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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 9. The Return
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 9. The Return Post by :netmarketer Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1526

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 9. The Return

BOOK IV. THE WORLD
CHAPTER IX. THE RETURN

Above in the blessed sunlight, which hurt my eyes--for I had not seen it for a full week--I found Galeotto awaiting me in a bare room; and scarcely was I aware of his presence than his great arms went round me and enclasped me so fervently that his corselet almost hurt my breast, and brought back as in a flash a poignant memory of another man fully as tall, who had held me to him one night many years ago, and whose armour, too, had hurt me in that embrace.

Then he held me at arms' length and considered me, and his steely eyes were blurred and moist. He muttered something to the familiar, linked his arm through mine and drew me away, down passages, through doors, and so at last into the busy Roman street.

We went in silence by ways that were well known to him but in which I should assuredly have lost myself, and so we came at last to a fair tavern--the Osteria del Sole--near the Tower of Nona.

His horse was stalled here, and a servant led the way above-stairs to the room that he had hired.

How wrong had I not been, I reflected, to announce before the Inquisition that I should have no regrets in leaving this world. How ungrateful was that speech, considering this faithful one who loved me for my father's sake! And was there not Bianca, who, surely--if her last cry, wrung from her by anguish, contained the truth--must love me for my own?

How sweet the revulsion that now came upon me as I sank into a chair by the window, and gave myself up to the enjoyment of that truly happy moment in which the grey shadow of death had been lifted from me.

Servants bustled in, to spread the board with the choice meats that Galeotto had ordered, and great baskets of luscious fruits and flagons of red Puglia wine; and soon we seated ourselves to the feast.

But ere I began to eat, I asked Galeotto how this miracle had been wrought; what magic powers he wielded that even the Holy Office must open its doors at his bidding. With a glance at the servants who attended us, he bade me eat, saying that we should talk anon. And as my reaction had brought a sharp hunger in its train, I fell to with the best will in all the world, and from broth to figs there were few words between us.

At last, our goblets charged and the servants with-drawn, I repeated my inquiry.

"The magic is not mine," said Galeotto. "It is Cavalcanti's. It was he who obtained this bull."

And with that he set himself briefly to relate the matters that already are contained here concerning that transaction, but the minuter details of which I was later to extract from Falcone. And as he proceeded with his narrative I felt myself growing cold again with apprehension, just as I had grown cold that morning in the hands of the executioners. Until at last, seeing me dead-white, Galeotto checked to inquire what ailed me.

"What--what was the price that Cavalcanti paid for this?" I inquired in answer.

"I could not glean it, nor did I stay to insist, for there was haste. He assured me that the thing had been accomplished without hurt to his honour, life, or liberty; and with that I was content, and spurred for Rome."

"And you have never since thought what the price was that Cavalcanti might have paid?"

He looked at me with troubled eyes. "I confess that in this matter the satisfaction of coming to your salvation has made me selfish. I have had thoughts for nothing else."

I groaned, and flung out my arms across the table. "He has paid such a price," I said, "that a thousand times sooner would I that you had left me where I was."

He leaned forward, frowning darkly. "What do you mean?" he cried.

And then I told him what I feared; told him how Farnese had sued for Bianca's hand for Cosimo; how proudly and finally Cavalcanti had refused; how the Duke had insisted that he would remain at Pagliano until my lord changed his mind; how I had learned from Giuliana the horrible motive that urged the Duke to press for that marriage.

Lastly--"And that is the price he consented to pay," I cried wildly. "His daughter--that sweet virgin--was the price! And at this hour, maybe, the price is paid and that detestable bargain consummated. O, Galeotto! Galeotto! Why was I not left to rot in that dungeon of the Inquisition--since I could have died happily, knowing naught of this?"

"By the Blood of God, boy! Do you imply that I had knowledge? Do you suggest that I would have bought any life at such a price?"

"No, no!" I answered. "I know that you did not--that you could not..." And then I leaped to my feet. "And we sit talking here, whilst this... whilst this... O God!" I sobbed. "We may yet be in time. To horse, then! Let us away!"

He, too, came to his feet. "Ay, you are right. It but remains to remedy the evil. Come, then. Anger shall mend my spent strength. It can be done in three days. We will ride as none ever rode yet since the world began."

And we did--so desperately that by the morning of the third day, which was a Sunday, we were in Forli (having crossed the Apennines at Arcangelo) and by that same evening in Bologna. We had not slept and we had scarcely rested since leaving Rome. We were almost dead from weariness.

