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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 11. The Penance
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 11. The Penance Post by :netmarketer Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3368

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 11. The Penance

BOOK IV. THE WORLD
CHAPTER XI. THE PENANCE

I awakened in the chamber that had been mine at Pagliano before my arrest by order of the Holy Office, and I was told upon awakening that I had slept a night and a day and that it was eventide once more.

I rose, bathed, and put on a robe of furs, and then Galeotto came to visit me.

He had arrived at dawn, and he too had slept for some ten hours since his arrival, yet despite of it his air was haggard, his glance overcast and heavy.

I greeted him joyously, conscious that we had done well. But he remained gloomy and unresponsive.

"There is ill news," he said at last. "Cavalcanti is in a raging fever, and he is sapped of strength, his body almost drained of blood. I even fear that he is poisoned, that Farnese's dagger was laden with some venom."

"O, surely... it will be well with him!" I faltered. He shook his head sombrely, his brows furrowed.

"He must have been stark mad last night. To have raged as he did with such a wound upon him, and to have ridden ten miles afterwards! O, it was midsummer frenzy that sustained him. Here in the courtyard he reeled unconscious from the saddle; they found him drenched with blood from head to foot; and he has been unconscious ever since. I am afraid..." He shrugged despondently.

"Do you mean that... that he may die?" I asked scarce above a whisper.

"It will be a miracle if he does not. And that is one more crime to the score of Pier Luigi." He said it in a tone of indescribable passion, shaking his clenched fist at the ceiling.

The miracle did not come to pass. Two days later, in the presence of Galeotto, Bianca, Fra Gervasio, who had been summoned from his Piacenza convent to shrive the unfortunate baron, and myself, Ettore Cavalcanti sank quietly to rest.

Whether he was dealt an envenomed wound, as Galeotto swore, or whether he died as a result of the awful draining of his veins, I do not know.

At the end he had a moment of lucidity.

"You will guard my Bianca, Agostino," he said to me, and I swore it fervently, as he bade me, whilst upon her knees beyond the bed, clasping one of his hands that had grown white as marble, Bianca was sobbing brokenheartedly.

Then the dying man turned his head to Galeotto. "You will see justice done upon that monster ere you die," he said. "It is God's holy work."

And then his mind became clouded again by the mists of approaching dissolution, and he sank into a sleep, from which he never awakened.

We buried him on the morrow in the Chapel of Pagliano, and on the next day Galeotto drew up a memorial wherein he set forth all the circumstances of the affair in which that gallant gentleman had met his end. It was a terrible indictment of Pier Luigi Farnese. Of this memorial he prepared two copies, and to these--as witnesses of all the facts therein related--Bianca, Falcone, and I appended our signatures, and Fra Gervasio added his own. One of these copies Galeotto dispatched to the Pope, the other to Ferrante Gonzaga in Milan, with a request that it should be submitted to the Emperor.

When the memorial was signed, he rose, and taking Bianca's hand in his own, he swore by his every hope of salvation that ere another year was sped her father should be avenged together with all the other of Pier Luigi's victims.

That same day he set out again upon his conspirator's work, whose aim was not only the life of Pier Luigi, but the entire shattering of the Pontifical sway in Parma and Piacenza. Some days later he sent me another score of lances--for he kept his forces scattered about the country whilst gradually he increased their numbers.

Thereafter we waited for events at Pagliano, the drawbridge raised, and none entering save after due challenge.

We expected an attack which never came; for Pier Luigi did not dare to lead an army against an Imperial fief upon such hopeless grounds as were his own. Possibly, too, Galeotto's memorial may have caused the Pope to impose restraint upon his dissolute son.

Cosimo d'Anguissola, however, had the effrontery to send a messenger a week later to Pagliano, to demand the surrender of his wife, saying that she was his by God's law and man's, and threatening to enforce his rights by an appeal to the Vatican.

That we sent the messenger empty-handed away, it is scarce necessary to chronicle. I was in command at Pagliano, holding it in Bianca's name, as Bianca's lieutenant and castellan, and I made oath that I would never lower the bridge to admit an enemy.

But Cosimo's message aroused in us a memory that had lain dormant these days. She was no longer for my wooing. She was the wife of another.

It came to us almost as a flash of lightning in the night; and it startled us by all that it revealed.

"The fault of it is all mine," said she, as we sat that evening in the gold-and-purple dining-room where we had supped.

