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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 3. Pier Luigi Farnese
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 3. Pier Luigi Farnese Post by :TheVCF Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1151

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 3. Pier Luigi Farnese


We left Milan that same day, and there followed for some months a season of wandering through Lombardy, going from castle to castle, from tyranny to tyranny, just the three of us--Galeotto and myself with Falcone for our equerry and attendant.

Surely something of the fanatic's temperament there must have been in me; for now that I had embraced a cause, I served it with all the fanaticism with which on Monte Orsaro I sought to be worthy of the course I had taken then.

I was become as an apostle, preaching a crusade or holy war against the Devil's lieutenant on earth, Messer Pier Luigi Farnese, sometime Duke of Castro, now Duke of Parma and Piacenza--for the investiture duly followed in the August of that year, and soon his iron hand began to be felt throughout the State of which the Pope had constituted him a prince.

And to the zest that was begotten of pure righteousness, Galeotto cunningly added yet another and more worldly spur. We were riding one day in late September of that year from Cortemaggiore, where we had spent a month in seeking to stir the Pallavicini to some spirit of resistance, and we were making our way towards Romagnese, the stronghold of that great Lombard family of dal Verme.

As we were ambling by a forest path, Galeotto abruptly turned to me, Falcone at the time being some little way in advance of us, and startled me by his words.

"Cavalcanti's daughter seemed to move you strangely, Agostino," he said, and watched me turn pale under his keen glance.

In my confusion--more or less at random--"What should Cavalcanti's daughter be to me?" I asked.

"Why, what you will, I think," he answered, taking my question literally. "Cavalcanti would consider the Lord of Mondolfo and Carmina a suitable mate for his daughter, however he might hesitate to marry her to the landless Agostino d'Anguissola. He loved your father better than any man that ever lived, and such an alliance was mutually desired."

"Do you think I need this added spur?" quoth I.

"Nay, I know that you do not. But it is well to know what reward may wait upon our labour. It makes that labour lighter and increases courage."

I hung my head, without answering him, and we rode silently amain.

He had touched me where the flesh was raw and tender. Bianca de' Cavalcanti! It was a name I uttered like a prayer, like a holy invocation. Just so had I been in a measure content to carry that name and the memory of her sweet face. To consider her as the possible Lady of Mondolfo when I should once more have come into my own, was to consider things that filled me almost with despair.

Again I experienced such hesitations as had kept me from ever seeking her at Pagliano, though I had been given the freedom of her garden. Giuliana had left her brand upon me. And though Bianca had by now achieved for me what neither prayers nor fasting could accomplish, and had exorcized the unholy visions of Giuliana from my mind, yet when I came to consider Bianca as a possible companion--as something more or something less than a saint enthroned in the heaven created by my worship of her--there rose between us ever that barrier of murder and adultery, a barrier which not even in imagination did I dare to overstep.

I strove to put such thoughts from my mind that I might leave it free to do the work to which I had now vowed myself.

All through that winter we pursued our mission. With the dal Verme we had but indifferent success, for they accounted themselves safe, being, like Cavalcanti, feudatories of the Emperor himself, and nowise included in the territories of Parma and Piacenza. From Romagnese we made our way to the stronghold of the Anguissola of Albarola, my cousins, who gave me a very friendly welcome, and who, though with us in spirit and particularly urged by their hatred of our guelphic cousin Cosimo who was now Pier Luigi's favourite, yet hesitated as the others had done. And we met with little better success with Sforza of Santafiora, to whose castle we next repaired, or yet with the Landi, the Scotti, or Confalonieri. Everywhere the same spirit of awe was abroad, and the same pusillanimity, content to hug the little that remained rather than rear its head to demand that which by right belonged.

So that when the spring came round again, and our mission done, our crusade preached to hearts that would not be inflamed, we turned our steps once more towards Pagliano, we were utterly dispirited men--although, for myself, my despondency was tempered a little by the thought that I was to see Bianca once more.

Yet before I come to speak of her again, let me have done with these historical matters in so far as they touched ourselves.

