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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 12. Blood
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 12. Blood Post by :Nicholas_Dixon Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1198

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 12. Blood

BOOK IV. THE WORLD CHAPTER XII. BLOOD

The words that passed between Bianca and me that evening in the dining-room express all that can be said of our attitude to each other during the months that followed. Daily we met, and the things which our lips no longer dared to utter, our eyes expressed.

Days passed and grew to weeks, and these accumulated into months. The autumn faded from gold to grey, and the winter came and laid the earth to sleep, and then followed spring to awaken it once more.

None troubled us at Pagliano, and we began with some justice to consider ourselves secure. Galeotto's memorial, not a doubt, had stirred up matters; and Pier Luigi would be under orders from his father not to add one more scandal to the many of his life by venturing to disturb Madonna Bianca in her stronghold at Pagliano.

From time to time we were visited by Galeotto. It was well for him that fatigue had overwhelmed him that day at Bologna, and so hindered him from taking a hand with us in the doings of that hideous night, else he might no longer have freedom to roam the State unchallenged as he did.

He told us of the new citadel the Duke was building in Piacenza, and how for the purpose he was pulling down houses relentlessly to obtain material and to clear himself a space, and how, further, he was widening and strengthening the walls of the city.

"But I doubt," he said one morning in that spring, "if he will live to see the work completed. For we are resolved at last. There is no need for an armed rising. Five score of my lances will be all that is necessary. We are planning a surprise, and Ferrante Gonzaga is to be at hand to support us with Imperial troops and to receive the State as the Emperor's vicegerent when the hour strikes. It will strike soon," he added, "and this, too, shall be paid for with the rest." And he touched the black mourning gown that Bianca wore.

He rode away again that day, and he went north for a last interview with the Emperor's Lieutenant, but promising to return before the blow was struck to give me the opportunity to bear my share in it.

Spring turned to summer, and we waited, wandering in the gardens together; reading together, playing at bowls or tennis, though the latter game was not considered one for women, and sometimes exercising the men-at-arms in the great inner bailey where they lodged. Twice we rode out ahawking, accompanied by a strong escort, and returned without mishap, though I would not consent to a third excursion, lest a rumour having gone abroad, our enemies should lie in wait to trap us. I grew strangely fearful of losing her who did not and who never might belong to me.

And all this time my penance, as I regarded it, grew daily heavier to bear. Long since I had ceased so much as to kiss her finger-tips. But to kiss the very air she breathed was fraught with danger to my peace of mind. And then one evening, as we paced the garden together, I had a moment's madness, a moment in which my yearnings would no longer be repressed. Without warning I swung about, caught her in my arms, and crushed her to me.

I saw the sudden flicker of her eyelids, the one swift upward glance of her blue eyes, and I beheld in them a yearning akin to my own, but also a something of fear that gave me pause.

I put her from me. I knelt and kissed the hem of her mourning gown.

"Forgive me, sweet." I besought her very humbly.

"My poor Agostino," was all she answered me, what time her fingers fluttered gently over my sable hair.

Thereafter I shunned her for a whole week, and was never in her company save at meals under the eyes of our attendants.

At last, one day in the early part of September, on the very anniversary of her father's death--the eighth of that month it was, and a Thursday--came Galeotto with a considerable company of men-at-arms; and that night he was gay and blithe as I had never seen him in these twelve months past.

When we were alone, the cause of it, which already I suspected, at last transpired.

"It is the hour," he said very pregnantly. "His sands are swiftly running out. To-morrow, Agostino, you ride with me to Piacenza. Falcone shall remain here to captain the men in case any attempt should be made upon Pagliano, which is not likely."

And now he told us of the gay doings there had been in Piacenza for the occasion of the visit of the Duke's son Ottavio--that same son-in-law of the Emperor whom the latter befriended, yet not to the extent of giving him the duchy in his father's place when that father should have gone to answer for his sins.

Daily there had been jousts and tournaments and all manner of gaieties, for which the Piacentini had been sweated until they could sweat no more. Having fawned upon the people that they might help him to crush the barons, Farnese was now crushing the people whose service he no longer needed. Extortion had reduced them to poverty and despair and their very houses were being pulled down to supply material for the new citadel, the Duke recking little who might thus be left without a roof over his head.

