my captaincy. By the Passion! You shall be punished."

"Punished--I?" echoed Francesco, on whose brow there now descended a scowl as black as Ercole's own.

"Aye, punished, young sir. Ercole Fortemani is my name."

"I have heard of you," answered the Count contemptuously, "and of how you belie that name of yours, for they tell me that a more drunken, cowardly, good-for-nothing rogue is not to be found in Italy--no, not even in the Pope's dominions. And have a care how you cast the word 'punishment' at your betters, animal. The moat is none so distant, and the immersion may profit you. For I'll swear you've not been washed since they baptized you--if, indeed, you be a son of Mother Church at all."

"Sangue di Cristo!" spluttered the enraged bully, his face mottled. "This to me? Come down from that horse."

He laid hold of Francesco's leg to drag him to the ground, but the Count wrenched it free by a quick motion that left a gash from his spur upon the captain's hands. Simultaneously he raised his whip, and would have laid the lash of it across the broad of Fortemani's back--for it had angered him beyond words to have a ruffian of this fellow's quality seeking to ruffle it with him--but at that moment a female voice, stern and imperative, bade them hold in their quarrel.

Fortemani fell back nursing his lacerated hand and muttering curses, whilst Francesco turned in the direction whence that voice had come. Midway on the flight of stone steps he beheld Valentina, followed by Gonzaga, Peppe, and a couple of men-at-arms, descending from the battlements.

Calm and queenly she stood, dressed in a camorra of grey velvet with black sleeves, which excellently set off her handsome height. Gonzaga was leaning forward, speaking into her ear, and for all that his voice was subdued, some of his words travelled down to Francesco on the still, morning air.

"Was I not wise, Madonna, in that I hesitated to admit him? You see what manner of man he is."

The blood flamed in Francesco's cheeks, nor did it soften his chagrin to note the look which Valentina flashed down at him.

Instantly he leapt to the ground, and flinging his reins to Lanciotto he went forward to the foot of that stone staircase, his broad hat slung back upon his shoulders, to meet that descending company.

"Is this seemly, sir?" she questioned angrily. "Does it become you to brawl with my garrison the moment you are admitted?"

The blood rose higher in Francesco's face, and now suffused his temples and reached his hair. Yet his voice was well restrained as he made answer:

"Madonna, this knave was insolent."

"An insolence that you no doubt provoked," put in Gonzaga, a dimple showing on his woman's cheek. But the sterner rebuke fell from the lips of Valentina.

"Knave?" she questioned, with flushed countenance. "If you would not have me regret your admittance, Messer Francesco, I pray you curb your words. Here are no knaves. That, sir, is the captain of my soldiers."

Francesco bowed submissively, as patient under her reproof as he had been hasty under Fortemani's.

"It was on the matter of this captaincy that we fell to words," he answered, with more humility. "By his own announcement I understood this nobleman"--and his eyes turned to Gonzaga--"to be your captain."

"He is the captain of my castle," she informed him.

"As you see, Ser Francesco," put in Peppe, who had perched himself upon the balustrade, "we suffer from no lack of captains here. We have also Fra Domenico, who is captain of our souls and of the kitchen; myself am captain of----"

"Devil take you, fool," snapped Gonzaga, thrusting him roughly from his perch. Then turning abruptly to the Count: "You bear a message for us, sir?" he questioned loftily.

Swallowing the cavalier tone, and overlooking the pronoun Gonzaga employed, Francesco inclined his head again to the lady.

"I should prefer to deliver it in more privacy than this." And his eye travelled round the court and up the steps behind, where was now collected the entire company of Fortemani. Gonzaga sneered and tossed his golden curls, but Valentina saw naught unreasonable in the request, and bidding Romeo attend her and Francesco follow, she led the way.

They crossed the quadrangle, and, mounting the steps down which Fortemani had dashed to meet the Count, they passed into the banqueting-hall, which opened directly upon the south side of the courtyard. The Count, following in her wake, ran the gauntlet of scowls of the assembled mercenaries. He stalked past them unmoved, taking their measure as he went, and estimating their true value with the unerring eye of the practised condottiero who has had to do with the enrolling of men and the handling of them. So little did he like their looks that on the threshold of the hall he paused and stayed Gonzaga.

"I am loath to leave my servant at the mercy of those ruffians, sir. May I beg that you will warn them against offering him violence?"