We had left the nobles unresponsive, as you have seen. But soon the prognostications of the crafty Gonzaga were realized. Soon Farnese, through his excessive tyranny, stung them out of their apathy. The first to feel his iron hand were the Pallavicini, whom he stripped of their lands of Cortemaggiore, taking as hostages Girolamo Pallavicini's wife and mother. Next he hurled his troops against the dal Verme, forcing Romagnese to capitulate, and then seeking similarly to reduce their other fief of Bobbio. Thence upon his all-conquering way, he marched upon Castel San Giovanni, whence he sought to oust the Sforza, and at the same time he committed the mistake of attempting to drive the Gonzaga out of Soragna.

This last rashness brought down upon his head the direct personal resentment of Ferrante Gonzaga. With the Imperial troops at his heels the Governor of Milan not only intervened to save Soragna for his family, but forced Pier Luigi to disgorge Bobbio and Romagnese, restoring them to the dal Verme, and compelled him to raise the siege of San Giovanni upon which he was at the time engaged--claiming that both these noble houses were feudatories of the Empire.

Intimidated by that rude lesson, Pier Luigi was forced to draw in his steely claws. To console himself, he turned his attention to the Val di Taro, and issued an edict commanding all nobles there to disarm, disband their troops, quit their fortresses, and go to reside in the principal cities of their districts. Those who resisted or demurred, he crushed at once with exile and confiscation; and even those who meekly did his will, he stripped of all privileges as feudal lords.

Even my mother, we heard, was forced to dismiss her trivial garrison, having been ordered to close the Citadel of Mondolfo, and take up her residence in our palace in the city itself. But she went further than she was bidden--she took the veil in the Convent of Santa Chiara, and so retired from the world.

The State began to ferment in secret at so much and such harsh tyranny. Farnese was acting in Piacenza as Tarquin of old had acted in his garden, slicing the tallest poppies from their stems. And soon to swell his treasury, which not even his plunder, brigandage, and extortionate confiscations could fill sufficiently to satisfy his greed, he set himself to look into the past lives of the nobles, and to promulgate laws that were retroactive, so that he was enabled to levy fresh fines and perpetrate fresh sequestrations in punishment of deeds that had been done long years ago.

Amongst these, we heard that he had Giovanni d'Anguissola decapitated in effigy for his rebellion against the authority of the Holy See, and that my tyrannies of Mondolfo and Carmina were confiscated from me because of my offence in being Giovanni d'Anguissola's son. And presently we heard that Mondolfo had been conferred by Farnese upon his good and loyal servant and captain, the Lord Cosimo d'Anguissola, subject to a tax of a thousand ducats yearly!

Galeotto ground his teeth and swore horribly when the news was brought us from Piacenza, whilst I felt my heart sink and the last hope of Bianca--the hope secretly entertained almost against hope itself--withering in my soul.

But soon came consolation. Pier Luigi had gone too far. Even rats when cornered will turn at bay and bare their teeth for combat. So now the nobles of the Valnure and the Val di Taro.

The Scotti, the Pallavicini, the Landi, and the Anguissola of Albarola, came one after the other in secret to Pagliano to interview the gloomy Galeotto. And at one gathering that was secretly held in a chamber of the castle, he lashed them with his furious scorn.

"You are come now," he jeered at them, "now that you are maimed; now that you have been bled of half your strength; now that most of your teeth are drawn. Had you but had the spirit and good sense to rise six months ago when I summoned you so to do, the struggle had been brief and the victory certain. Now the fight will be all fraught with risk, dangerous to engage, and uncertain of issue."

But it was they--these men who themselves had been so pusillanimous at first--who now urged him to take the lead, swearing to follow him to the death, to save for their children what little was still left them.

"In that spirit I will not lead you a step," he answered them. "If we raise our standard, we fight for all our ancient rights, for all our privileges, and for the restoration of all that has been confiscated; in short, for the expulsion of the Farnese from these lands. If that is your spirit, then I will consider what is to be done--for, believe me, open warfare will no longer avail us here. What we have to do must be done by guile. You have waited too long to resolve yourselves. And whilst you have grown weak, Farnese has been growing strong. He has fawned upon and flattered the populace; he has set the people against the nobles; he has pretended that in crushing the nobles he was serving the people, and they--poor fools!--have so far believed him that they will run to his banner in any struggle that may ensue."

