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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 4. Madonna Bianca
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 4. Madonna Bianca Post by :TheVCF Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3296

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 4. Madonna Bianca

BOOK IV. THE WORLD
CHAPTER IV. MADONNA BIANCA

Pier Luigi's original intent had been to spend no more than a night at Pagliano. But when the morrow came, he showed no sign of departing, nor upon the next day, nor yet upon the next.

A week passed, and still he lingered, seeming to settle more and more in the stronghold of the Cavalcanti, leaving the business of his Duchy to his secretary Filarete and to his council, at the head of which, as I learnt, was my old friend Annibale Caro.

And meanwhile, Cavalcanti, using great discreetness, suffered the Duke's presence, and gave him and his suite most noble entertainment.

His position was perilous and precarious in the extreme, and it needed all his strength of character to hold in curb the resentment that boiled within him to see himself thus preyed upon; and that was not the worst. The worst was Pier Luigi's ceaseless attentions to Bianca, the attentions of the satyr for the nymph, a matter in which I think Cavalcanti suffered little less than did I.

He hoped for the best, content to wait until cause for action should be forced upon him. And meanwhile that courtly throng took its ease at Pagliano. The garden that hitherto had been Bianca's own sacred domain, the garden into which I had never yet dared set foot, was overrun now by the Duke's gay suite--a cloud of poisonous butterflies. There in the green, shaded alleys they disported themselves; in the lemon-grove, in the perfumed rose-garden, by hedges of box and screens of purple clematis they fluttered.

Bianca sought to keep her chamber in those days, and kept it for as long on each day as was possible to her. But the Duke, hobbling on the terrace--for as a consequence of his journey on horseback he had developed a slight lameness, being all rotten with disease--would grow irritable at her absence, and insistent upon her presence, hinting that her retreat was a discourtesy; so that she was forced to come forth again, and suffer his ponderous attentions and gross flatteries.

And three days later there came another to Pagliano, bidden thither by the Duke, and this other was none else than my cousin Cosimo, who now called himself Lord of Mondolfo, having been invested in that tyranny, as I have said.

On the morning after his arrival we met upon the terrace.

"My saintly cousin!" was his derisive greeting. "And yet another change in you--out of sackcloth into velvet! The calendar shall know you as St. Weathercock, I think--or, perhaps, St. Mountebank."

What followed was equally bitter and sardonic on his part, fiercely and openly hostile on mine. At my hostility he had smiled cruelly.

"Be content with what is, my strolling saint," he said, in the tone of one who gives a warning, "unless you would be back in your hermitage, or within the walls of some cloister, or even worse. Already have you found it a troublesome matter to busy yourself with the affairs of the world. You were destined for sanctity." He came closer, and grew very fierce. "Do not put it upon me to make a saint of you by sending you to Heaven."

"It might end in your own dispatch to Hell," said I. "Shall we essay it?"

"Body of God!" he snarled, laughter still lingering on his white face. "Is this the mood of your holiness at present? What a bloodthirsty brave are you become! Consider, pray, sir, that if you trouble me I have no need to do my own office of hangman. There is sufficient against you to make the Tribunal of the Ruota very busy; there is--can you have forgotten it?--that little affair at the house of Messer Fifanti."

I dropped my glance, browbeaten for an instant. Then I looked at him again, and smiled.

"You are but a poor coward, Messer Cosimo," said I, "to use a shadow as a screen. You know that nothing can be proved against me unless Giuliana speaks, and that she dare not for her own sake. There are witnesses who will swear that Gambara went to Fifanti's house that night. There is not one to swear that Gambara did not kill Fifanti ere he came forth again; and it is the popular belief, for his traffic with Giuliana is well-known, as it is well-known that she fled with him after the murder--which, in itself, is evidence of a sort. Your Duke has too great a respect for the feelings of the populace," I sneered, "to venture to outrage them in such a matter. Besides," I ended, "it is impossible to incriminate me without incriminating Giuliana and, Messer Pier Luigi seems, I should say, unwilling to relinquish the lady to the brutalities of a tribunal."

"You are greatly daring," said he, and he was pale now, for in that last mention of Giuliana, it seemed that I had touched him where he was still sensitive.

"Daring?" I rejoined. "It is more than I can say for you, Ser Cosimo. Yours is the coward's fault of caution."

I thought to spur him. If this failed, I was prepared to strike him, for my temper was beyond control. That he, standing towards me as he did, should dare to mock me, was more than I could brook. But at that moment there spoke a harsh voice just behind me.

"How, sir? What words are these?"

There, very magnificent in his suit of ivory velvet, stood the Duke. He was leaning heavily upon his cane, and his face was more blotched than ever, the sunken eyes more sunken.

"Are you seeking to quarrel with the Lord of Mondolfo?" quoth he, and I saw by his smile that he used my cousin's title as a taunt.

Behind him was Cavalcanti with Bianca leaning upon his arm just as I had seen her that day when she came with him to Monte Orsaro, save that now there was a look as of fear in the blue depths of her eyes. A little on one side there was a group composed of three of the Duke's gentlemen with Giuliana and another of the ladies, and Giuliana was watching us with half-veiled eyes.

