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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Shame Of Motley - Part 2. The Ogre Of Cesena - Chapter 21. Ave Caesar!
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The Shame Of Motley - Part 2. The Ogre Of Cesena - Chapter 21. Ave Caesar! Post by :karrine Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1576

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The Shame Of Motley - Part 2. The Ogre Of Cesena - Chapter 21. Ave Caesar!

PART II. THE OGRE OF CESENA CHAPTER XXI. AVE CAESAR!

For just an instant I allowed myself to be tortured by the hope that a miracle had happened, and here was Cesare Borgia come a good eight hours before it was possible for Mariani to have fetched him from Faenza. The same doubt may have crossed Ramiro's mind, for he changed colour and sprang to the door to bawl an order forbidding his men to lower the bridge.

But he was too late. Before he was answered by his followers, we heard the creaking of the hinges and the rattle of the running chains, ending in a thud that told us the drawbridge had dropped across the moat. Then came the loud continuous thunder of many hoofs upon its timbers. Paralysed by fear Ramiro stood where he had halted, turning his eyes wildly in this direction and in that, but never moving one way or the other.

It must be Cesare, I swore to myself. Who else could ride to Cessna with such numbers? But then, if it was Cesare, it could not be that he had seen Mariani, for he could not have ridden from Faenza. Madonna had risen too, and with a white face and straining eyes she was looking towards the door.

And then our doubts were at last ended. There was a jangle of spurs and the fall of feet, and through the open door stepped a straight, martial figure in a doublet of deep crimson velvet, trimmed with costly lynx furs and slashed with satin in the sleeves and shoulder-puffs; jewels gleamed in the massive chain across his breast and at the marroquin girdle that carried his bronze-hilted sword; his hose was of red silk, and his great black boots were armed with golden spurs. But to crown all this very regal splendour was the beautiful, pale, cold face of Cesare Borgia, from out of which two black eyes flashed and played like sword-points on the company.

Behind him surged a press of mercenaries, in steel, their weapons naked in their hands, so that no doubt was left of the character of this visit.

Collecting himself, and bethinking him that after all, he had best dissemble a good countenance; Ramiro advanced respectfully to meet his overlord. But ere he had taken three steps the Duke stayed him.

"Stand where you are, traitor," was the imperious command. "I'll trust you no nearer to my person." And to emphasise his words he raised his gloved left hand, which had been resting on his sword-hilt, and in which I now observed that he held a paper.

Whether Ramiro recognised it, or whether it was that the mere sight of a paper reminded him of the letter which on my testimony should be in Cesare's keeping, or whether again the word "traitor" with which Cesare branded him drove the iron deeper into his soul, I cannot say; but to this I can testify: that he turned a livid green, and stood there before his formidable master in an attitude so stricken as to have aroused pity for any man less a villain than was he.

And now Cesare's eye, travelling round, alighted on Madonna Paola, standing back in the shadows to which she had instinctively withdrawn at his coming. At sight of her he recoiled a pace, deeming, no doubt, that it was an apparition stood before him. Then he looked again, and being a man whose mind was above puerile superstitions, he assured himself that by what miracle the thing was wrought, the figure before him was the living body of Madonna Paola Sforza di Santafior. He swept the velvet cap with its jewelled plume from off his auburn locks, and bowed low before her.

"In God's name, Madonna, how are you come to life again, and how do I find you here of all places?"

She made no ado about enlightening him.

"That villain," said she, and her finger pointed straight and firmly at Ramiro, "put a sleeping-potion in my wine on the last night he dined with us at Pesaro, and when all thought me dead he came to the Church of San Domenico with his men to carry off my sleeping body. He would have succeeded in his fell design but that Lazzaro Biancomonte there, whom you have stayed him in the act of torturing to death, was beforehand and saved me from his clutches for a time. This morning at Cattolica his searching sbirri discovered me and brought me hither, where I have been for the past three hours, and where, but for your Excellency's timely arrival, I shudder to think of the indignities I might have suffered."

"I thank you, Madonna, for this clear succinctness," answered Cesare coldly, as was his habit. They say he was a passionate man, and such indeed I do believe him to have been; but even in the hottest frenzy of rage, outwardly he was ever the same--icily cold and tranquil. And this, no doubt, was the thing that made him terrible.

"Presently, Madonna," he pursued, "I shall ask you to tell me how it chanced that, having saved you, Messer Biancomonte did not bear you to your brother's house. But first I have business with my Governor of Cesena--a score which is rendered, if possible, heavier than it already stood by this thing that you have told me."

"My lord," cried out Ramiro, finding his tongue at last, "Madonna has misinformed you. I know nothing of who administered the sleeping-potion. Certainly it was not I. I heard a rumour that her body had been stolen, and--"

"Silence!" Cesare commanded sternly. "Did I question you, dog?"

His beautiful, terrible eyes fastened upon Ramiro in a glance that defied the man to answer him. Cowed, like a hound at sight of the whip, Ramiro whimpered into silence.

Cesare waved his hand in his direction, half-turning to the men-at-arms behind him.

"Take and disarm him," was his passionless command. And while they were doing his bidding, he turned to me and ordered the executioner beside me to unbind my hands and set me at liberty.

"I owe you a heavy debt, Messer Biancomonte," he said, without any warmth, even now that his voice was laden with a message of gratitude. "It shall be discharged. It is thanks to your daring and resource that the seneschal Mariani was able to bring me this letter, this piece of culminating proof against Ramiro del' Orca. It is fortunate for you that Mariani was not put to it to ride to Faenza to find me, or else I am afraid we had not reached Cesena in time to save your life. I met him some leagues this side of Faenza, as I was on my way to Sinigaglia."