It was with those words that she broke the silence that had endured throughout the repast, until the departure of the pages and the seneschal who had ministered to us precisely as in the days when Cavalcanti had been alive.

"Ah, not that, sweet!" I implored her, reaching a hand to her across the table.

"But it is true, my dear," she answered, covering my hand with her own. "If I had shown you more mercy when so contritely you confessed your sin, mercy would have been shown to me. I should have known from the sign I had that we were destined for each other; that nothing that you had done could alter that. I did know it, and yet..." She halted there, her lip tremulous.

"And yet you did the only thing that you could do when your sweet purity was outraged by the knowledge of what I really had been."

"But you were so no more," she said with a something of pleading in her voice.

"It was you--the blessed sight of you that cleansed me," I cried. "When love for you awoke in me, I knew love for the first time, for that other thing which I deemed love had none of love's holiness. Your image drove out all the sin from my soul. The peace which half a year of penance, of fasting and flagellation could not bring me, was brought me by my love for you when it awoke. It was as a purifying fire that turned to ashes all the evil of desires that my heart had held."

Her hand pressed mine. She was weeping softly.

"I was an outcast," I continued. "I was a mariner without compass, far from the sight of land, striving to find my way by the light of sentiments implanted in me from early youth. I sought salvation desperately--sought it in a hermitage, as I would have sought it in a cloister but that I had come to regard myself as unworthy of the cloistered life. I found it at last, in you, in the blessed contemplation of you. It was you who taught me the lesson that the world is God's world and that God is in the world as much as in the cloister. Such was the burden of your message that night when you appeared to me on Monte Orsaro."

"O, Agostino!" she cried, "and all this being so can you refrain from blaming me for what has come to pass? If I had but had faith in you--the faith in the sign which we both received--I should have known all this; known that if you had sinned you had been tempted and that you had atoned."

"I think the atonement lies here and now, in this," I answered very gravely. "She was the wife of another who dragged me down. You are the wife of another who have lifted me up. She through sin was attainable. That you can never, never be, else should I have done with life in earnest. But do not blame yourself, sweet saint. You did as your pure spirit bade you; soon all would have been well but that already Messer Pier Luigi had seen you."

She shuddered.

"You know, dear that if I submitted to wed your cousin, it was to save you--that such was the price imposed?"

"Dear saint!" I cried.

"I but mention it that upon such a score you may have no doubt of my motives."

"How could I doubt?" I protested.

I rose, and moved down the room towards the window, behind which the night gleamed deepest blue. I looked out upon the gardens from which the black shadows of stark poplars thrust upward against the sky, and I thought out this thing. Then I turned to her, having as I imagined found the only and rather obvious solution.

"There is but one thing to do, Bianca."

"And that?" her eyes were very anxious, and looked perhaps even more so in consequence of the pallor of her face and the lines of pain that had come into it in these weeks of such sore trial.

"I must remove the barrier that stands between us. I must seek out Cosimo and kill him."

I said it without anger, without heat of any sort: a calm, cold statement of a step that it was necessary to take. It was a just measure, the only measure that could mend an unjust situation. And so, I think, she too viewed it. For she did not start, or cry out in horror, or manifest the slightest surprise at my proposal. But she shook her head, and smiled very wistfully.

"What a folly would not that be!" she said. "How would it amend what is? You would be taken, and justice would be done upon you summarily. Would that make it any easier or any better for me? I should be alone in the world and entirely undefended."

"Ah, but you go too fast," I cried. "By justice I could not suffer, I need but to state the case, the motive of my quarrel, the iniquitous wrong that was attempted against you, the odious traffic of this marriage, and all men would applaud my act. None would dare do me a hurt."

"You are too generous in your faith in man," she said. "Who would believe your claims?"

"The courts," I said.

"The courts of a State in which Pier Luigi governs?"

"But I have witnesses of the facts."

"Those witnesses would never be allowed to testify. Your protests would be smothered. And how would your case really look?" she cried. "The world would conceive that the lover of Bianca de' Cavalcanti had killed her husband that he might take her for his own. What could you hope for, against such a charge as that? Men might even remember that other affair of Fifanti's and even the populace, which may be said to have saved you erstwhile, might veer round and change from the opinion which it has ever held. They would say that one who has done such a thing once may do it twice; that..."

"O, for pity's sake, stop! Have mercy!" I cried, flinging out my arms towards her. And mercifully she ceased, perceiving that she had said enough.