"My lord," I answered, very stiff and erect, and giving him back look for look, something perhaps of the loathing with which he inspired me imprinted on my face, "my lord, you give yourself idle alarms. Ser Cosimo is too cautious to embroil himself."

He limped toward me; leaning heavily upon his stick, and it pleased me that of a good height though he was, he was forced to look up into my face.

"There is too much bad Anguissola blood in you," he said. "Be careful lest out of our solicitude for you, we should find it well to let our leech attend you."

I laughed, looking into his blotched face, considering his lame leg and all the evil humours in him.

"By my faith, I think it is your excellency needs the attentions of a leech," said I, and flung all present into consternation by that answer.

I saw his face turn livid, and I saw the hand shake upon the golden head of his cane. He was very sensitive upon the score of his foul infirmities. His eyes grew baleful as he controlled himself. Then he smiled, displaying a ruin of blackened teeth.

"You had best take care," he said. "It were a pity to cripple such fine limbs as yours. But there is a certain matter upon which the Holy Office might desire to set you some questions. Best be careful, sir, and avoid disagreements with my captains."

He turned away. He had had the last word, and had left me cold with apprehension, yet warmed by the consciousness that in the brief encounter it was he who had taken the deeper wound.

He bowed before Bianca. "Oh, pardon me," he said. "I did not dream you stood so near. Else no such harsh sounds should have offended your fair ears. As for Messer d'Anguissola..." He shrugged as who would say, "Have pity on such a boor!"

But her answer, crisp and sudden as come words that are spoken on impulse or inspiration, dashed his confidence.

"Nothing that he said offended me," she told him boldly, almost scornfully.

He flashed me a glance that was full of venom, and I saw Cosimo smile, whilst Cavalcanti started slightly at such boldness from his meek child. But the Duke was sufficiently master of himself to bow again.

"Then am I less aggrieved," said he, and changed the subject. "Shall we to the bowling lawn?" And his invitation was direct to Bianca, whilst his eyes passed over her father. Without waiting for their answer, his question, indeed, amounting to a command, he turned sharply to my cousin. "Your arm, Cosimo," said he, and leaning heavily upon his captain he went down the broad granite steps, followed by the little knot of courtiers, and, lastly, by Bianca and her father.

As for me, I turned and went indoors, and there was little of the saint left in me in that hour. All was turmoil in my soul, turmoil and hatred and anger. Anon to soothe me came the memory of those sweet words that Bianca had spoken in my defence, and those words emboldened me at last to seek her but as I had never yet dared in all the time that I had spent at Pagliano.

I found her that evening, by chance, in the gallery over the courtyard. She was pacing slowly, having fled thither to avoid that hateful throng of courtiers. Seeing me she smiled timidly, and her smile gave me what little further encouragement I needed. I approached, and very earnestly rendered her my thanks for having championed my cause and supported me with the express sign of her approval.

She lowered her eyes; her bosom quickened slightly, and the colour ebbed and flowed in her cheeks.

"You should not thank me," said she. "What I did was done for justice's sake."

"I have been presumptuous," I answered humbly, "in conceiving that it might have been for the sake of me."

"But it was that also," she answered quickly, fearing perhaps that she had pained me. "It offended me that the Duke should attempt to browbeat you. I took pride in you to see you bear yourself so well and return thrust for thrust."

"I think your presence must have heartened me," said I. "No pain could be so cruel as to seem base or craven in your eyes."

Again the tell-tale colour showed upon her lovely cheek. She began to pace slowly down the gallery, and I beside her. Presently she spoke again.

"And yet," she said, "I would have you cautious. Do not wantonly affront the Duke, for he is very powerful."

"I have little left to lose," said I.

"You have your life," said she.

"A life which I have so much misused that it must ever cry out to me in reproach."

She gave me a little fluttering, timid glance, and looked away again. Thus we came in silence to the gallery's end, where a marble seat was placed, with gay cushions of painted and gilded leather. She sank to it with a little sigh, and I leaned on the balustrade beside her and slightly over her. And now I grew strangely bold.

"Set me some penance," I cried, "that shall make me worthy."

Again came that little fluttering, frightened glance.

"A penance?" quoth she. "I do not understand."

"All my life," I explained, "has been a vain striving after something that eluded me. Once I deemed myself devout; and because I had sinned and rendered myself unworthy, you found me a hermit on Monte Orsaro, seeking by penance to restore myself to the estate from which I had succumbed. That shrine was proved a blasphemy; and so the penance I had done, the signs I believed I had received, were turned to mockery. It was not there that I should save myself. One night I was told so in a vision."

She gave an audible gasp, and looked at me so fearfully that I fell silent, staring back at her.

"You knew!" I cried.

Long did her blue, slanting eyes meet my glance without wavering, as never yet they had met it. She seemed to hesitate, and at the same time openly to consider me.

"I know now," she breathed.

"What do you know?" My voice was tense with excitement.