He dismissed them at last with the promise that they should hear from him, and on the morrow, attended by Falcone only, he rode forth again from Pagliano, to seek out the dal Verme and the Sforza of Santafiora and endeavour to engage their interest against the man who had outraged them.

And that was early in August of the year '46.

I remained at Pagliano by Galeotto's request. He would have no need of me upon his mission. But he might desire me to seek out some of the others of the Val di Taro with such messages as he should send me.

And in all this time I had seen but little of Monna Bianca. We met under her father's eye in that gold-and-purple dining-room; and there I would devoutly, though surreptitiously, feast my eyes upon the exquisite beauty of her. But I seldom spoke to her, and then it was upon the most trivial matters; whilst although the summer was now full fragrantly unfolded, yet I never dared to intrude into that garden of hers to which I had been bidden, ever restrained by the overwhelming memory of the past.

So poignant was this memory that at times I caught myself wondering whether, after all, I had not been mistaken in lending an ear so readily to the arguments of Fra Gervasio, whether Fra Gervasio himself had not been mistaken in assuming that my place was in the world, and whether I had not done best to have carried out my original intention of seeking refuge in some monastery in the lowly position of a lay brother.

Meanwhile the Lord of Pagliano used me in the most affectionate and fatherly manner. But not even this sufficed to encourage me where his daughter was concerned, and I seemed to observe also that Bianca herself, if she did not actually avoid my society, was certainly at no pains to seek it.

What the end would have been but for the terrible intervention there was in our affairs, I have often surmised without result.

It happened that one day, about a week after Galeotto had left us there rode up to the gates of Pagliano a very magnificent company, and there was great braying of horns, stamping of horses and rattle of arms.

My Lord Pier Luigi Farnese had been on a visit to his city of Parma, and on his return journey had thought well to turn aside into the lands of ultra-Po, and pay a visit to the Lord of Pagliano, whom he did not love, yet whom, perhaps, it may have been his intention to conciliate, since hurt him he could not.

Sufficiently severe had been the lesson he had received for meddling with Imperial fiefs; and he must have been mad had he thought of provoking further the resentment of the Emperor. To Farnese, Charles V was a sleeping dog it was as well to leave sleeping.

He rode, then, upon his friendly visit into the Castle of Pagliano, attended by a vast retinue of courtiers and ladies, pages, lackeys, and a score of men-at-arms. A messenger had ridden on in advance to warn Cavalcanti of the honour that the Duke proposed to do him, and Cavalcanti, relishing the honour no whit, yet submitting out of discreetness, stood to receive his excellency at the foot of the marble staircase with Bianca on one side and myself upon the other.

Under the archway they rode, Farnese at the head of the cavalcade. He bestrode a splendid white palfrey, whose mane and tail were henna-dyed, whose crimson velvet trappings trailed almost to the ground. He was dressed in white velvet, even to his thigh-boots, which were laced with gold and armed with heavy gold spurs. A scarlet plume was clasped by a great diamond in his velvet cap, and on his right wrist was perched a hooded falcon.

He was a tall and gracefully shaped man of something over forty years of age, black-haired and olive-skinned, wearing a small pointed beard that added length to his face. His nose was aquiline, and he had fine eyes, but under them there were heavy brown shadows, and as he came nearer it was seen that his countenance was marred by an unpleasant eruption of sores.

After him came his gentlemen, a round dozen of them, with half that number of splendid ladies, all a very dazzling company. Behind these, in blazing liveries, there was a cloud of pages upon mules, and lackeys leading sumpter-beasts; and then to afford them an effective background, a grey, steel phalanx of men-at-arms.

I describe his entrance as it appeared at a glance, for I did not study it or absorb any of its details. My horrified gaze was held by a figure that rode on his right hand, a queenly woman with a beautiful pale countenance and a lazy, insolent smile.

