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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 2. Giuliana - Chapter 6. The Iron Girdle
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The Strolling Saint - Book 2. Giuliana - Chapter 6. The Iron Girdle Post by :Odilia_Paula Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3099

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The Strolling Saint - Book 2. Giuliana - Chapter 6. The Iron Girdle

BOOK II. GIULIANA CHAPTER VI. THE IRON GIRDLE

From the distance, drawing rapidly nearer and ringing sharply in the stillness of the night, came the clatter of a mule's hooves.

But, though heard, it was scarcely heard consciously, and it certainly went unheeded until it was beneath the window and ceasing at the door.

Giuliana's fingers locked themselves upon my arm in a grip of fear.

"Who comes?" she asked, below her breath, fearfully. I sprang from the bed and crouched, listening, by the window, and so lost precious time.

Out of the darkness Giuliana's voice spoke again, hoarsely now and trembling.

"It will be Astorre," she said, with conviction. "At this hour it can be none else. I suspected when I saw him talking to that boy at the gate this afternoon that he was setting a spy upon me, to warn him wherever he was lurking, did the need arise."

"But how should the boy know...?" I began, when she interrupted me almost impatiently.

"The boy saw Messer Gambara ride up. He waited for no more, but went at once to warn Astorre. He has been long in coming," she added in the tone of one who is still searching for the exact explanation of the thing that is happening. And then, suddenly and very urgently, "Go, go--go quickly!" she bade me.

As in the dark I was groping my way towards the door she spoke again:

"Why does he not knock? For what does he wait?" Immediately, from the stairs, came a terrific answer to her question--the unmistakable, slip-slopping footstep of the doctor.

I halted, and for an instant stood powerless to move. How he had entered I could not guess, nor did I ever discover. Sufficient was the awful fact that he was in.

I was ice-cold from head to foot. Then I was all on fire and groping forward once more whilst those footsteps, sinister and menacing as the very steps of Doom, came higher and nearer.

At last I found the door and wrenched it open. I stayed to close it after me, and already at the end of the passage beat the reflection of the light Fifanti carried. A second I stood there hesitating which way to turn. My first thought was to gain my own chamber. But to attempt it were assuredly to run into his arms. So I turned, and went as swiftly and stealthily as possible towards the library.

I was all but in when he turned the corner of the passage, and so caught sight of me before I had closed the door.

I stood in the library, where the lamp still burned, sweating, panting, and trembling. For even as he had had a glimpse of me, so had I had a glimpse of him, and the sight was terrifying to one in my situation.

I had seen, his tall, gaunt figure bending forward in his eager, angry haste. In one hand he carried a lanthorn; a naked sword in the other. His face was malign and ghastly, and his bald, egg-like head shone yellow. The fleeting glimpse he had of me drew from him a sound between a roar and a snarl, and with quickened feet he came slip-slopping down the passage.

I had meant, I think, to play the fox: to seat myself at the table, a book before me, and feigning slumber, present the appearance of one who had been overcome by weariness at his labours. But now all thought of that was at an end. I had been seen, and that I fled was all too apparent. So that in every way I was betrayed.

The thing I did, I did upon instinct rather than reason; and this again was not well done. I slammed the door, and turned the key, placing at least that poor barrier between myself and the man I had so deeply wronged, the man whom I had given the right to slay me. A second later the door shook as if a hurricane had smitten it. He had seized the handle, and he was pulling at it frenziedly with a maniacal strength.

"Open!" he thundered, and fell to snarling and whimpering horribly. "Open!"

Then, quite abruptly he became oddly calm. It was as if his rage grew coldly purposeful; and the next words he uttered acted upon me as a dagger-prod, and reawakened my mind from its momentary stupefaction.

"Do you think these poor laths can save you from my vengeance, my Lord Gambara?" quoth he, with a chuckle horrible to hear.

My Lord Gambara! He mistook me for the Legate! In an instant I saw the reason of this. It was as Giuliana had conceived. The boy had run to warn him wherever he was--at Roncaglia, perhaps, a league away upon the road to Parma. And the boy's news was that my Lord the Governor had gone to Fifanti's house. The boy had never waited to see the Legate come forth again; but had obeyed his instructions to the letter, and it was Gambara whom Fifanti came to take red-handed and to kill as he had the right to do.

