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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 10. The Nuptials Of Bianca
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 10. The Nuptials Of Bianca Post by :netmarketer Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2247

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 10. The Nuptials Of Bianca

BOOK IV. THE WORLD
CHAPTER X. THE NUPTIALS OF BIANCA

An awful thought was in my mind as we went, evoked by the presence in such a place of one of the Duke's gentlemen; an awful question rose again and again to my lips, and yet I could not bring myself to utter it.

So we went on in utter silence now, my hand upon his shoulder, clutching velvet doublet and flesh and bone beneath it, my dagger bare in my other hand.

We crossed an antechamber whose heavy carpet muffled our footsteps, and we halted before tapestry curtains that masked a door, Here, curbing my fierce impatience, I paused. I signed to the five attendant soldiers to come no farther; then I consigned the courtier who had guided us to the care of Falcone, and I restrained Cavalcanti, who was shaking from head to foot.

I raised the heavy, muffling curtain, and standing there an instant by the door, I heard my Bianca's voice, and her words seemed to freeze the very marrow in my bones.

"O, my lord," she was imploring in a choking voice, "O, my lord, have pity on me!"

"Sweet," came the answer, "it is I who beseech pity at your hands. Do you not see how I suffer? Do you not see how fiercely love of you is torturing me--how I burn--that you can so cruelly deny me?"

It was Farnese's voice. Cosimo, that dastard, had indeed carried out the horrible compact of which Giuliana had warned me, carried it out in a more horrible and inhuman manner than even she had suggested or suspected.

Cavalcanti would have hurled himself against the door but that I set a hand upon his arm to restrain him, and a finger of my other hand--the one that held the dagger--to my lips.

Softly I tried the latch. I was amazed to find the door yield. And yet, where was the need to lock it? What interruption could he have feared in a house that evidently had been delivered over to him by the bridegroom, a house that was in the hands of his own people?

Very quietly I thrust the door open, and we stood there upon the threshold--Cavalcanti and I--father and lover of that sweet maid who was the prey of this foul Duke. We stood whilst a man might count a dozen, silent witnesses of that loathsome scene.

The bridal chamber was all hung in golden arras, save the great carved bed which was draped in dead-white velvet and ivory damask--symbolizing the purity of the sweet victim to be offered up upon that sacrificial altar.

And to that dread sacrifice she had come--for my sake, as I was to learn--with the fearful willingness of Iphigenia. For that sacrifice she had been prepared; but not for this horror that was thrust upon her now.

She crouched upon a tall-backed praying-stool, her gown not more white than her face, her little hands convulsively clasped to make her prayer to that monster who stood over her, his mottled face all flushed, his eyes glowing as they considered her helplessness and terror with horrible, pitiless greed.

Thus we observed them, ourselves unperceived for some moments, for the praying-stool on which she crouched was placed to the left, by the cowled fire-place, in which a fire of scented wood was crackling, the scene lighted by two golden candlebranches that stood upon the table near the curtained window.

"O, my lord!" she cried in her despair, "of your mercy leave me, and no man shall ever know that you sought me thus. I will be silent, my lord. O, if you have no pity for me, have, at least, pity for yourself. Do not cover yourself with the infamy of such a deed--a deed that will make you hateful to all men."

"Gladly at such a price would I purchase your love, my Bianca! What pains could daunt me? Ah, you are mine, you are mine!"

As the hawk that has been long poised closes its wings and drops at last upon its prey, so swooped he of a sudden down upon her, caught and dragged her up from the praying-stool to crush her to him.

She screamed in that embrace, and sought to battle, swinging round so that her back was fully towards us, and Farnese, swinging round also in that struggle, faced us and beheld us.

It was as if a mask had been abruptly plucked from his face, so sudden and stupendous was its alteration. From flushed that it had been it grew livid and sickly; the unholy fires were spent in his eyes, and they grew dull and dead as a snake's; his jaw was loosened, and the sensual mouth looked unutterably foolish.

For a moment I think I smiled upon him, and then Cavalcanti and I sprang forward, both together. As we moved, his arms loosened their hold, and Bianca would have fallen but that I caught her.

Her terror still upon her, she glanced upwards to see what fresh enemy was this, and then, at sight of my face, as my arms closed about her, and held her safe--

"Agostino!" she cried, and closed her eyes to lie panting on my breast.

The Duke, fleeing like a scared rat before the anger of Cavalcanti, scuttled down the room to a small door in the wall that held the fire-place. He tore it open and sprang through, Cavalcanti following recklessly.

There was a snarl and a cry, and the Lord of Pagliano staggered back, clutching one hand to his breast, and through his fingers came an ooze of blood. Falcone ran to him. But Cavalcanti swore like a man possessed.

"It is nothing!" he snapped. "By the horns of Satan! it is nothing. A flesh wound, and like a fool I gave back before it. After him! In there! Kill! Kill!"

Out came Falcone's sword with a swish, and into the dark closet beyond went the equerry with a roar, Cavalcanti after him.

It seemed that scarce had Farnese got within that closet than, flattening himself against the wall, he had struck at Cavalcanti as the latter followed, thus driving him back and gaining all the respite he needed. For now they found the closet empty. There was a door beyond, that opened to a corridor, and this was locked. Not a doubt but that Farnese had gone that way. They broke that door down. I heard them at it what time I comforted Bianca, and soothed her, stroking her head, her cheek, and murmuring fondly to her until presently she was weeping softly.