"Ruffians?" cried the lady angrily, before Gonzaga could offer a reply. "They are my soldiers."

Again he bowed, and there was a cold politeness in the tones in which he answered her:

"I crave your pardon, and I will say no more--unless it be to deplore that I may not felicitate you on your choice."

It was Gonzaga's turn to wax angry, for the choice had been his.

"Your message will have need to be a weighty one, sir, to earn our patience for your impertinence."

Francesco returned the look of those blue eyes which vainly sought to flash ferociously, and he made little attempt to keep his scorn from showing in his glance. He permitted himself even to shrug his shoulders a trifle impatiently.

"Indeed, indeed, I think that I had best begone," he answered regretfully, "for it is a place whose inmates seem all bent on quarrelling with me. First your captain Fortemani greets me with an insolence hard to leave unpunished. You, yourself, Madonna, resent that I should crave protection for my man against those fellows whose looks give rise for my solicitation. You are angry that I should dub them ruffians, as if I had followed the calling of arms these ten years without acquiring knowledge of the quality of a man however much you may disguise him. And lastly, to crown all, this cicisbeo"--and he spread a hand contemptuously towards Gonzaga--"speaks of my impertinences."

"Madonna," cried Gonzaga, "I beg that you will let me deal with him."

Unwittingly, unwillingly, Gonzaga saved the situation by that prayer. The anger that was fast rising in Madonna's heart, stirred by the proud bearing of the Count, was scattered before the unconscious humour of her captain's appeal, in such ludicrous contrast was his mincing speech and slender figure with Francesco's firm tones and lean, active height. She did not laugh, for that would have been to have spoilt all, but she looked from one to the other with quiet relish, noting the glance of surprise and raised eyebrows with which the Count received the courtier's request to be let deal with him. And thus, being turned from anger, the balance of her mind was quick to adjust itself, and she bethought her that perhaps there was reason in what this knight advanced, and that his reception had lacked the courtesy that was his due. In a moment, with incomparable grace and skill, she had soothed Gonzaga's ruffled vanity, and appeased the Count's more sturdy resentment.

"And now, Messer Francesco," she concluded, "let us be friends, and let me hear your business. I beg that you will sit."

They had passed into the banqueting-hall--a noble apartment, whose walls were frescoed with hunting and pastoral scenes, one or two of which were the work of Pisaniello. There were, too, some stray trophies of the chase, and, here and there, a suit of costly armour that caught the sunlight pouring through the tall, mullioned windows. At the far end stood a richly carved screen of cedar, and above this appeared the twisted railing of the minstrels' gallery. In a tall armchair of untanned leather, at the head of the capacious board, Monna Valentina sat herself, Gonzaga taking his stand at her elbow, and Francesco fronting her, leaning lightly against the table.

"The news I bear you, lady, is soon told," said the Count. "I would its quality were better. Your suitor Gian Maria returning to Guidobaldo's court, eager for the nuptials that were promised him, has learnt of your flight to Roccaleone and is raising--indeed will have raised by now--an army to invest and reduce your fortress."

Gonzaga turned as pale as the vest of white silk that gleamed beneath his doublet of pearl-coloured velvet at this realisation of the prophecies he had uttered without believing. A sickly fear possessed his soul. What fate would they mete out to him who had been the leading spirit in Valentina's rebellion? He could have groaned aloud at this miscarriage of all his fine plans. Where now would be the time to talk of love, to press and carry his suit with Valentina and render himself her husband? These would be war in the air, and bloody work that made his skin creep and turn cold to ponder on. And the irony of it all was keenly cruel. It was the very contingency that he had prophesied, assured that neither Guidobaldo nor Gian Maria would be so mad as to court ridicule by engaging upon it.

For a second Francesco's eyes rested on the courtier's face, and saw the fear written there for all to read. The shadow of a smile quivered on his lips as his glance moved on to meet the eyes of Valentina, sparkling as sparkles frost beneath the sun.

"Why, let them come!" she exclaimed, almost in exultation. "This ducal oaf shall find me very ready for him. We are armed at all points. We have victuals to last us three months, if need be, and we have no lack of weapons. Let Gian Maria come, and he will find Valentina della Rovere none so easy to reduce. To you, sir," she continued, with more calm, "to you on whom I have no claim, I am more than grateful for your chivalrous act in riding here to warn me."

Francesco sighed; a look of regret crossed his face.