When he had espied my flying shape, the length of the corridor had lain between us, Fifanti was short-sighted, and since it was Gambara whom he expected to find, Gambara at once he concluded it to be who fled before him.

There was no villainy for which I was not ripe that night, it seemed. For no sooner did I perceive this error than I set myself to scheme how I might profit by it. Let Gambara by all means suffer in my place if the thing could be contrived. If not in fact, at least in intent, the Cardinal-legate had certainly sinned. If he was not in my place now, it was through the too great good fortune that attended him. Besides, Gambara would be in better case to protect himself from the consequences and from Fifanti's anger.

Thus cravenly I reasoned; and reasoning thus, I reached the window. If I could climb down to the garden, and then perhaps up again to my own chamber, I might get me to bed, what time Fifanti still hammered at that door. Meanwhile his voice came rasping through those slender timbers, as he mocked the Lord Cardinal he supposed me.

"You would not be warned, my lord, and yet I warned you enough. You would plant horns upon my head. Well, well! Do not complain if you are gored by them."

Then he laughed hideously. "This poor Astorre Fifanti is blind and a fool. He is to be sent packing on a journey to the Duke, devised to suit my Lord Cardinal's convenience. But you should have bethought you that suspicious husbands have a trick of pretending to depart whilst they remain."

Next his voice swelled up again in passion, and again the door was shaken.

"Will you open, then, or must I break down the door! There is no barrier in the world shall keep me from you, there is no power can save you. I have the right to kill you by every law of God and man. Shall I forgo that right?" He laughed snarlingly.

"Three hundred ducats yearly to recompense the hospitality I have given you--and six hundred later upon the coming of the Duke!" he mocked. "That was the price, my lord, of my hospitality--which was to include my wife's harlotry. Three hundred ducats! Ha! ha! Three hundred thousand million years in Hell! That is the price, my lord--the price that you shall pay, for I present the reckoning and enforce it. You shall be shriven in iron--you and your wanton after you.

"Shall I be caged for having shed a prelate's sacred blood? for having sent a prelate's soul to Hell with all its filth of sin upon it? Shall I? Speak, magnificent; out of the fullness of your theological knowledge inform me."

I had listened in a sort of fascination to that tirade of venomous mockery. But now I stirred, and pulled the casement open. I peered down into the darkness and hesitated. The wall was creeper-clad to the window's height; but I feared the frail tendrils of the clematis would never bear me. I hesitated. Then I resolved to jump. It was but little more than some twelve feet to the ground, and that was nothing to daunt an active lad of my own build, with the soft turf to land upon below. It should have been done without hesitation; for that moment's hesitation was my ruin.

Fifanti had heard the opening of the casement, and fearing that, after all, his prey might yet escape him, he suddenly charged the door like an infuriated bull, and borrowing from his rage a strength far greater than his usual he burst away the fastenings of that crazy door.

Into the room hurtled the doctor, to check and stand there blinking at me, too much surprised for a moment to grasp the situation.

When, at last, he understood, the returning flow of rage was overwhelming.

"You!" he gasped, and then his voice mounting--"You dog!" he screamed. "So it was you! You!"

He crouched and his little eyes, all blood-injected, peered at me with horrid malice. He grew cold again as he mastered his surprise. "You!" he repeated. "Blind fool that I have been! You! The walker in the ways of St. Augustine--in his early ways, I think. You saint in embryo, you postulant for holy orders! You shall be ordained this night--with this!" And he raised his sword so that little yellow runnels of light sped down the livid blade.

"I will ordain you into Hell, you hound!" And thereupon he leapt at me.

I sprang away from the window, urged by fear of him into a very sudden activity. As I crossed the room I had a glimpse of the white figure of Giuliana in the gloom of the passage, watching.

He came after me, snarling. I seized a stool and hurled it at him. He avoided it nimbly, and it went crashing through the half of the casement that was still closed.

And as he avoided it, grown suddenly cunning, he turned back towards the door to bar my exit should I attempt to lead him round the table.

We stood at gaze, the length of the little low-ceilinged chamber between us, both of us breathing hard.