Thus Cavalcanti and Falcone found us presently when they returned. Farnese had escaped with one of his gentlemen who had reached him in time to warn him that the street was full of soldiers and the palace itself invaded. Thereupon the Duke had dropped from one of the windows to the garden, his gentleman with him, and Cavalcanti had been no more than in time to see them disappearing through the garden gate.

The Lord of Pagliano's buff-coat was covered with blood where Pier Luigi had stabbed him. But he would give the matter no thought. He was like a tiger now. He dashed out into the antechamber, and I heard him bellowing orders. Someone screamed horribly, and then followed a fierce din as if the very place were coming down about our ears.

"What is it?" cried Bianca, quivering in my arms. "Are... are they fighting?"

"I do not think so, sweet," I answered her. "We are in great strength. Have no fear."

And then Falcone came in again.

"The Lord of Pagliano is raging like a madman," he said. "We had best be getting away or we shall have a brush with the Captain of Justice."

Supporting Bianca, I led her from that chamber.

"Where are we going?" she asked me.

"Home to Pagliano," I answered her, and with that answer comforted that sorely tried maid.

We found the antechamber in wreckage. The great chandelier had been dragged from the ceiling, pictures were slashed and cut to ribbons, the arras had been torn from the walls and the costly furniture was reduced to fire-wood; the double-windows opening to the balcony stood wide, and not a pane of glass left whole, the fragments lying all about the place.

Thus, it seemed, childishly almost, had Cavalcanti vented his terrible rage, and I could well conceive what would have befallen any of the Duke's people upon whom in that hour he had chanced. I did not know then that the poor pimp who had acted as our guide was hanging from the balcony dead, nor that his had been the horrible scream I had heard.

On the stairs we met the raging Cavalcanti reascending, the stump of his shivered sword in his hand.

"Hasten!" he cried. "I was coming for you. Let us begone!"

Below, just within the main doors we found a pile of furniture set on a heap of straw.

"What is this?" I asked.

"You shall see," he roared. "Get to horse."

I hesitated a moment, then obeyed him, and took Bianca on the withers in front of me, my arm about her to support her.

Then he called to one of the men-at-arms who stood by with a flaring torch. He snatched the brand from his hand, and stabbed the straw with it in a dozen places, from each of which there leapt at once a tongue of flame. When, at last, he flung the torch into the heart of the pile, it was all a roaring, hissing, crackling blaze.

He stood back and laughed. "If there are any more of his brothel-mates in the house, they can escape as he did. They will be more fortunate than that one." And he pointed up to the limp figure hanging from the balcony, so that I now learnt what already I have told you.

With my hand I screened Bianca's eyes. "Do not look," I bade her.

I shuddered at the sight of that limply hanging body. And yet I reflected that it was just. Any man who could have lent his aid to the foul crime that was attempted there that night deserved this fate and worse.

Cavalcanti got to horse, and we rode down the street, bringing folk to their windows in alarm. Behind us the flames began to lick out from the ground floor of Cosimo's palace.

We reached the Porta Fodesta, and peremptorily bade the guard to open for us. He answered, as became his duty, with the very words that had been addressed to me at that place on a night two years ago:

"None passes out to-night."

In an instant a group of our men surrounded him, others made a living barrier before the guard-house, whilst two or three dismounted, drew the bolts, and dragged the great gates open.

We rode on, crossing the river, and heading straight for Pagliano.

For a while it was the sweetest ride that ever I rode, with my Bianca nestling against my breast, and responding faintly to all the foolishness that poured from me in that ambrosial hour.

And then it seemed to me that we rode not by night but in the blazing light of day, along a dusty road, flanking an arid, sun-drenched stretch of the Campagna; and despite the aridity there must be water somewhere, for I heard it thundering as the Bagnanza had thundered after rain, and yet I knew that could not be the Bagnanza, for the Bagnanza was nowhere in the neighbourhood of Rome.

Suddenly a great voice, and I knew it for the voice of Bianca, called me by name.

"Agostino!"

The vision was dissipated. It was night again and we were riding for Pagliano through the fertile lands of ultra-Po; and there was Bianca clutching at my breast and uttering my name in accents of fear, whilst the company about me was halting.

"What is it?" cried Cavalcanti. "Are you hurt?" I understood. I had been dozing in the saddle, and I must have rolled out of it but that Bianca awakened me with her cry. I said so.

"Body of Satan!" he swore. "To doze at such a time!"

"I have scarce been out of the saddle for three days and three nights--this is the fourth," I informed him. "I have had but three hours' sleep since we left Rome. I am done," I admitted. "You, sir, had best take your daughter. She is no longer safe with me."

It was so. The fierce tension which had banished sleep from me whilst these things were doing, being now relaxed, left me exhausted as Galeotto had been at Bologna. And Galeotto had urged me to halt and rest there! He had begged for twelve hours! I could now thank Heaven from a full heart for having given me the strength and resolution to ride on, for those twelve hours would have made all the difference between Heaven and Hell.

Cavalcanti himself would not take her, confessing to some weakness. For all that he insisted that his wound was not serious, yet he had lost much blood through having neglected in his rage to stanch it. So it was to Falcone that fell the charge of that sweet burden.

The last thing I remember was Cavalcanti's laugh, as, from the high ground we had mounted, he stopped to survey a ruddy glare above the city of Piacenza, where, in a vomit of sparks, Cosimo's fine palace was being consumed.

Then we rode down into the valley again; and as we went the thud of hooves grew more and more distant, and I slept in the saddle as I rode, a man-at-arms on either side of me, so that I remember no more of the doings of that strenuous night.

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