"Alas!" he said. "When I rode hither, Madonna, I had hoped to serve you to a better purpose. I had advice to offer and assistance if you should need it; but the sight of those men-at-arms of yours makes me fear that it is not advice upon which it would be wise to act. For the plan I had in mind, it would be of the first importance that your soldiers should be trustworthy, and this, I fear me, they are not."

"Nevertheless," put in Gonzaga feverishly, clinging to a slender hope, "let us hear it."

"I beg that you will," said Valentina.

Thus enjoined, Francesco pondered a moment.

"Are you acquainted with the politics of Babbiano?" he inquired.

"I know something of them."

"I will make the position quite clear to you, Madonna," he rejoined. And with that he told her of the threatened descent of Caesar Borgia upon Gian Maria's duchy, and hence, of the little time at her suitor's disposal; so that if he could but be held in check before the walls of Roccaleone for a little while, all might be well. "But seeing in what haste he is," he ended, "his methods are likely to be rough and desperate, and I had thought that meanwhile you need not remain here, Madonna."

"Not remain?" she cried, scorn of the notion in her voice. "Not remain?" quoth Gonzaga timorously, hope sounding in his.

"Precisely, Madonna. I would have proposed that you leave Gian Maria an empty nest, so that even if the castle should fall into his hands he would gain nothing."

"You would advise me to fly?" she demanded.

"I came prepared to do so, but the sight of your men restrains me. They are not trustworthy, and to save their dirty skins they might throw Roccaleone open to the besiegers, and thus your flight would be discovered, while yet there might be time to render it futile."

Before she could frame an answer there was Gonzaga feverishly urging her to act upon so wise and timely a suggestion, and seek safety in flight from a place that Gian Maria would tear stone from stone. His words pattered quickly and piteously in entreaty, till in the end, facing him squarely:

"Are you afraid, Gonzaga?" she asked him.

"I am--afraid for you, Madonna," he answered readily.

"Then let your fears have peace. For whether I stay or whether I go, one thing is certain: Gian Maria never shall set hands upon me." She turned again to Francesco. "I see a certain wisdom in the counsel of flight you would have offered me, no less than in what I take to be your advice that I should remain. Did I but consult my humour I should stay and deliver battle when this tyrant shows himself. But prudence, too, must be consulted, and I will give the matter thought." And now she thanked him with a generous charm for having come to her with this news and proffered his assistance, asking what motives brought him.

"Such motives as must ever impel a knight to serve a lady in distress," said he, "and perhaps, too, the memory of the charity with which you tended my wounds that day at Acquasparta."

For a second their glances met, quivered in the meeting, and fell apart again, an odd confusion in the breast of each, all of which Gonzaga, sunk in moody rumination, observed not. To lighten the awkward silence that was fallen, she asked him how it had transpired so soon that it was to Roccaleone she had fled.

"Do you not know?" he cried. "Has not Peppe told you?"

"I have had no speech with him. He but reached the castle, himself, late last night, and I first saw him this morning when he came to announce your presence."

And then, before more could be said, there arose a din of shouting from without. The door was pushed suddenly open, and Peppe darted into the room.

"Your man, Ser Francesco," he cried, his face white with excitement. "Come quickly, or they will kill him."

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CHAPTER XIV. FORTEMANI DRINKS WATERThe thing had begun with the lowering glances that Francesco had observed, and had grown to gibes and insults after he had disappeared. But Lanciotto had preserved an unruffled front, being a man schooled in the Count of Aquila's service to silence and a wondrous patience. This insensibility those hinds translated into cowardice, and emboldened by it--like the mongrels that they were--their offensiveness grew more direct and gradually more threatening. Lanciotto's patience was slowly oozing away, and indeed, it was no longer anything but the fear of provoking his master's anger that restrained him. At length one
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Love-at-arms - Chapter 12. The Fool's Inquisitiveness
CHAPTER XII. THE FOOL'S INQUISITIVENESSIn the morning Francesco set out once more, accompanied by his servants, Fanfulla, and the fool. The latter was now so far restored as to be able to sit a mule, but lest the riding should over-tire him they proceeded at little more than an ambling pace along the lovely valleys of the Metauro. Thus it befell that when night descended it found them still journeying, and some two leagues distant from Urbino. Another league they travelled in the moonlight, and the fool was beguiling the time for them with a droll story culled from the bright
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