"What was your vision?" she rejoined.

"Have I not told you? There appeared to me one who called me back to the world; who assured me that there I should best serve God; who filled me with the conviction that she needed me. She addressed me by name, and spoke of a place of which I had never heard until that hour, but which to-day I know."

"And you? And you?" she asked. "What answer did you make?"

"I called her by name, although until that hour I did not know it."

She bowed her head. Emotion set her all a-tremble.

"It is what I have so often wondered," she confessed, scarce above a whisper. "And it is true--as true as it is strange!"

"True?" I echoed. "It was the only true miracle in that place of false ones, and it was so clear a call of destiny that it decided me to return to the world which I had abandoned. And yet I have since wondered why. Here there seems to be no place for me any more than there was yonder. I am devout again with a worldly devotion now, yet with a devotion that must be Heaven-inspired, so pure and sweet it is. It has shut out from me all the foulness of that past; and yet I am unworthy. And that is why I cry to you to set me some penance ere I can make my prayer."

She could not understand me, nor did she. We were not as ordinary lovers. We were not as man and maid who, meeting and being drawn each to the other, fence and trifle in a pretty game of dalliance until the maid opines that the appearances are safe, and that, her resistance having been of a seemly length, she may now make the ardently desired surrender with all war's honours. Nothing of that was in our wooing, a wooing which seemed to us, now that we spoke of it, to have been done when we had scarcely met, done in the vision that I had of her, and the vision that she had of me.

With averted eyes she set me now a question.

"Madonna Giuliana used you with a certain freedom on her arrival, and I have since heard your name coupled with her own by the Duke's ladies. But I have asked no questions of them. I know how false can be the tongues of courtly folk. I ask it now of you. What is or was this Madonna Giuliana to you?"

"She was," I answered bitterly, "and God pity me that I must say it to you--she was to me what Circe was to the followers of Ulysses."

She made a little moan, and I saw her clasp her hands in her lap; and the sound and sight filled me with sorrow and despair. She must know. Better that the knowledge should stand between us as a barrier which both could see than that it should remain visible only to the eyes of my own soul, to daunt me.

"O Bianca! Forgive me!" I cried. "I did not know! I did not know! I was a poor fool reared in seclusion and ripened thus for the first temptation that should touch me. That is what on Monte Orsaro I sought to expiate, that I might be worthy of the shrine I guarded then. That is what I would expiate now that I might be worthy of the shrine whose guardian I would become, the shrine at which I worship now."

I was bending very low above her little brown head, in which the threads of the gold coif-net gleamed in the fading light.

"If I had but had my vision sooner," I murmured, "how easy it would have been! Can you find mercy for me in your gentle heart? Can you forgive me, Bianca?

"O Agostino," she answered very sadly, and the sound of my name from her lips, coming so naturally and easily, thrilled me like the sound of the mystic music of Monte Orsaro. "What shall I answer you? I cannot now. Give me leisure to think. My mind is all benumbed. You have hurt me so!"

"Me miserable!" I cried.

"I had believed you one who erred through excess of holiness."

"Whereas I am one who attempted holiness through excess of error."

"I had believed you so, so...O Agostino!" It was a little wail of pain.

"Set me a penance," I implored her.

"What penance can I set you? Will any penance restore to me my shattered faith?"

I groaned miserably and covered my face with my hands. It seemed that I was indeed come to the end of all my hopes; that the world was become as much a mockery to me as had been the hermitage; that the one was to end for me upon the discovery of a fraud, as had the other ended--with the difference that in this case the fraud was in myself.

It seemed, indeed, that our first communion must be our last. Ever since she had seen me step into that gold-and-purple dining-room at Pagliano, the incarnation of her vision, as she was the incarnation of mine, Bianca must have waited confidently for this hour, knowing that it was foreordained to come. Bitterness and disillusion were all that it had brought her.

And then, ere more could be said, a thin, flute-like voice hissed down the vaulted gallery:

"Madonna Bianca! To hide your beauty from our hungry eyes. To quench the light by which we guide our footsteps. To banish from us the happiness and joy of your presence! Unkind, unkind!"

It was the Duke. In his white velvet suit he looked almost ghostly in the deepening twilight. He hobbled towards us, his stick tapping the black-and-white squares of the marble floor. He halted before her, and she put aside her emotion, donned a worldly mask, and rose to meet him.

Then he looked at me, and his brooding eyes seemed to scan my face.

"Why! It is Ser Agostino, Lord of Nothing," he sneered, and down the gallery rang the laugh of my cousin Cosimo, and there came, too, a ripple of other voices.

Whether to save me from friction with those steely gentlemen who aimed at grinding me to powder, whether from other motives, Bianca set her finger-tips upon the Duke's white sleeve and moved away with him.

I leaned against the balustrade all numb, watching them depart. I saw Cosimo come upon her other side and lean over her as he moved, so slim and graceful, beside her own slight, graceful figure. Then I sank to the cushions of the seat she had vacated, and stayed there with my misery until the night had closed about the place, and the white marble pillars looked ghostly and unreal.

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