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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 3. Gambara's Interests
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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 3. Gambara's Interests Post by :crosscountry Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3279

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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 3. Gambara's Interests

BOOK III. THE WILDERNESS
CHAPTER III. GAMBARA'S INTERESTS

I awakened to find a man standing beside me. He was muffled in a black cloak and carried a lanthorn. Behind him the door gaped as he had left it.

Instantly I sat up, conscious of my circumstance and surroundings, and at my movement this visitor spoke.

"You sleep very soundly for a man in your case." said he, and the voice was that of my Lord Gambara, its tone quite coldly critical.

He set down the lanthorn on a stool, whence it shed a wheel of yellow light intersected with black beams. His cloak fell apart, and I saw that he was dressed for riding, very plainly, in sombre garments, and that he was armed.

He stood slightly to one side that the light might fall upon my face, leaving his own in shadow; thus he considered me for some moments in silence. At last, very slowly, very bitterly, shaking his head as he spoke.

"You fool, you clumsy fool!" he said.

Having drawn, as you have seen, my own conclusions from the attitude of the mob, I was in little doubt as to the precise bearing of his words.

I answered him sincerely. "If folly were all my guilt," said I, "it would be well."

He sniffed impatiently. "Still sanctimonious!" he sneered. "Tcha! Up now, and play the man, at least. You have shed your robe of sanctity, Messer Agostino; have done with pretence!"

"I do not pretend," I answered him. "And as for playing the man, I shall accept what punishment the law may have for me with fortitude at least. If I can but expiate..."

"Expiate a fig!" he snapped, interrupting me. "Why do you suppose that I am here?"

"I wait to learn."

"I am here because through your folly you have undone us all. What need," he cried, the anger of expostulation quivering in his voice, "what need was there to kill that oaf Fifanti?"

"He would have killed me," said I. "I slew him in self-defence."

"Ha! And do you hope to save your neck with such a plea?"

"Nay. I have no thought of urging it. I but tell it you."

"There is not the need to tell me anything," he answered, his anger very plain. "I am very well informed of all. Rather, let me tell you something. Do you realize, sir, that you have made it impossible for me to abide another day in Piacenza?"

"I am sorry..." I began lamely.

"Present your regrets to Satan," he snapped. "Me they avail nothing. I am put to the necessity of abandoning my governorship and fleeing by night like a hunted thief. And I have you to thank for it. You see me on the point of departure. My horses wait above. So you may add my ruin to the other fine things you accomplished yesternight. For a saint you are over-busy, sir." And he turned away and strode the length of my cell and back, so that, at last, I had a glimpse of his face, which was drawn and scowling. Gone now was the last vestige of his habitual silkiness; the pomander-ball hung neglected, and his delicate fingers tugged viciously at his little pointed beard, his great sapphire ring flashing sombrely.

"Look you, Ser Agostino, I could kill you and take joy in it. I could, by God!"

His eyes upon me, he drew from his breast a folded paper. "Instead, I bring you liberty. I open your doors for you, and bid you escape. Here, man, take this paper. Present it to the officer at the Fodesta Gate. He will let you pass. And then away with you, out of the territory of Piacenza."

For an instant my heart-beats seemed suspended by astonishment. I swung my legs round, and half rose, excitedly. Then I sank back again. My mind was made up. I was tired of the world; sick of life the first draught of which had turned so bitter in my throat. If by my death I might expiate my sins and win pardon by my submission and humility, it was all I could desire. I should be glad to be released from all the misery and sorrow into which I had been born.

I told him so in some few words. "You mean me well, my lord," I ended, "and I thank you. But..."

"By God and the Saints!" he blazed, "I do not mean you well at all. I mean you anything but well. Have I not said that I could kill you with satisfaction? Whatever be the sins of Egidio Gambara, he is no hypocrite, and he lets his enemies see his face unmasked."

"But, then," I cried, amazed, "why do you offer me my freedom?"