Then I looked round for something with which to defend myself; for it was plain that he meant to have my life. By a great ill-chance it happened that the sword which I had worn upon that day when I went as Giuliana's escort into Piacenza was still standing in the very corner where I had set it down. Instinctively I sprang for it, and Fifanti, never suspecting my quest until he saw me with a naked iron in my hand, did nothing to prevent my reaching it.

Seeing me armed, he laughed. "Ho, ho! The saint-at-arms!" he mocked. "You'll be as skilled with weapons as with holiness!" And he advanced upon me in long stealthy strides. The width of the table was between us, and he smote at me across it. I parried, and cut back at him, for being armed now, I no more feared him than I should have feared a child. Little he knew of the swordcraft I had learnt from old Falcone, a thing which once learnt is never forgotten though lack of exercise may make us slow.

He cut at me again, and narrowly missed the lamp in his stroke. And now, I can most solemnly make oath that in the thing that followed there was no intent. It was over and done before I was conscious of the happening. I had acted purely upon instinct as men will in performing what they have been taught.

To ward his blow, I came almost unconsciously into that guard of Marozzo's which is known as the iron girdle. I parried and on the stroke I lunged, and so, taking the poor wretch entirely unawares, I sank the half of my iron into his vitals ere he or I had any thought that the thing was possible.

I saw his little eyes grow very wide, and the whole expression of his face become one of intense astonishment.

He moved his lips as if to speak, and then the sword clattered from his one hand, the lanthorn from his other; he sank forward quietly, still looking at me with the same surprised glance, and so came further on to my rigidly held blade, until his breast brought up against the quillons. For a moment he remained supported thus, by just that rigid arm of mine and the table against which his weight was leaning. Then I withdrew the blade, and in the same movement flung the weapon from me. Before the sword had rattled to the floor, his body had sunk down into a heap beyond the table, so that I could see no more than the yellow, egg-like top of his bald head.

Awhile I stood watching it, filled with an extraordinary curiosity and a queer awe. Very slowly was it that I began to realize the thing I had done. It might be that I had killed Fifanti. It might be. And slowly, gradually I grew cold with the thought and the apprehension of its horrid meaning.

Then from the passage came a stifled scream, and Giuliana staggered forward, one hand holding flimsy draperies to her heaving bosom, the other at her mouth, which had grown hideously loose and uncontrolled. Her glowing copper hair, all unbound, fell about her shoulders like a mantle.

Behind her with ashen face and trembling limbs came old Busio. He was groaning and ringing his hands. Thus I saw the pair of them creep forward to approach Fifanti, who had made no sound since my sword had gone through him.

But Fifanti was no longer there to heed them--the faithful servant and the unfaithful wife. All that remained, huddled there at the foot of the table, was a heap of bleeding flesh and shabby garments.

It was Giuliana who gave me the information. With a courage that was almost stupendous she looked down into his face, then up into mine, which I doubt not was as livid.

"You have killed him," she whispered. "He is dead."

He was dead and I had killed him! My lips moved.

"He would have killed me," I answered in a strangled voice, and knew that what I said was a sort of lie to cloak the foulness of my deed.

Old Busio uttered a long, croaking wail, and went down on his knees beside the master he had served so long--the master who would never more need servant in this world.

It was upon the wings of that pitiful cry that the full understanding of the thing I had done was borne in upon my soul. I bowed my head, and took my face in my hands. I saw myself in that moment for what I was. I accounted myself wholly and irrevocably damned, Be God never so clement, surely here was something for which even His illimitable clemency could find no pardon.

I had come to Fifanti's house as a student of humanities and divinities; all that I had learnt there had been devilries culminating in this hour's work. And all through no fault of that poor, mean, ugly pedant, who indeed had been my victim--whom I had robbed of honour and of life.

Never man felt self-horror as I felt it then, self-loathing and self-contempt. And then, whilst the burden of it all, the horror of it all was full upon me, a soft hand touched my shoulder, and a soft, quivering voice murmured urgently in my ear:

"Agostino, we must go; we must go."

I plucked away my hands, and showed her a countenance before which she shrank in fear.

"We?" I snarled at her. "We?" I repeated still more fiercely, and drove her back before me as if I had done her a bodily hurt.

