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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 1. Pagliano
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 1. Pagliano Post by :TheVCF Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2119

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 1. Pagliano

BOOK IV. THE WORLD CHAPTER I. PAGLIANO

The lilac was in bloom when we came to the grey walls of Pagliano in that May of '45, and its scent, arousing the memory of my return to the world, has ever since been to me symbolical of the world itself.

Mine was no half-hearted, backward-glancing return. Having determined upon the step, I took it resolutely and completely at a single stride. Since Galeotto placed his resources at my disposal, to be repaid him later when I should have entered upon the enjoyment of my heritage of Mondolfo, I did not scruple to draw upon them for my needs.

I accepted the fine linen and noble raiment that he offered, and I took pleasure in the brave appearance that I made in them, my face shorn now of its beard and my hair trimmed to a proper length. Similarly I accepted weapons, money, and a horse; and thus equipped, looking for the first time in my life like a patrician of my own lofty station, I rode forth from Monte Orsaro with Galeotto and Gervasio, attended by the former's troop of twenty lances.

And from the moment of our setting out there came upon me a curious peace, a happiness and a great sense of expectancy. No longer was I oppressed by the fear of proving unworthy of the life which I had chosen--as had been the case when that life had been monastic.

Galeotto was in high spirits to see me so blithe, and he surveyed with pride the figure that I made, vowing that I should prove a worthy son of my father ere all was done.

The first act of my new life was performed as we were passing through the village of Pojetta.

I called a halt before the doors of that mean hostelry, over which hung what no doubt would still be the same withered bunch of rosemary that had been there in autumn when last I went that way.

To the sloe-eyed, deep-bosomed girl who lounged against the door-post to see so fine a company ride by, I gave an order to fetch the taverner. He came with a slouch, a bent back, and humble, timid eyes--a very different attitude from that which he had last adopted towards me.

"Where is my mule, you rogue?" quoth I.

He looked at me askance. "Your mule, magnificent? said he.

"You have forgotten me, I think--forgotten the lad in rusty black who rode this way last autumn and whom you robbed."

At the words be turned a sickly yellow, and fell to trembling and babbling protestations and excuses.

"Have done," I broke in. "You would not buy the mule then. You shall buy it now, and pay for it with interest."

"What is this, Agostino?" quoth Galeotto at my elbow. "An act of justice, sir," I answered shortly, whereupon he questioned me no further, but looked on with a grim smile. Then to the taverner, "Your manners to-day are not quite the same as on the last occasion when we met. I spare you the gallows that you may live to profit by the lesson of your present near escape. And now, rogue, ten ducats for that mule." And I held out my hand.

"Ten ducats!" he cried, and gathering courage perhaps since he was not to hang. "It is twice the value of the beast," he protested.

"I know," I said. "It will be five ducats for the mule, and five for your life. I am merciful to rate the latter as cheaply as it deserves. Come, thief, the ten ducats without more ado, or I'll burn your nest of infamy and hang you above the ruins."

He cowered and shrivelled. Then he scuttled within doors to fetch the money, whilst Galeotto laughed deep in his throat.

"You are well-advised," said I, when the rogue returned and handed me the ducats. "I told you I should come back to present my reckoning. Be warned by this."

As we rode on Galeotto laughed again. "Body of Satan! There is a thoroughness about you, Agustino. As a hermit you did not spare yourself; and now as a tyrant you do not seem likely to spare others."

"It is the Anguissola way," said Gervasio quietly.

"You mistake," said I. "I conceive myself in the world for some good purpose, and the act you have witnessed is a part of it. It was not a revengeful deed. Vengeance would have taken a harsher course. It was justice, and justice is righteous."

"Particularly a justice that puts ten ducats in your pocket," laughed Galeotto.

"There, again, you mistake me," said I. "My aim is that thieves be mulcted to the end that the poor shall profit." And I drew rein again.

A little crowd had gathered about us, mostly of very ragged, half-clad people, for this village of Pojetta was a very poverty-stricken place. Into that little crowd I flung the ten ducats--with the consequence that on the instant it became a seething, howling, snarling, quarrelling mass. In the twinkling of an eye a couple of heads were cracked and blood was flowing, so that to quell the riot my charity had provoked, I was forced to spur my horse forward and bid them with threats disperse.

"And I think now," said Galeotto when it was done, "that you are just as reckless in the manner of doing charity. For the future, Agostino, you would do well to appoint an almoner."

