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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLove-at-arms - Chapter 3. Sackcloth And Motley
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Love-at-arms - Chapter 3. Sackcloth And Motley Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2410

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Love-at-arms - Chapter 3. Sackcloth And Motley


The fool and the friar had fallen a-quarrelling, and--to the shame of the friar and the glory of the fool be it spoken--their subject of contention was a woman. Now the friar, finding himself no match for the fool in words, and being as broad and stout of girth and limb as the other was puny and misshapen, he had plucked off his sandal that with it he might drive the full force of his arguments through the jester's skull. At that the fool, being a very coward, had fled incontinently through the trees.

Running, like the fool he was, with his head turned to learn whether the good father followed him, he never saw the figure that lay half-hidden in the bracken, and might never have guessed its presence but that tripping over it he shot forward, with a tinkle of bells, on to his crooked nose.

He sat up with a groan, which was answered by an oath from the man into whose sides he had dug his flying feet. The two looked at one another in surprise, tempered with anger in the one and dismay in the other.

"A good awakening to you, noble sir," quoth the fool politely; for by the mien and inches of the man he had roused, he thought that courtesy might serve him best.

The other eyed him with interest, as well he might; for an odder figure it would be hard to find in Italy.

Hunched of back, under-sized, and fragile of limb, he was arrayed in doublet, hose and hood, the half of which was black the other crimson, whilst on his shoulders fell from that same hood--which tightly framed his ugly little face--a foliated cape, from every point of which there hung a tiny silver bell that glimmered in the sunlight, and tinkled as he moved. From under bulging brows a pair of bright eyes, set wide as an owl's, took up the mischievous humour of his prodigious mouth.

"A curse on you and him that sent you," was the answering greeting he received. Then the man checked his anger and broke into a laugh at sight of the fear that sprang into the jester's eyes.

"I crave your pardon--most humbly do I crave it, Illustrious," said the fool, still in fear. "I was pursued."

"Pursued?" echoed the other, in a tone not free from a sudden uneasiness. "And, pray, by whom?"

"By the very fiend, disguised in the gross flesh and semblance of a Dominican brother."

"Do you jest?" came the angry question.

"Jest? Had you caught his villainous sandal between your shoulders, as did I, you would know how little I have a mind to jest."

"Now answer me a plain question, if you have the wit to answer with," quoth the other, anger ever rising in his voice. "Is there hereabouts a monk?"

"Aye, is there--may a foul plague rot him!--lurking in the bushes yonder. He is over-fat to run, or you had seen him at my heels, arrayed in that panoply of avenging wrath that is the cognisance of the Church Militant."

"Go bring him hither," was the short answer.

"Gesu!" gasped the fool, in very real affright. "I'll not go near him till his anger cools--not if you made me straight and bribed me with the Patrimony of St. Peter."

The man turned from him impatiently, and rising his voice:

"Fanfulla!" he called over his shoulder, and then, after a moment's pause, again: "Ola, Fanfulla!"

"I am here, my lord," came an answering voice from behind a clump of bushes on their right, and almost immediately the very splendid youth who had gone to sleep in its shadow stood up and came round to them. At sight of the fool he paused to take stock of him, what time the fool returned the compliment with wonder-stricken interest. For however much Fanfulla's raiment might have suffered in yesternight's affray, it was very gorgeous still, and in the velvet cap upon his head a string of jewels was entwined. Yet not so much by the richness of his trappings was the fool impressed, as by the fact that one so manifestly noble should address by such a title, and in a tone of so much deference, this indifferently apparelled fellow over whom he had stumbled. Then his gaze wandered back to the man who lay supported on his elbow, and he noticed now the gold net in which his hair was coiffed, and which was by no means common to mean folk. His little twinkling eyes turned their attention full upon the face before him, and of a sudden a gleam of recognition entered them. His countenance underwent a change, and from grotesque that it had been, it became more grotesque still in its hasty assumption of reverence.

"My Lord of Aquila!" he murmured, scrambling to his feet.

Scarcely had he got erect when a hand gripped him by the shoulder, and Fanfulla's dagger flashed before his startled eyes.

"Swear on the cross of this, never to divulge his Excellency's presence here, or take you the point of it in your foolish heart."

"I swear, I swear!" he cried, in fearful haste, his hand upon the hilt, which Fanfulla now held towards him.

"Now fetch the priest, good fool," said the Count, with a smile at the hunchback's sudden terror. "You have nothing to fear from us."

When the jester had left them to go upon his errand, Francesco turned to his companion.

"Fanfulla, you are over-cautious," he said, with an easy smile. "What shall it matter that I am recognised?"