O, I should have imagined--had I had time in which to imagine anything--that already I had descended to the very bottom of the pit of infamy. But it seems that one more downward step remained me; and that step I took. Not by act, nor yet by speech, but just by thought.

For without the manliness to take the whole blame of this great crime upon myself, I must in my soul and mind fling the burden of it upon her. Like Adam of old, I blamed the woman, and charged her in my thoughts with having tempted me. Charging her thus, I loathed her as the cause of all this sin that had engulfed me; loathed her in that moment as a thing unclean and hideous; loathed her with a completeness of loathing such as I had never experienced before for any fellow-creature.

Instead of beholding in her one whom I had dragged with me into my pit of sin and whom it was incumbent upon my manhood thenceforth to shelter and protect from the consequences of my own iniquity, I attributed to her the blame of all that had befallen.

To-day I know that in so doing I did no more than justice. But it was not justly done. I had then no such knowledge as I have to-day by which to correct my judgment. The worst I had the right to think of her in that hour was that her guilt was something less than mine. In thinking otherwise was it that I took that last step to the very bottom of the hell that I had myself created for myself that night.

The rest was as nothing by comparison. I have said that it was not by act or speech that I added to the sum of my iniquities; and yet it was by both. First, in that fiercely echoed "We?" that I hurled at her to strike her from me; then in my precipitate flight alone.

How I stumbled from that room I scarcely know. The events of the time that followed immediately upon Fifanti's death are all blurred as the impressions of a sick man's dream.

I dimly remember that as she backed away from me until her shoulders touched the wall, that as she stood so, all white and lovely as any snare that Satan ever devised for man's ruin, staring at me with mutely pleading eyes, I staggered forward, avoiding the sight of that dreadful huddle on the floor, over which Busio was weeping foolishly.

As I stepped a sudden moisture struck my stockinged feet. Its nature I knew by instinct upon the instant, and filled by it with a sudden unreasoning terror, I dashed with a loud cry from the room.

Along the passage and down the dark stairs I plunged until I reached the door of the house. It stood open and I went heedlessly forth. From overhead I heard Giuliana calling me in a voice that held a note of despair. But I never checked in my headlong career.

Fifanti's mule, I have since reflected, was tethered near the steps. I saw the beast, but it conveyed no meaning to my mind, which I think was numbed. I sped past it and on, through the gate, round the road by the Po, under the walls of the city, and so away into the open country.

Without cap, without doublet, without shoes, just in my trunks and shirt and hose, as I was, I ran, heading by instinct for home as heads the animal that has been overtaken by danger whilst abroad. Never since Phidippides, the Athenian courier, do I believe that any man had run as desperately and doggedly as I ran that night.

By dawn, having in some three hours put twenty miles or so between myself and Piacenza, I staggered exhausted and with cut and bleeding feet through the open door of a peasant's house.

The family, sat at breakfast in the stone-flagged room into which I stumbled. I halted under their astonished eyes.

"I am the Lord of Mondolfo," I panted hoarsely, "and I need a beast to carry me home."

The head of that considerable family, a grizzled, suntanned peasant, rose from his seat and pondered my condition with a glance that was laden with mistrust.

"The Lord of Mondolfo--you, thus?" quoth he. "Now, by Bacchus, I am the Pope of Rome!"

But his wife, more tender-hearted, saw in my disorder cause for pity rather than irony.

"Poor lad!" she murmured, as I staggered and fell into a chair, unable longer to retain my feet. She rose immediately, and came hurrying towards me with a basin of goat's milk. The draught refreshed my body as her gentle words of comfort soothed my troubled soul. Seated there, her stout arm about my shoulders, my head pillowed upon her ample, motherly breast, I was very near to tears, loosened in my overwrought state by the sweet touch of sympathy, for which may God reward her.

I rested in that place awhile. Three hours I slept upon a litter of straw in an outhouse; whereupon, strengthened by my repose, I renewed my claim to be the Lord of Mondolfo and my demand for a horse to carry me to my fortress.

Still doubting me too much to trust me alone with any beast of his, the peasant nevertheless fetched out a couple of mules and set out with me for Mondolfo.

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