I bit my lip in vexation; but soon I smiled again. Were such little things to fret me? Did we not ride to Pagliano and to Bianca de' Cavalcanti? At the very thought my pulses would quicken, and a sweetness of anticipation would invade my soul, to be clouded at moments by an indefinable dread.

And thus we came to Pagliano in that month of May, when the lilac was in bloom, as I have said, and after Fra Gervasio had left us, to return to his convent at Piacenza.

We were received in the courtyard of that mighty fortress by that sturdy, hawk-faced man who had recognized me in the hermitage on Monte Orsaro. But he was no longer in armour. He wore a surcoat of yellow velvet, and his eyes were very kindly and affectionate when they rested on Galeotto and from Galeotto passed on to take survey of me.

"So this is our hermit!" quoth he, a note of some surprise in his crisp tones. "Somewhat changed!"

"By a change that goes deeper than his pretty doublet," said Galeotto.

We dismounted, and grooms, in the Cavalcanti livery of scarlet with the horse-head in white upon their breasts, led away our horses. The seneschal acted as quarter-master to our lances, whilst Cavalcanti himself led us up the great stone staircase with its carved balustrade of marble, from which rose a file of pillars to support the groined ceiling. This last was frescoed in dull red with the white horse-head at intervals. On our right, on every third step, stood orange-trees in tubs, all flowering and shedding the most fragrant perfume.

Thus we ascended to a spacious gallery, and through a succession of magnificent rooms we came to the noble apartments that had been made ready for us.

A couple of pages came to tend me, bringing perfumed water and macerated herbs for my ablutions. These performed, they helped me into fresh garments that awaited me--black hose of finest silk and velvet trunks of the same sable hue, and for my body a fine close-fitting doublet of cloth of gold, caught at the waist by a jewelled girdle from which hung a dagger that was the merest toy.

When I was ready they went before me, to lead the way to what they called the private dining-room, where supper awaited us. At the very mention of a private dining-room I had a vision of whitewashed walls and high-set windows and a floor strewn with rushes. Instead we came into the most beautiful chamber that I had ever seen. From floor to ceiling it was hung with arras of purple brocade alternating with cloth of gold; thus on three sides. On the fourth there was an opening for the embayed window which glowed like a gigantic sapphire in the deepening twilight.

The floor was spread with a carpet of the ruddy purple of porphyry, very soft and silent to the feet. From the frescoed ceiling, where a joyous Phoebus drove a team of spirited white stallions, hung a chain that was carved in the semblance of interlocked Titans to support a great candelabrum, each branch of which was in the image of a Titan holding a stout candle of scented wax. It was all in gilded bronze and the workmanship--as I was presently to learn--of that great artist and rogue Benvenuto Cellini. From this candelabrum there fell upon the board a soft golden radiance that struck bright gleams from crystals and plate of gold and silver.

By a buffet laden with meats stood the master of the household in black velvet, his chain of office richly carved, his badge a horse's head in silver, and he was flanked on either hand by a nimble-looking page.

Of all this my first glance gathered but the most fleeting of impressions. For my eyes were instantly arrested by her who stood between Cavalcanti and Galeotto, awaiting my arrival. And, miracle of miracles, she was arrayed exactly as I had seen her in my vision.

Her supple maiden body was sheathed in a gown of cloth of silver; her brown hair was dressed into two plaits interlaced with gold threads and set with tiny gems, and these plaits hung one on either breast. Upon the low, white brow a single jewel gleamed--a brilliant of the very whitest fire.

Her long blue eyes were raised to look at me as I entered, and their glance grew startled when it encountered mine, the delicate colour faded gradually from her cheeks, and her eyes fell at last as she moved forward to bid me welcome to Pagliano in her own name.

They must have perceived her emotion as they perceived mine. But they gave no sign. We got to the round table--myself upon Cavalcanti's left, Galeotto in the place of honour, and Bianca facing her father so that I was on her right.

The seneschal bestirred himself, and the silken ministering pages fluttered round us. My Lord of Pagliano was one who kept a table as luxurious as all else in his splendid palace. First came a broth of veal in silver basins, then a stew of cocks' combs and capons' breasts, then the ham of a roasted boar, the flesh very lusciously saturated with the flavour of rosemary; and there was venison that was as soft as velvet, and other things that I no longer call to mind. And to drink there was a fragrant, well-sunned wine of Lombardy that had been cooled in snow.