"Because this cursed populace is in such a temper that if you are brought to trial I know not what may happen. As likely as not we shall have an insurrection, open revolt against the Pontifical authority, and red war in the streets. And this is not the time for it.

"The Holy Father requires the submission of these people. We are upon the eve of Duke Pier Luigi's coming to occupy his new States, and it imports that he should be well received, that he should be given a loving welcome by his subjects. If, instead, they meet him with revolt and defiance, the reasons will be sought, and the blame of the affair will recoil upon me. Your cousin Cosimo will see to that. He is a very subtle gentleman, this cousin of yours, and he has a way of working to his own profit. So now you understand. I have no mind to be crushed in this business. Enough have I suffered already through you, enough am I suffering in resigning my governorship. So there is but one way out. There must be no trial to-morrow. It must be known that you have escaped. Thus they will be quieted, and the matter will blow over. So now, Ser Agostino, we understand each other. You must go."

"And whither am I to go?" I cried, remembering my mother and that Mondolfo--the only place of safety--was closed to me by her cruelly pious hands.

"Whither?" he echoed. "What do I care? To Hell--anywhere, so that you get out of this."

"I'd sooner hang," said I quite seriously.

"You'ld hang and welcome, for all the love I bear you," he answered, his impatience growing. "But if you hang blood will be shed, innocent lives will be lost, and I myself may come to suffer."

"For you, sir, I care nothing," I answered him, taking his own tone, and returning him the same brutal frankness that he used with me. "That you deserve to suffer I do not doubt. But since other blood than yours might be shed as you say, since innocent lives might be lost... Give me the paper."

He was frowning upon me, and smiling viperishly at the same time. "I like your frankness better than your piety," said he. "So now we understand each other, and know that neither is in the other's debt. Hereafter beware of Egidio Gambara. I give you this last loyal warning. See that you do not come into my way again."

I rose and looked at him--looked down from my greater height. I knew well the source of this last, parting show of hatred. Like Cosimo's it sprang from jealousy. And a growth more potential of evil does not exist.

He bore my glance a moment, then turned and took up the lanthorn. "Come," he said, and obediently I followed him up the winding stone staircase, and so to the very gates of the Palace.

We met no one. What had become of the guards, I cannot think; but I am satisfied that Gambara himself had removed them. He opened the wicket for me, and as I stepped out he gave me the paper and whistled softly. Almost at once I heard a sound of muffled hooves under the colonnade, and presently loomed the figures of a man and a mule; both dim and ghostly in the pearly light of dawn--for that was the hour.

Gambara followed me out, and pulled the wicket after him.

"That beast is for you," he said curtly. "It will the better enable you to get away."

As curtly I acknowledged the gift, and mounted whilst the groom held the stirrup for me.

O! it was the oddest of transactions! My Lord Gambara with death in his heart very reluctantly giving me a life I did not want.

I dug my heels into the mule's sides and started across the silent, empty square, then plunged into a narrow street where the gloom was almost as of midnight, and so pushed on.

I came out into the open space before the Porta Fodesta, and so to the gate itself. From one of the windows of the gatehouse, a light shone yellow, and, presently, in answer to my call, out came an officer followed by two men, one of whom carried a lanthorn swinging from his pike. He held this light aloft, whilst the officer surveyed me.

"What now?" he challenged. "None passes out to-night."

For answer I thrust the paper under his nose. "Orders from my Lord Gambara," said I.

But he never looked at it. "None passes out to-night," he repeated imperturbably. "So run my orders."

"Orders from whom?" quoth I, surprised by his tone and manner.

"From the Captain of Justice, if you must know. So you may get you back whence you came, and wait till daylight."

"Ah, but stay," I said. "I do not think you can have heard me. I carry orders from my Lord the Governor. The Captain of Justice cannot overbear these." And I shook the paper insistently.

"My orders are that none is to pass--not even the Governor himself," he answered firmly.

