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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLove-at-arms - Chapter 14. Fortemani Drinks Water
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Love-at-arms - Chapter 14. Fortemani Drinks Water Post by :wb161 Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2848

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Love-at-arms - Chapter 14. Fortemani Drinks Water

CHAPTER XIV. FORTEMANI DRINKS WATER

The 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 burly ruffian, who had bidden him remove his head-piece in the company of gentlemen, and whose request had been by Lanciotto as disregarded as the rest, advanced menacingly towards him and caught him by the leg, as Ercole had caught his master. Exasperated at that, Lanciotto had swung his leg free, and caught the rash fellow a vicious kick in the face that had felled him, stunned and bleeding.

The roar from the man's companions told Lanciotto what to expect. In an instant they were upon him, clamouring for his blood. He sought to draw his master's sword, which together with the Count's other armour was slung across his saddle-bow; but before he could extricate it, he was seized by a dozen hands, and cropped, fighting, from the saddle. On the ground they overpowered him, and a mailed hand was set upon his mouth, crushing back into his throat the cry for help he would have raised.

On the west side of the courtyard a fountain issuing from the wall had once poured its water through a lion's head into a vast tank of moss-grown granite. But it had been disused for some time, and the pipe in the lion's mouth was dry. The tank, however, was more than half full of water, which, during the late untenanting of the castle, had turned foul and stagnant. To drown Lanciotto in this was the amiable suggestion that emanated from Fortemani himself--a suggestion uproariously received by his knaves, who set themselves to act upon it. They roughly dragged the bleeding and frantically struggling Lanciotto across the yard and gained the border of the tank, intending fully to sink him into it and hold him under, to drown there like a rat.

But in that instant a something burst upon him like a bolt from out of Heaven. In one or two, and presently in more, the cruel laughter turned to sudden howls of pain as a lash of bullock-hide caught them about head and face and shoulders.

"Back there, you beasts, you animals, back!" roared a voice of thunder, and back they went unquestioning before that pitiless lash, like the pack of craven hounds they were.

It was Francesco, who, single-handed, and armed with no more than a whip, was scattering them from about his maltreated servant, as the hawk scatters a flight of noisy sparrows. And now between him and Lanciotto there stood no more than the broad bulk of Ercole Fortemani, his back to the Count; for, as yet, he had not realised the interruption.

Francesco dropped his whip, and setting one hand at the captain's girdle, and the other at his dirty neck, he hoisted him up with a strength incredible, and hurled him from his path and into the slimy water of the tank.

There was a mighty roar drowned in a mightier splash as Fortemani, spread-eagle, struck the surface and sank from sight, whilst with the flying spray there came a fetid odour to tell of the unsavouriness of that unexpected bath.

Without pausing to see the completion of his work, Francesco stooped over his prostrate servant.

"Have the beasts hurt you, Lanciotto?" he questioned. But before the fellow could reply, one of those hinds had sprung upon the stooping Count, and struck him with a dagger between the shoulder-blades.

A woman's alarmed cry rang out, for Valentina was watching the affray from the steps of the hall, with Gonzaga at her elbow.

But Francesco's quilted brigandine had stood the test of steel, and the point of that assassin's dagger glanced harmlessly aside, doing no worse hurt than a rent in the silk surface of the garment. A second later the fellow found himself caught as in a bond of steel. The dagger was wrenched from his grasp, and the point of it laid against his breast even as the Count forced him down upon his knees.

In a flash was the thing done, yet to the wretched man who saw himself upon the threshold of Eternity, and who--like a true son of the Church--had a wholesome fear of hell, it seemed an hour whilst, with livid cheeks and eyes starting from his head, he waited for that poniard to sink into his heart, as it was aimed. But not in his heart did the blow fall. With a sudden snort of angry amusement, the Count pitched the dagger from him and brought down his clenched fist with a crushing force into the ruffian's face. The fellow sank unconscious beneath that mighty blow, and Francesco, regaining the whip that lay almost at his feet, rose up to confront what others there might be.