I turned to the window again, and pressed my brow against the cool glass. She was right. That acute mind of hers had pierced straight to the very core of this matter. To do the thing that had been in my mind would be not only to destroy myself, but to defile her; for upon her would recoil a portion of the odium that must be flung at me. And--as she said--what then must be her position? They would even have a case upon which to drag her from these walls of Pagliano. She would be a victim of the civil courts; she might, at Pier Luigi's instigation, be proceeded against as my accomplice in what would be accounted a dastardly murder for the basest of motives.

I turned to her again.

"You are right," I said. "I see that you are right. Just as I was right when I said that my atonement lies here and now. The penance for which I have cried out so long is imposed at last. It is as just as it is cruelly apt."

I came slowly back to the table, and stood facing her across it. She looking up at me with very piteous eyes.

"Bianca, I must go hence," I said. "That, too, is clear."

Her lips parted; her eyes dilated; her face, if anything, grew paler.

"O, no, no!" she cried piteously.

"It must be," I said. "How can I remain? Cosimo may appeal for justice against me, claiming that I hold his wife in duress--and justice will be done."

"But can you not resist? Pagliano is strong and well-manned. The Black Bands are very faithful men, and they will stand by you to the end."

"And the world?" I cried. "What will the world say of you? It is you yourself have made me see it. Shall your name be dragged in the foul mire of scandal? The wife of Cosimo d'Anguissola a runagate with her husband's cousin? Shall the world say that?"

She moaned, and covered her face with her hands. Then she controlled herself again, and looked at me almost fiercely.

"Do you care so much for what men say?"

"I am thinking of you."

"Then think of me to better purpose, my Agostino. Consider that we are confronted by two evils, and that the choice of the lesser is forced upon us. If you go, I am all unprotected, and... and... the harm is done already."

Long I looked at her with such a yearning to take her in my arms and comfort her! And I had the knowledge that if I remained, daily must I experience this yearning which must daily grow crueller and more fierce from the very restraint I must impose upon it. And then that rearing of mine, all drenched in sanctity misunderstood, came to my help, and made me see in this an added burden to my penance, a burden which I must accept if I would win to ultimate grace.

And so I consented to remain, and I parted from her with no more than a kiss bestowed upon her finger-tips, and went to pray for patience and strength to bear my heavy cross and so win to my ultimate reward, be it in this world or the next.

In the morning came news by a messenger from Galeotto--news of one more foul crime that the Duke had committed on that awful night when we had rescued Bianca from his evil claws. The unfortunate Giuliana had been found dead in her bed upon the following morning, and the popular voice said that the Duke had strangled her.

Of that rumour I subsequently had confirmation. It would appear that maddened with rage at the loss of his prey, that ravening wolf had looked about to discover who might have betrayed his purpose and procured that intervention. He bethought him of Giuliana. Had not Cosimo seen her in intimate talk with me on the morning of my arrest, and would he not have reported it to his master?

So to the handsome mansion in which he housed her, and to which at all hours he had access, the Duke went instantly. He must have taxed her with it; and knowing her nature, I can imagine that she not only admitted that his thwarting was due to her, but admitted it mockingly, exultingly, jeering as only a jealous woman can jeer, until in his rage he seized her by the throat.

How bitterly must she not have repented that she had not kept a better guard upon her tongue, during those moments of her agony, brief in themselves, yet horribly long to her, until her poor wanton spirit went forth from the weak clay that she had loved too well.

When I heard of the end of that unfortunate, all my bitterness against her went out of me, and in my heart I set myself to find excuses for her. Witty and cultured in much; in much else she had been as stupid as the dumb beast. She was irreligious as were many because what she saw of religion did not inspire respect in her, and whilst one of her lovers had been a prince of the Church another had been the son of the Pope. She was by nature sensuous, and her sensuousness stifled in her all perception of right or wrong.

I like to think that her death was brought about as the result of a good deed--so easily might it have been the consequence of an evil one. And I trust that that deed--good in itself, whatever the sources from which it may have sprung--may have counted in her favour and weighed in the balance against the sins that were largely of her nature.

I bethought me of Fra Gervasio's words to me: "Who that knows all that goes to the making of a sin shall ever dare to blame a sinner?" He had applied those words to my own case where Giuliana was concerned. But do they not apply equally to Giuliana? Do they not apply to every sinner, when all is said?

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