"He has gone mad," said Galeotto, and laughed. "Pier Luigi could not more effectively have played his part so as to serve our ends. The nobles he alienated long ago, and now the very populace is incensed against him and weary of his rapine. It is so bad with him that of late he has remained shut in the citadel, and seldom ventures abroad, so as to avoid the sight of the starving faces of the poor and the general ruin that he is making of that fair city. He has given out that he is ill. A little blood-letting will cure all his ills for ever."

Upon the morrow Galeotto picked thirty of his men, and gave them their orders. They were to depose their black liveries, and clad as countryfolk, but armed as countryfolk would be for a long journey, they were severally to repair afoot to Piacenza, and assemble there upon the morning of Saturday at the time and place he indicated. They went, and that afternoon we followed.

"You will come back to me, Agostino?" Bianca said to me at parting.

"I will come back," I answered, and bowing I left her, my heart very heavy.

But as we rode the prospect of the thing to do warmed me a little, and I shook off my melancholy. Optimism coloured the world for me all of the rosy hue of promise.

We slept in Piacenza that night, in a big house in the street that leads to the Church of San Lazzaro, and there was a company of perhaps a dozen assembled there, the principals being the brothers Pallavicini of Cortemaggiore, who had been among the first to feel the iron hand of Pier Luigi; there were also present Agostino Landi, and the head of the house of Confalonieri.

We sat after supper about a long table of smooth brown oak, which reflected as in a pool the beakers and flagons with which it was charged, when suddenly Galeotto span a coin upon the middle of it. It fell flat presently, showing the ducal arms and the inscription of which the abbreviation PLAC was a part.

Galeotto set his finger to it. "A year ago I warned him," said he, "that his fate was written there in that shortened word. To-morrow I shall read the riddle for him."

I did not understand the allusion and said so.

"Why," he explained, not only to me but to others whose brows had also been knit, "first 'Plac' stands for Placentia where he will meet his doom; and then it contains the initials of the four chief movers in this undertaking--Pallavicini, Landi, Anguissola, and Confalonieri."

"You force the omen to come true when you give me a leader's rank in this affair," said I.

He smiled but did not answer, and returned the coin to his pocket.

And now the happening that is to be related is to be found elsewhere, for it is a matter of which many men have written in different ways, according to their feelings or to the hand that hired them to the writing.

Soon after dawn Galeotto quitted us, each of us instructed how to act.

Later in the morning, as I was on my way to the castle, where we were to assemble at noon, I saw Galeotto riding through the streets at the Duke's side. He had been beyond the gates with Pier Luigi on an inspection of the new fortress that was building. It appeared that once more there was talk between the Duke and Galeotto of the latter's taking service under him, and Galeotto made use of this circumstance to forward his plans. He was, I think, the most self-contained and patient man that it would have been possible to find for such an undertaking.

In addition to the condottiero, a couple of gentlemen on horseback attended the Duke, and half a score of his Swiss lanzknechte in gleaming corselets and steel morions, shouldering their formidable pikes, went afoot to hedge his excellency.

The people fell back before that little company; the citizens doffed their caps with the respect that is begotten of fear, but their air was sullen and in the main they were silent, though here and there some knave, with the craven adulation of those born to serve at all costs, raised a feeble shout of "Duca!"

The Duke moved slowly at little more than a walking pace, for he was all crippled again by the disease that ravaged him, and his face, handsome in itself, was now repulsive to behold; it was a livid background for the fiery pustules that mottled it, and under the sunken eyes there were great brown stains of suffering.

I flattened myself against a wall in the shadow of a doorway lest he should see me, for my height made me an easy mark in that crowd. But he looked neither to right nor to left as he rode. Indeed, it was said that he could no longer bear to meet the glances of the people he had so grossly abused and outraged with deeds that are elsewhere abundantly related, and with which I need not turn your stomachs here.

When they had gone by, I followed slowly in their wake towards the castle. As I turned out of the fine road that Gambara had built, I was joined by the brothers Pallavicini, a pair of resolute, grizzled gentlemen, the elder of whom, as you will remember, was slightly lame. With an odd sense of fitness they had dressed themselves in black. They were accompanied by half a dozen of Galeotto's men, but these bore no device by which they could be identified. We exchanged greetings, and stepped out together across the open space of the Piazza della Citadella towards the fortress.