From the tank, standing breast-deep in that stinking water, his head and face grotesquely masked in a vile green slime of putrid vegetation, Ercole Fortemani bellowed with horrid blasphemy that he would have his aggressor's blood, but stirred never a foot to take it. Not that he was by nature wholly a coward; but inspired by a wholesome fear of the man who could perform such a miracle of strength, he remained out of Francesco's reach, well in the middle of that square basin, and lustily roared orders to his men to tear the fellow to pieces. But his men had seen enough of the Count's methods, and made no advance upon that stalwart, dauntless figure that stood waiting for them with a whip which several had already tasted. Huddled together, more like a flock of frightened sheep than a body of men of war, they stood near the entrance tower, the mock of Peppe, who from the stone-gallery above--much to the amusement of Valentina's ladies and two pert pages that were with him--applauded in high-flown terms their wondrous valour.

They stirred at last, but it was at Valentina's bidding. She had been conferring with Gonzaga, who--giving it for his reason that she, herself, might need protection--had remained beside her, well out of the fray. She had been urging him to do something, and at last he had obeyed her, and moved down the short flight of steps into the court; but so reluctantly and slowly, that with an exclamation of impatience, she suddenly brushed past him, herself to do the task she had begged of him. Past Francesco she went, with a word of such commendation of his valour and a look of such deep admiration, that the blood sprang, responsive, to his cheek. She paused with a solicitous inquiry for the now risen but sorely bruised Lanciotto. She flashed an angry look and an angry command of silence at the great Ercole, still bellowing from his tank, and then, within ten paces of his followers, she halted, and with wrathful mien, and hand outstretched towards their captain, she bade them arrest him.

That sudden, unexpected order struck dumb the vociferous Fortemani. He ceased, and gaped at his men, who eyed one another now in doubt; but the doubt was quickly dispelled by the lady's own words:

"You will make him prisoner, and conduct him to the guardroom, or I will have you and him swept out of my castle," she informed them, as confidently as though she had a hundred men-at-arms to do her bidding on them.

A pace or so behind her stood the lily-cheeked Gonzaga, gnawing his lip, timid and conjecturing. Behind him again loomed the stalwart height of Francesco del Falco with, at his side, Lanciotto, of mien almost as resolute as his own.

That was the full force with which the lady spoke of sweeping them--as if they had been so much foulness--from Roccaleone, unless they did her bidding. They were still hesitating, when the Count advanced to Valentina's side.

"You have heard the choice our lady gives you," he said sternly. "Let us know whether you will obey or disobey. This choice that is yours now, may not be yours again. But if you elect to disobey Madonna, the gate is behind you, the bridge still down. Get you gone!"

Furtively, from under lowering brows, Gonzaga darted a look of impotent malice at the Count. Whatever issue had the affair, this man must not remain in Roccaleone. He was too strong, too dominant, and he would render himself master of the place by no other title than that strength of his and that manner of command which Gonzaga accounted a coarse, swashbuckling bully's gift, but would have given much to be possessed of. Of how strong and dominant indeed he was never had Francesco offered a more signal proof. Those men, bruised and maltreated by him, would beyond doubt have massed together and made short work of one less dauntless but when a mighty courage such as his goes hand-in-hand with the habit of command, such hinds as they can never long withstand it. They grumbled something among themselves, and one of them at last made answer:

"Noble sir, it is our captain that we are bidden to arrest."

"True; but your captain, like yourselves, is in this lady's pay; and she, your true, your paramount commander, bids you arrest him." And now, whilst yet they hesitated, his quick wits flung them the bait that must prove most attractive. "He has shown himself to-day unfitted for the command entrusted him and it may become a question, when he has been judged, of choosing one of you to fill the place he may leave empty."

Hinds were they in very truth; the scum of the bravi that haunted the meanest borgo of Urbino. Their hesitation vanished, and such slight loyalty as they felt towards Ercole was overruled by the prospect of his position and his pay, should his disgrace become accomplished.

They called upon him to come forth from his refuge, where he still stood, dumb and stricken at this sudden turn events had taken. He sullenly refused to obey the call to yield, until Francesco--who now assumed command with a readiness that galled Gonzaga more and more--bade one of them go fetch an arquebuse and shoot the dog. At that he cried out for mercy, and came wading to the edge of the tank swearing that if the immersion had not drowned him, it were a miracle but he was poisoned.