Since such was my own case, what must have been Galeotto's? He was of iron, it is true. But consider that he had ridden this way at as desperate a pace already, to save me from the clutches of the Inquisition; and that, scarce rested, he was riding north again. Consider this, and you will not marvel that his weariness conquered him at last.

At the inn at Bologna where we dismounted, we found old Falcone awaiting us. He had set out with his master to ride to Rome. But being himself saddle-worn at the time, he had been unable to proceed farther than this, and here Galeotto in his fierce impatience had left him, pursuing his way alone.

Here, then, we found the equerry again, consumed by anxiety. He leapt forward to greet me, addressing me by the old title of Madonnino which I loved to hear from him, however much that title might otherwise arouse harsh and gloomy memories.

Here at Bologna Galeotto announced that he would be forced to rest, and we slept for three hours--until night had closed in. We were shaken out of our slumbers by the host as he had been ordered; but even then I lay entranced, my limbs refusing their office, until the memory of what was at issue acted like a spur upon me, and caused me to fling my weariness aside as if it had been a cloak.

Galeotto, however, was in a deplorable case. He could not move a limb. He was exhausted--utterly and hopelessly exhausted with fatigue and want of sleep. Falcone and I pulled him to his feet between us; but he collapsed again, unable to stand.

"I am spent," he muttered. "Give me twelve hours--twelve hours' sleep, Agostino, and I'll ride with you to the Devil."

I groaned and cursed in one. "Twelve hours!" I cried. "And she... I can't wait, Galeotto. I must ride on alone."

He lay on his back and stared up at me, and his eyes had a glassy stare. Then he roused himself by an effort, and raised himself upon his elbow.

"That is it, boy--ride on alone. Take Falcone. Listen, there are three score men of mine at Pagliano who will follow you to Hell at a word that Falcone shall speak to them from me. About it, then, and save her. But wait, boy! Do no violence to Farnese, if you can help it."

"But if I can't?" I asked.

"If you can't--no matter. But endeavour not to offer him any hurt! Leave that to me--anon when all is ripe for it. To-day it would be premature, and... and we... we should be... crushed by the..." His speech trailed off into incoherent mutterings; his eyelids dropped, and he was fast asleep again.

Ten minutes later we were riding north again, and all that night we rode, along the endless Aemilian Way, pausing for no more than a draught of wine from time to time, and munching a loaf as we rode. We crossed the Po, and kept steadily on, taking fresh horses when we could, until towards sunset a turn in the road brought Pagliano into our view--grey and lichened on the crest of its smooth emerald hill.

The dusk was falling and lights began to gleam from some of the castle windows when we brought up in the shadow of the gateway.

A man-at-arms lounged out of the guardhouse to inquire our business.

"Is Madonna Bianca wed yet?" was the breathless greeting I gave him.

He peered at me, and then at Falcone, and he swore in some surprise.

"Well, returned my lord! Madonna Bianca? The nuptials were celebrated to-day. The bride has gone."

"Gone?" I roared. "Gone whither, man?"

"Why, to Piacenza--to my Lord Cosimo's palace there. They set out some three hours since."

"Where is your lord?" I asked him, flinging myself from the saddle.

"Within doors, most noble."

How I found him, or by what ways I went to do so, are things that are effaced completely from my memory. But I know that I came upon him in the library. He was sitting hunched in a great chair, his face ashen, his eyes fevered. At sight of me--the cause, however innocent, of all this evil--his brows grew dark, and his eyes angry. If he had reproaches for me, I gave him no time to utter them, but hurled him mine.

"What have you done, sir?" I demanded. "By what right did you do this thing? By what right did you make a sacrifice of that sweet dove? Did you conceive me so vile as to think that I should ever owe you gratitude--that I should ever do aught but abhor the deed, abhor all who had a hand in it, abhor the very life itself purchased for me at such a cost?"

He cowered before my furious wrath; for I must have seemed terrific as I stood thundering there, my face wild, my eyes bloodshot, half mad from pain and rage and sleeplessness.

"And do you know what you have done?" I went on. "Do you know to what you have sold her? Must I tell you?"

And I told him, in a dozen brutal words that brought him to his feet, the lion in him roused at last, his eyes ablaze.

"We must after them," I urged. "We must wrest her from these beasts, and make a widow of her for the purpose. Galeotto's lances are below and they will follow me. You may bring what more you please. Come, sir--to horse!"

He sprang forward with no answer beyond a muttered prayer that we might come in time.