We crossed the drawbridge, and entered unchallenged by the guard. People were wont to come and go, and to approach the Duke it was necessary to pass the guard in the ante-chamber above, whose business it was to question all comers.

Moreover the only guard set consisted of a couple of Swiss who lounged in the gateway, the garrison being all at dinner, a circumstance upon which Galeotto had calculated in appointing noon as the hour for the striking of the blow.

We crossed the quadrangle, and passing under a second archway came into the inner bailey as we had been bidden. Here we were met by Confalonieri, who also had half a dozen men with him. He greeted us, and issued his orders sharply.

"You, Ser Agostino, are to come with us, whilst you others are to remain here until Messer Landi arrives with the remainder of our forces. He should have a score of men with him, and they will cut down the guard when they enter. The moment that is done let a pistol-shot be discharged as the signal to us above, and proceed immediately to take up the bridge and overpower the Swiss who should still be at table. Landi has his orders and knows how to act."

The Pallavicini briefly spoke their assents, and Confalonieri, taking me by the arm, led me quickly above-stairs, his half-dozen men following close upon our heels. Upon none was there any sign of armour. But every man wore a shirt of mail under his doublet or jerkin.

We entered the ante-chamber--a fine, lofty apartment, richly hung and richly furnished. It was empty of courtiers, for all were gone to dine with the captain of the guard, who had been married upon that very morning and was giving a banquet in honour of the event, as Galeotto had informed himself when he appointed the day.

Over by a window sat four of the Swiss--the entire guard--about a table playing at dice, their lances deposited in an angle of the wall.

Watching their game--for which he had lingered after accompanying the Duke thus far--stood the tall, broad-shouldered figure of Galeotto. He turned as we entered, and gave us an indifferent glance as if we were of no interest to him, then returned his attention to the dicers.

One or two of the Swiss looked up at us casually. The dice rattled merrily, and there came from the players little splutters of laughter and deep guttural, German oaths.

At the room's far end, by the curtains that masked the door of the chamber where Farnese sat at dinner, stood an usher in black velvet, staff in hand, who took no more interest in us than did the Swiss.

We sauntered over to the dicers' table, and in placing ourselves the better to watch their game, we so contrived that we entirely hemmed them into the embrasure, whilst Confalonieri himself stood with his back to the pikes, an effective barrier between the men and their weapons.

We remained thus for some moments whilst the game went on, and we laughed with the winners and swore with the losers, as if our hearts were entirely in the dicing and we had not another thought in the world.

Suddenly a pistol-shot crackled below, and startled the Swiss, who looked at one another. One burly fellow whom they named Hubli held the dice-box poised for a throw that was never made.

Across the courtyard below men were running with drawn swords, shouting as they ran, and hurled themselves through the doorway leading to the quarters where the Swiss were at table. This the guards saw through the open window, and they stared, muttering German oaths to express their deep bewilderment.

And then there came a creak of winches and a grinding of chains to inform us that the bridge was being taken up. At last those four lanzknechte looked at us.

"Beim blute Gottes!" swore Hubli. "Was giebt es?"

Our set faces, showing no faintest trace of surprise, quickened their alarm, and this became flavoured by suspicion when they perceived at last how closely we pressed about them.

"Continue your game," said Confalonieri quietly, "it will be best for you."

The great blonde fellow Hubli flung down the dice-box and heaved himself up truculently to face the speaker who stood between him and the lances. Instantly Confalonieri stabbed him, and he sank back into his chair with a cry, intensest surprise in his blue eyes, so sudden and unlooked-for had the action been.

Galeotto had already left the group about the table, and with a blow of his great hand he felled the usher who sought to bar his passage to the Duke's chamber. He tore down the curtains, and he was wrapping and entangling the fellow in the folds of them when I came to his aid followed by Confalonieri, whose six men remained to hold the three sound and the one wounded Swiss in check.

And now from below there rose such a din of steel on steel, of shouts and screams and curses, that it behoved us to make haste.

Bidding us follow him, Galeotto flung open the door. At table sat Farnese with two of his gentlemen, one of whom was the Marquis Sforza-Fogliani, the other a doctor of canon law named Copallati.

Alarm was already written on their faces. At sight of Galeotto--"Ah! You are still here!" cried Farnese. "What is taking place below? Have the Swiss fallen to fighting among themselves?"