Thus closed an incident that had worn a mighty ugly look, and it served to open Valentina's eyes to the true quality of the men Gonzaga had hired her. Maybe that it opened his own for that amiable lute-thrummer was green of experience in these matters. She bade Gonzaga care for Francesco, and called one of the grinning pages from the gallery to be his esquire. A room was placed at his disposal for the little time that he might spend at Roccaleone, whilst she debated what her course should be.

A bell tolled in the far southern wing of the castle, beyond the second courtyard, and summoned her to chapel, for there Fra Domenico said Mass each morning. And so she took her leave of Francesco, saying she would pray Heaven to direct her to a wise choice, whether to fly from Roccaleone, or whether to remain and ward off the onslaught of Gian Maria.

Francesco, attended by Gonzaga and the page, repaired to a handsome room under the Lion's Tower, which rose upon the south-eastern angle of the fortress. His windows overlooked the second, or inner, courtyard, across which Valentina and her ladies were now speeding on their way to Mass.

Gonzaga made shift to stifle the resentment that he felt against this man, in whom he saw an interloper, and strove to treat him with the courtesy that was his due. He would even have gone the length of discussing with him the situation--prompted by a certain mistrust, and cunningly eager to probe the real motive that had brought this stranger to interest himself in the affairs of Valentina. But Francesco, wearily, yet with an unimpeachable politeness, staved him off, and requested that Lanciotto might be sent to attend him. Seeing the futility of his endeavours, Gonzaga withdrew in increased resentment, but with a heightened sweetness of smile and profoundness of courtesies.

He went below to issue orders for the raising of the bridge, and finding the men singularly meek and tractable after the sharp lesson Francesco had read them, he vented upon them some of the vast ill-humour that possessed him. Next he passed on to his own apartments, and there he sat himself by a window overlooking the castle gardens, with his unpleasant thoughts for only company.

But presently his mood lightened and he took courage, for he could be very brave when peril was remote. It was best, he reflected, that Valentina should leave Roccaleone. Such was the course he would advise and urge. Naturally, he would go with her, and so he might advance his suit as well elsewhere as in that castle. On the other hand, if she remained, why, so would he, and, after all, what if Gian Maria came? As Francesco had said, the siege could not be protracted, thanks to the tangled affairs of Babbiano. Soon Gian Maria would be forced to turn him homeward, to defend his Duchy. If, then, for a little while they could hold him in check, all would yet be well. Surely he had been over-quick to despond.

He rose and stretched himself with indolent relish, then pushing wide his casement, he leaned out to breathe the morning air. A soft laugh escaped him. He had been a fool indeed to plague himself with fears when he had first heard of Gian Maria's coming. Properly viewed, it became a service Gian Maria did him--whether they remained, or whether they went. Love has no stronger promoter than a danger shared, and a week of such disturbances as Gian Maria was likely to occasion them should do more to advance his suit than he might hope to achieve in a whole month of peaceful wooing. Then the memory of Francesco set a wrinkle 'twixt his brows, and he bethought him how taken Valentina had been with the fellow when first she had beheld him at Acquasparta, and of how, as she rode that day, she had seen naught but the dark eyes of this Knight Francesco.

"Knight Francesco of what or where?" he muttered to himself. "Bah! A nameless, homeless adventurer; a swashbuckling bully, reeking of blood and leather, and fit to drive such a pack as Fortemani's. But with a lady--what shalt such an oaf attain, how shall he prevail?" He laughed the incipient jealousy to scorn, and his brow grew clear, for now he was in an optimistic mood--perhaps a reaction from his recent tremors. "Yet, by the Host!" he pursued, bethinking him of the amazing boldness Francesco had shown in the courtyard, "he has the strength of Hercules, and a way with him that makes him feared and obeyed. Pish!" he laughed again, as, turning, he unhooked his lute from where it hung upon the wall. "The by-blow of some condottiero, who blends with his father's bullying arrogance the peasant soul of his careless mother. And I fear that such a one as that shall touch the heart of my peerless Valentina? Why, it is a thought that does her but poor honour."

And dismissing Francesco from his mind, he sought the strings with his fingers, and thrummed an accompaniment as he returned to the window, his voice, wondrous sweet and tender, breaking into a gentle love-song.

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