"We must," I answered fiercely, and ran madly from the room, along the gallery and down the stairs, shouting and raging like a maniac, Cavalcanti following me.

Within ten minutes, Galeotto's three score men and another score of those who garrisoned Pagliano for Cavalcanti were in the saddle and galloping hell-for-leather to Piacenza. Ahead on fresh horses went Falcone and I, the Lord of Pagliano spurring beside me and pestering me with questions as to the source of my knowledge.

Our great fear was lest we should find the gates of Piacenza closed on our arrival. But we covered the ten miles in something under an hour, and the head of our little column was already through the Fodesta Gate when the first hour of night rang out from the Duomo, giving the signal for the closing of the gates.

The officer in charge turned out to view so numerous a company, and challenged us to stand. But I flung him the answer that we were the Black Bands of Ser Galeotto and that we rode by order of the Duke, with which perforce he had to be content; for we did not stay for more and were too numerous to be detained by such meagre force as he commanded.

Up the dark street we swept--the same street down which I had last ridden on that night when Gambara had opened the gates of the prison for me--and so we came to the square and to Cosimo's palace.

All was in darkness, and the great doors were closed. A strange appearance this for a house to which a bride had so newly come.

I dismounted as lightly as if I had not ridden lately more than just the ten miles from Pagliano. Indeed, I had become unconscious of all fatigue, entirely oblivious of the fact that for three nights now I had not slept--save for the three hours at Bologna.

I knocked briskly on the iron-studded gates. We stood there waiting, Cavalcanti and Falcone afoot with me, the men on horseback still, a silent phalanx.

I issued an order to Falcone. "Ten of them to secure our egress, the rest to remain here and allow none to leave the house."

The equerry stepped back to convey the command in his turn to the men, and the ten he summoned slipped instantly from their saddles and ranged themselves in the shadow of the wall.

I knocked again, more imperatively, and at last the postern in the door was opened by an elderly serving-man.

"What's this?" he asked, and thrust a lanthorn into my face.

"We seek Messer Cosimo d'Anguissola," I answered. He looked beyond me at the troop that lined the street, and his face became troubled. "Why, what is amiss?" quoth he.

"Fool, I shall tell that to your master. Conduct me to him. The matter presses."

"Nay, then--but have you not heard? My lord was wed to-day. You would not have my lord disturbed at such a time?" He seemed to leer.

I put my foot into his stomach, and bore him backward, flinging him full length upon the ground. He went over and rolled away into a corner, where he lay bellowing.

"Silence him!" I bade the men who followed us in. "Then, half of you remain here to guard the stairs; the rest attend us."

The house was vast, and it remained silent, so that it did not seem that the clown's scream when he went over had been heard by any.

Up the broad staircase we sped, guided by the light of the lanthorn, which Falcone had picked up--for the place was ominously in darkness. Cavalcanti kept pace with me, panting with rage and anxiety.

At the head of the stairs we came upon a man whom I recognized for one of the Duke's gentlemen-in-waiting. He had been attracted, no doubt, by the sound of our approach; but at sight of us he turned to escape. Cavalcanti reached forward in time to take him by the ankle, so that he came down heavily upon his face.

In an instant I was sitting upon him, my dagger at his throat.

"A sound," said I, "and you shall finish it in Hell!" Eyes bulging with fear stared at me out of his white face. He was an effeminate cur, of the sort that the Duke was wont to keep about him, and at once I saw that we should have no trouble with him.

"Where is Cosimo?" I asked him shortly. "Come, man, conduct us to the room that holds him if you would buy your dirty life."

"He is not here," wailed the fellow.

"You lie, you hound," said Cavalcanti, and turning to me--"Finish him, Agostino," he bade me.

The man under me writhed, filled now by the terror that Cavalcanti had so cunningly known how to inspire in him. "I swear to God that he is not here," he answered, and but that fear had robbed him of his voice, he would have screamed it. "Gesu! I swear it--it is true!"

I looked up at Cavalcanti, baffled, and sick with sudden dismay. I saw Cavalcanti's eye, which had grown dull, kindle anew. He stooped over the prostrate man.

"Is the bride here--is my daughter in this house?"

The fellow whimpered and did not answer until my dagger's edge was at his throat again. Then he suddenly screeched--"Yes!"

In an instant I had dragged him to his feet again, his pretty clothes and daintily curled hair all crumpled, so that he looked the most pitiful thing in all the world.

"Lead us to her chamber," I bade him.

And he obeyed as men obey when the fear of death is upon them.

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