It was very daring of Cosimo, and I saw his aim. He was, as Gambara had said, a very subtle gentleman. He, too, had set his finger upon the pulse of the populace, and perceived what might be expected of it. He was athirst for vengeance, as he had shown me, and determined that neither I nor Gambara should escape. First, I must be tried, condemned, and hanged, and then he trusted, no doubt, that Gambara would be torn in pieces; and it was quite possible that Messer Cosimo himself would secretly find means to fan the mob's indignation against the Legate into fierce activity. And it seemed that the game was in his hands, for this officer's resoluteness showed how implicitly my cousin was obeyed.

Of that same resoluteness of the lieutenant's I was to have a yet more signal proof. For presently, whilst still I stood there vainly remonstrating, down the street behind me rode Gambara himself on a tall horse, followed by a mule-litter and an escort of half a score of armed grooms.

He uttered an exclamation when he saw me still there, the gate shut and the officer in talk with me. He spurred quickly forward.

"How is this?" he demanded haughtily and angrily. "This man rides upon the business of the State. Why this delay to open for him?"

"My orders," said the lieutenant, civilly but firmly, "are that none passes out to-night."

"Do you know me?" demanded Gambara.

"Yes, my lord."

"And you dare talk to me of your orders? There are no orders here in Piacenza but my orders. Set me wide the wicket of that gate. I myself must pass."

"My lord, I dare not."

"You are insubordinate," said the Legate, of a sudden very cold.

He had no need to ask whose orders were these. At once he saw the trammel spread for him. But if Messer Cosimo was subtle, so, too, was Messer Gambara. By not so much as a word did he set his authority in question with the officer.

"You are insubordinate," was all he answered him, and then to the two men-at-arms behind the lieutenant--"Ho, there!" he called. "Bring out the guard. I am Egidio Gambara, your Governor."

So calm and firm and full of assurance was his tone, so unquestionable his right to command them, that the men sprang instantly to obey him.

"What would you do, my lord?" quoth the officer, and he seemed daunted.

"Buffoon," said Gambara between his teeth. "You shall see."

Six men came hurrying from the gatehouse, and the Cardinal called to them.

"Let the corporal stand forth," he said.

A man advanced a pace from the rank they had hastily formed and saluted.

"Place me your officer under arrest," said the Legate coldly, advancing no reason for the order. "Let him be locked in the gatehouse until my return; and do you, sir corporal, take command here meanwhile."

The startled fellow saluted again, and advanced upon his officer. The lieutenant looked up with sudden uneasiness in his eyes. He had gone too far. He had not reckoned upon being dealt with in this summary fashion. He had been bold so long as he conceived himself no more than Cosimo's mouthpiece, obeying orders for the issuing of which Cosimo must answer. Instead, it seemed, the Governor intended that he should answer for them himself. Whatever he now dared, he knew--as Gambara knew--that his men would never dare to disobey the Governor, who was the supreme authority there under the Pope.

"My lord," he exclaimed, "I had my orders from the Captain of Justice."

"And dare you to say that your orders included my messengers and my own self?" thundered the dainty prelate.

"Explicitly, my lord," answered the lieutenant.

"It shall be dealt with on my return, and if what you say is proved true, the Captain of Justice shall suffer with yourself for this treason--for that is the offence. Take him away, and someone open me that gate."

There was an end to disobedience, and a moment or two later we stood outside the town, on the bank of the river, which gurgled and flowed away smoothly and mistily in the growing light, between the rows of stalwart poplars that stood like sentinels to guard it.

"And now begone," said Gambara curtly to me, and wheeling my mule I rode for the bridge of boats, crossed it, and set myself to breast the slopes beyond.