It was Giuliana.

How she came there I did not at the moment trouble to reflect. She was there. That was the hideous fact that made me doubt the sight of my own eyes, made me conceive almost that I was at my disordered visions again, the fruit of too much brooding. I felt as if all the blood were being exhausted from my heart, as if my limbs would refuse their office, and I leaned for support against the terminal of the balustrade by which I stood.

She saw me. And after the first slight start of astonishment, her lazy smile grew broader and more insolent. I was but indifferently conscious of the hustle about me, of the fact that Cavalcanti himself was holding the Duke's stirrup, whilst the latter got slowly to the ground and relinquished his falcon to a groom who wore a perch suspended from his neck, bearing three other hooded birds. Similarly I was no more than conscious of being forced to face the Duke by words that Cavalcanti was uttering. He was presenting me.

"This, my lord, is Agostino d'Anguissola."

I saw, as through a haze, the swarthy, pustuled visage frown down upon me. I heard a voice which was at once harsh and effeminate and quite detestable, saying in unfriendly tones:

"The son of Giovanni d'Anguissola of Mondolfo, eh?"

"The same, my lord," said Cavalcanti, adding generously--"Giovanni d'Anguissola was my friend."

"It is a friendship that does you little credit, sir," was the harsh answer. "It is not well to befriend the enemies of God."

Was it possible that I had heard aright? Had this human foulness dared to speak of God?

"That is a matter upon which I will not dispute with a guest," said Cavalcanti with an urbanity of tone belied by the anger that flashed from his brown eyes.

At the time I thought him greatly daring, little dreaming that, forewarned of the Duke's coming, his measures were taken, and that one blast from the silver whistle that hung upon his breast would have produced a tide of men-at-arms that would have engulfed and overwhelmed Messer Pier Luigi and his suite.

Farnese dismissed the matter with a casual laugh. And then a lazy, drawling voice--a voice that once had been sweetest music to my ears, but now was loathsome as the croaking of Stygian frogs--addressed me.

"Why, here is a great change, sir saint! We had heard you had turned anchorite; and behold you in cloth of gold, shining as you would out-dazzle Phoebus."

I stood palely before her, striving to keep the loathing from my face, and I was conscious that Bianca had suddenly turned and was regarding us with eyes of grave concern.

"I like you better for the change," pursued Giuliana. "And I vow that you have grown at least another inch. Have you no word for me, Agostino?"

I was forced to answer her. "I trust that all is well with you, Madonna," I said.

Her lazy smile grew broader, displaying the dazzling whiteness of her strong teeth. "Why, all is very well with me," said she, and her sidelong glance at the Duke, half mocking, half kindly with an odious kindliness, seemed to give added explanations.

That he should have dared bring here this woman whom no doubt he had wrested from his creature Gambara--here into the shrine of my pure and saintly Bianca--was something for which I could have killed him then, for which I hated him far more bitterly than for any of those dark turpitudes that I had heard associated with his odious name.

And meanwhile there he stood, that Pope's bastard, leaning over my Bianca, speaking to her, and in his eyes the glow of a dark and unholy fire what time they fed upon her beauty as the slug feeds upon the lily. He seemed to have no thought for any other, nor for the circumstance that he kept us all standing there.

"You must come to our Court at Piacenza, Madonna," I heard him murmuring. "We knew not that so fair a flower was blossoming unseen in this garden of Pagliano. It is not well that such a jewel should be hidden in this grey casket. You were made to queen it in a court, Madonna; and at Piacenza you shall be hailed and honoured as its queen." And so he rambled on with his rough and trivial flattery, his foully pimpled face within a foot of hers, and she shrinking before him, very white and mute and frightened. Her father looked on with darkling brows, and Giuliana began to gnaw her lip and look less lazy, whilst in the courtly background there was a respectful murmuring babble, supplying a sycophantic chorus to the Duke's detestable adulation.

It was Cavalcanti, at last, who came to his daughter's rescue by a peremptory offer to escort the Duke and his retinue within.

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