Galeotto returned no answer, but advanced slowly into the room; and now Farnese's eyes went past him and fastened upon me, and I saw them suddenly dilate; beyond me they went and met the cold glance of Confalonieri, that other gentleman he had so grievously wronged and whom he had stripped of the last rag of his possessions and his rights. The sun coming through the window caught the steel that Confalonieri still carried in his hands; its glint drew the eyes of the Duke, and he must have seen that the baron's sleeve was bloody.

He rose, leaning heavily upon the table.

"What does this mean?" he demanded in a quavering voice, and his face had turned grey with apprehension.

"It means," Galeotto answered him, firmly and coldly, "that your rule in Piacenza is at an end, that the Pontifical sway is broken in these States, and that beyond the Po Ferrante Gonzaga waits with an army to take possession here in the Emperor's name. Finally, my Lord Duke, it means that the Devil's patience is to be rewarded, and that he is at last to have you who have so faithfully served him upon earth."

Farnese made a gurgling sound and put a jewelled hand to his throat as if he choked. He was all in green velvet, and every button of his doublet was a brilliant of price; and that gay raiment by its incongruity seemed to heighten the tragedy of the moment.

Of his gentlemen the doctor sat frozen with terror in his high-backed seat, clutching the arms of it so that his knuckles showed white as marble. In like case were the two attendant servants, who hung motionless by the buffet. But Sforza-Fogliani, a man of some spirit for all his effeminate appearance, leapt to his feet and set a hand to his weapons.

Instantly Confalonieri's sword flashed from its sheath. He had passed his dagger into his left hand.

"On your life, my Lord Marquis, do not meddle here," he warned him in a voice that was like a trumpet-call.

And before that ferocious aspect and those naked weapons Sforza-Fogliani stood checked and intimidated.

I too had drawn my poniard, determined that Farnese should fall to my steel in settlement of the score that lay between us. He saw the act, and if possible his fears were increased, for he knew that the wrongs he had done me were personal matters between us for which it was not likely I should prove forgiving.

"Mercy!" he gasped, and held out supplicating hands to Galeotto.

"Mercy?" I echoed, and laughed fiercely. "What mercy would you have shown me against whom you set the Holy Office, but that you could sell my life at a price that was merciless? What mercy would you have shown to the daughter of Cavalcanti when she lay in your foul power? What mercy did you show her father who died by your hand? What mercy did you show the unfortunate Giuliana whom you strangled in her bed? What mercy did you ever show to any that you dare ask now for mercy?"

He looked at me with dazed eyes, and from me to Galeotto. He shuddered and turned a greenish hue. His knees were loosened by terror, and he sank back into the chair from which he had risen.

"At least... at least," he gasped, "let me have a priest to shrive me. Do not... do not let me die with all my sins upon me!"

In that moment there came from the ante-chamber the sound of swiftly moving feet, and the clash of steel mingling with cries. The sound heartened him. He conceived that someone came to his assistance. He raised his voice in a desperate screech:

"To me! To me! Help!"

As he shouted I sprang towards him, to find my passage suddenly barred by Galeotto's arm. He shot it out, and my breast came against it as against a rod of iron. It threw me out of balance, and ere I had recovered it had thrust me back again.

"Back there!" said Galeotto's brazen voice. "This affair is mine. Mine are the older wrongs and the greater."

With that he stepped behind the Duke's chair, and Farnese in a fresh spurt of panic came to his feet. Galeotto locked an arm about his neck and pulled his head back. Into his ear he muttered words that I could not overhear, but it was matter that stilled Farnese's last struggle. Only the Duke's eyes moved, rolling in his head as he sought to look upon the face of the man who spoke to him. And in that moment Galeotto wrenched his victim's head still farther back, laying entirely bare the long brown throat, across which he swiftly drew his dagger.

Copallati screamed and covered his face with his hands; Sforza-Fogliani, white to the lips, looked on like a man entranced.

There was a screech from Farnese that ended in a gurgle, and suddenly the blood spurted from his neck as from a fountain. Galeotto let him go. He dropped to his chair and fell forward against the table, drenching it in blood. Thence he went over sideways and toppled to the floor, where he lay twitching, a huddle of arms and legs, the head lolling sideways, the eyes vitreous, and blood, blood, blood all about him.

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