Midway up I checked and looked back across the wide water. The light had grown quite strong by now, and in the east there was a faint pink flush to herald the approaching sun. Away beyond the river, moving southward, I could just make out the Legate's little cavalcade. And then, for the first time, a question leapt in my mind concerning the litter whose leathern curtains had remained so closely drawn. Whom did it contain? Could it be Giuliana? Had Cosimo spoken the truth when he said that she had gone to Gambara for shelter?

A little while ago I had sighed for death and exulted in the chance of expiation and of purging myself of the foulness of sin. And now, at the sudden thought that occurred to me, I fell a prey to an insensate jealousy touching the woman whom I had lately loathed as the cause of my downfall. O, the inconstancy of the human heart, and the eternal battles in such poor natures as mine between the knowledge of right and the desire for wrong!

It was in vain that I sought to turn my thoughts to other things; in vain that I cast them back upon my recent condition and my recent resolves; in vain that I remembered the penitence of yestermorn, the confession at Fra Gervasio's knee, and the strong resolve to do penance and make amends by the purity of all my after-life. Vain was it all.

I turned my mule about, and still wrestling with my conscience, choking it, I rode down the hill again, and back across the bridge, and then away to the south, to follow Messer Gambara and set an end to doubt.

I must know. I must! It was no matter that conscience told me that here was no affair of mine; that Giuliana belonged to the past from which I was divorced, the past for which I must atone and seek forgiveness. I must know. And so I rode along the dusty highway in pursuit of Messer Gambara, who was proceeding, I imagined, to join the Duke at Parma.

I had no difficulty in following them. A question here, and a question there, accompanied by a description of the party, was all that was necessary to keep me on their track. And ever, it seemed to me from the answers that I got, was I lessening the distance that separated us.

I was weak for want of food, for the last time that I had eaten was yesterday at noon, at Mondolfo; and then but little. Yet all I had this day were some bunches of grapes that I stole in passing from a vineyard and ate as I trotted on along that eternal Via Aemilia.

It was towards noon, at last, that a taverner at Castel Guelfo informed me that my party had passed through the town but half an hour ahead of me. At the news I urged my already weary beast along, for unless I made good haste now it might well happen that Parma should swallow up Gambara and his party ere I overtook them. And then, some ten minutes later, I caught a flutter of garments half a mile or so ahead of me, amid the elms. I quitted the road and entered the woodland. A little way I still rode; then, dismounting, I tethered my mule, and went forward cautiously on foot.

I found them in a little sunken dell by a tiny rivulet. Lying on my belly in the long grass above, I looked down upon them with a black hatred of jealousy in my heart.

They were reclining there, in that cool, fragrant spot in the shadow of a great beech-tree. A cloth had been spread upon the ground, and upon this were platters of roast meats, white bread and fruits, and a flagon of wine, a second flagon standing in the brook to cool.

My Lord Gambara was talking and she was regarding him with eyes that were half veiled, a slow, insolent smile upon her matchless face. Presently at something that he said she laughed outright, a laugh so tuneful and light-hearted that I thought I must be dreaming all this. It was the gay, frank, innocent laughter of a child; and I never heard in all my life a sound that caused me so much horror. He leaned across to her, and stroked her velvet cheek with his delicate hand, whilst she suffered it in that lazy fashion that was so peculiarly her own.

I stayed for no more. I wriggled back a little way to where a clump of hazel permitted me to rise without being seen. Thence I fled the spot. And as I went, my heart seemed as it must burst, and my lips could frame but one word which I kept hurling out of me like an imprecation, and that word was "Trull!"

Two nights ago had happened enough to stamp her soul for ever with sorrow and despair. Yet she could sit there, laughing and feasting and trulling it lightly with the Legate!

The little that remained me of my illusions was shivered in that hour. There was, I swore, no good in all the world; for even where goodness sought to find a way, it grew distorted, as in my mother's case. And yet through all her pietism surely she had been right! There was no peace, no happiness save in the cloister. And at last the full bitterness of penitence and regret overtook me when I reflected that by my own act I had rendered myself for ever unworthy of the cloister's benign shelter.

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