Galeotto ate enormously, Cavalcanti daintily, I but little, and Bianca nothing. Her presence had set up such emotions in me that I had no thought for food. But I drank deeply, and so came presently to a spurious ease which enabled me to take my share in the talk that was toward, though when all is said it was but a slight share, since Cavalcanti and Galeotto discoursed of matters wherein my knowledge was not sufficient to enable me to bear a conspicuous part.

More than once I was on the point of addressing Bianca herself, but always courage failed me. I had ever in mind the memory she must have of me as she had last seen me, to increase the painful diffidence which her presence itself imposed upon me. Nor did I hear her voice more than once or twice when she demurely answered such questions as her father set her. And though once or twice I found her stealing a look at me, she would instantly avert her eyes when our glances crossed.

Thus was our first meeting, and for a little time it was to be our last, because I lacked the courage to seek her out. She had her own apartments at Pagliano with her own maids of honour, like a princess; and the castle garden was entirely her domain into which even her father seldom intruded. He gave me the freedom of it; but it was a freedom of which I never took advantage in the week that we abode there. Several times was I on the point of doing so. But I was ever restrained by my unconquerable diffidence.

And there was something else to impose restraint upon me. Hitherto the memory of Giuliana had come to haunt me in my hermitage, by arousing in me yearnings which I had to combat with fasting and prayer, with scourge and dice. Now the memory of her haunted me again; but in a vastly different way. It haunted me with the reminder of all the sin in which through her I had steeped myself; and just as the memory of that sin had made me in purer moments deem myself unworthy to be the guardian of the shrine on Monte Orsaro, so now did it cause me to deem myself all unworthy to enter the garden that enshrined Madonna Bianca de' Cavalcanti.

Before the purity that shone from her I recoiled in an awe whose nature was as the feelings of a religion. I felt that to seek her presence would be almost to defile her. And so I abstained, my mind very full of her the while, for all that the time was beguiled for me in daily exercise with horse and arms under the guidance of Galeotto.

I was not so tutored merely for the sake of repairing a grave omission in my education. It had a definite scope, as Galeotto frankly told me, informing me that the time approached in which to avenge my father and strike a blow for my own rights.

And then at the end of a week a man rode into the courtyard of Pagliano one day, and flung down from his horse shouting to be led to Messer Galeotto. There was something about this courier's mien and person that awoke a poignant memory. I was walking in the gallery when the clatter of his advent drew my attention, and his voice sent a strange thrill through me.

One glance I gave to make quite sure, and then I leapt down the broad steps four at a time, and a moment later, to the amazement of all present, I had caught the dusty rider in my arms, and I was kissing the wrinkled, scarred, and leathery old cheeks.

"Falcone!" I cried. "Falcone, do you not know me?"

He was startled by the violence of my passionate onslaught. Indeed, he was almost borne to the ground by it, for his old legs were stiff now from riding.

And then--how he stared! What oaths he swore!

"Madonnino!" he babbled. "Madonnino!" And he shook himself free of my embrace, and stood back that he might view me. "Body of Satan! But you are finely grown, and how like to what your father was when he was no older than are you! And they have not made a shaveling of you, after all. Now blessed be God for that!" Then he stopped short, and his eyes went past me, and he seemed to hesitate.

I turned, and there, leaning on the balustrade of the staircase, looking on with smiling eyes stood Galeotto with Messer Cavalcanti at his elbow.

I heard Galeotto's words to the Lord of Pagliano. "His heart is sound--which is a miracle. That woman, it seems, could not quite dehumanize him." And he came down heavily, to ask Falcone what news he bore.

The old equerry drew a letter from under his leathern jacket.

"From Ferrante?" quoth the Lord of Pagliano eagerly, peering over Galeotto's shoulder.

"Ay," said Galeotto, and he broke the seal. He stood to read, with knitted brows. "It is well," he said, at last, and passed the sheet to Cavalcanti. "Farnese is in Piacenza already, and the Pope will sway the College to give his bastard the ducal crown. It is time we stirred."

He turned to Falcone, whilst Cavalcanti read the letter. "Take food and rest, good Gino. For to-morrow you ride again with me. And so shall you, Agostino."

"I ride again?" I echoed, my heart sinking and some of my dismay showing upon my face. "Whither?"

"To right the wrongs of Mondolfo," he answered shortly, and turned away.

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