"I would not have it happen for a kingdom while you are so near Sant' Angelo. The six of us who met last night are doomed--those of us who are not dead already. For me, and for Lodi if he was not taken, there may be safety in flight. Into the territory of Babbiano I shall never again set foot whilst Gian Maria is Duke, unless I be weary of this world. But of the seventh--yourself--you heard old Lodi swear that the secret could not have transpired. Yet should his Highness come to hear of your presence in these parts and in my company, suspicion might set him on the road that leads to knowledge."

"Ah! And then?"

"Then?" returned the other, eyeing Francesco in surprise. "Why, then, the hopes we found on you--the hopes of every man in Babbiano worthy of the name--would be frustrated. But here comes our friend the fool, and, in his wake, the friar."

Fra Domenico--so was he very fitly named, this follower of St. Dominic--approached with a solemnity that proceeded rather from his great girth than from any inflated sense of the dignity of his calling. He bowed before Fanfulla until his great crimson face was hidden, and he displayed instead a yellow, shaven crown. It was as if the sun had set, and the moon had risen in its place.

"Are you skilled in medicine?" quoth Fanfulla shortly.

"I have some knowledge, Illustrious."

"Then see to this gentleman's wounds."

"Eh? Dio mio! You are wounded, then?" he began, turning to the Count, and he would have added other questions as pregnant, but that Aquila, drawing aside his hacketon at the shoulder, answered him quickly:

"Here, sir priest."

His lips pursed in solicitude, the friar would have gone upon his knees, but that Francesco, seeing with what labour the movement must be fraught, rose up at once.

"It is not so bad that I cannot stand," said he, submitting himself to the monk's examination.

The latter expressed the opinion that it was nowise dangerous, however much it might be irksome, whereupon the Count invited him to bind it up. To this Fra Domenico replied that he had neither unguents nor linen, but Fanfulla suggested that he might get these things from the convent of Acquasparta, hard by, and proffered to accompany him thither.

This being determined, they departed, leaving the Count in the company of the jester. Francesco spread his cloak, and lay down again, whilst the fool, craving his permission to remain, disposed himself upon his haunches like a Turk.

"Who is your master, fool?" quoth the Count, in an idle spirit.

"There is a man who clothes and feeds me, noble sir, but Folly is my only master."

"To what end does he do this?"

"Because I pretend to be a greater fool than he, so that by contrast with me he seems unto himself wise, which flatters his conceit. Again, perhaps, because I am so much uglier than he that, again by contrast, he may account himself a prodigy of beauty."

"Odd, is it not?" the Count humoured him.

"Not half so odd as that the Lord of Aquila should lie here, roughly clad, a wound in his shoulder, talking to a fool."

Francesco eyed him with a smile.

"Give thanks to God that Fanfulla is not here to hear you, or they had been your last words for pretty though he be, Messer Fanfulla is a very monster of bloodthirstiness. With me it is different. I am a man of very gentle ways, as you may have heard, Messer Buffoon. But see that you forget at once my station and my name, or you may realise how little they need buffoons in the Court of Heaven."

"My lord, forgive. I shall obey you," answered the hunchback, with a stricken manner. And then through the glade came a voice--a woman's voice, wondrous sweet and rich--calling: "Peppino! Peppino!"

"It is my mistress calling me," quoth the fool, leaping to his feet.

"So that you own a mistress, though Folly be your only master," laughed the Count. "It would pleasure me to behold the lady whose property you have the honour to be, Ser Peppino."

"You may behold her if you but turn your head," Peppino whispered.

Idly, with a smile upon his lips that was almost scornful, the Lord of Aquila turned his eyes in the direction in which the fool was already walking. And on the instant his whole expression changed. The amused scorn was swept from his countenance, and in its place there sat now a look of wonder that was almost awe.

Standing there, on the edge of the clearing, in which he lay, he beheld a woman. He had a vague impression of a slender, shapely height, a fleeting vision of a robe of white damask, a camorra of green velvet, and a choicely wrought girdle of gold. But it was the glory of her peerless face that caught and held his glance in such ecstatic awe; the miracle of her eyes, which, riveted on his, returned his glance with one of mild surprise. A child she almost seemed, despite her height and womanly proportions, so fresh and youthful was her countenance.

Raised on his elbow, he lay there for a spell, and gazed and gazed, his mind running on visions which godly men have had of saints from Paradise.

At last the spell was broken by Peppino's voice, addressing her, his back servilely bent. Francesco bethought him of the deference due to one so clearly noble, and leaping to his feet, his wound forgotten, he bowed profoundly. A second later he gasped for breath, reeled, and swooning, collapsed supine among the bracken.

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