He turned abruptly to Ramiro.

"In this letter which Vitelli wrote you," said he, "it is suggested that there are others in the conspiracy. Tell me now, who are those others? See that you answer me with truth, for I shall compel proofs from you of such accusations as you may make."

Ramiro looked at him with eyes rendered dull by agony. He moistened his lips with his tongue, and turning his head towards his men--

"Wine," he gasped, from very force of habit. "A cup of wine!"

"Let it be supplied him," said Cesare coldly, and we all stood waiting while a servant filled him a cup. Ramiro gulped the wine avidly, never pausing until the goblet was empty.

"Now," said Cesare, who had been watching him, "will it please you to answer my question?"

"My lord," said Ramiro, revived and strengthened in spirit by the draught, "I must ask your Excellency to be a little plainer with me. To what conspiracy is it that you refer? I know of none. What is this letter which you say Vitelli wrote me? I take it you refer to the Lord of Citta di Castello. But I can recall no letters passing between us. My acquaintance with him is of the slightest."

Cesare looked at him a second.

"Approach," he curtly bade him, and Ramiro came forward, one of the Borgia halberdiers on either side of him, each holding him by an arm. The Duke thrust the letter under his eyes. "Have you never seen that before?"

Ramiro looked at it a moment, and his attempt at dissembling bewilderment was a ludicrous thing to witness.

"Never," he said brazenly at last.

Cesare folded the letter and slipped it into the breast of his doublet. From his girdle he took a second paper. He turned from Ramiro.

"Don Miguel," he called.

From behind his men-at-arms a tall man, all dressed in black, stood forward. It was Cesare's Spanish captain, one whose name was as well known and as well-dreaded in Italy as Cesare's own. The Duke held out to him the paper that he had produced.

"You heard the question that I asked Messer del' Orca?" he inquired.

"I heard, Illustrious," answered Miguel, with a bow.

"See that you obtain me an answer to it, as well as an account of the other matters that I have noted on this list--concerning the misappropriation of stores, the retention of taxes illicitly levied, and the wanton cruelty towards my good citizens of Cesena. Put him to the question without delay, and record me his replies. The implements are yonder."

And with the same calm indifference which characterised his every word and action Cesare pointed to the torture, and turned to Madonna Paola, as though he gave the matter of Ramiro del' Orca and his misdeeds not another thought.

"Mercy, my lord," rang now the voice of Ramiro, laden with horrid fear. "I will speak."

"Then do so--to Don Miguel. He will question you in my name." Again he turned to Madonna. "Madonna Paola, may I conduct you hence? Things may perhaps occur which it is not seemly your gentle eyes should witness. Messer Biancomonte, attend us."

Now, in spite of all that Ramiro had made me suffer, I should have been loath to have remained and witnessed his examination. That they would torture him was now inevitable. His chance of answering freely was gone. Even if he returned meek replies to Don Miguel's questions, that gentleman would, no doubt, still submit him to the cord by way of assuring himself that such replies were true ones.

Gladly, then, did I turn to follow the Duke and Madonna Paola into the adjoining chamber to which Cesare led the way, even as Don Miguel's voice was raised to command his men to clear the hall, to the end that he might conduct his examination in private.

The three of us stood in the anteroom. A servant had lighted the tapers and closed the doors, and the Duke turned to me.

"First, Messer Biancomonte, to discharge my debt. You are, if I am not misinformed, the lord by right of birth of certain lands that bear your name, which suffered sequestration during the reign of the late Costanzo, Tyrant of Pesaro, whose son Giovanni upheld that confiscation. Am I right?"

"Your Excellency is very well informed. The Lord of Pesaro did make me tardy restitution--so tardy, indeed, that the lands which he restored to me had already virtually passed from his possession."

Cesare smiled.

"In recompense for the service you have rendered me this day," said he, and my heart thrilled at the words and at the thought of the joy which I was about to bear to my old mother, "I reinvest you in your lands of Biancomonte for so long as you are content to recognise in me your overlord, and to be loyal, true and faithful to my rule."

I bowed, murmuring something of the joy I felt and the devotion I should entertain.

"Then that is done with. You shall have the deed from my hand by morning. And now, Madonna, will you grant me some explanation of your conduct in leaving Pesaro in this man's company, instead of repairing to your brother's house, when you awakened from the effects of the potion Ramiro gave you, or must I seek the explanation from Messer Biancomonte?"

Her eyes fell before the scrutiny of his, and when they were raised again it was to meet my glance, and if Cesare could not, for himself, read the message of those eyes, why then, his penetration was by no means what the world accounted it.

"My lord," I cried, "let me explain. I love Madonna Paola. It was love of her that led me to the church and kept me there that night. It was love of her and the overmastering passion of my grief at her so sudden death that led me, in a madness, to desire once more to look upon her face ere they delivered it to earth's keeping. Thus was it that I came to discover that she lived; thus was it that I anticipated Ramiro del' Orca. He came upon us almost before I had raised her from the coffin, yet love lent me strength and craft to delude him. We hid awhile in the sacristy, and it was there, after Madonna had revived, that the pent-up passion of years burst the bond with which reason had bidden me restrain it."

"By the Host!" cried Cesare, his brows drawn down in a frown. "You are a bold man to tell me this. And you, Madonna," he cried, turning suddenly to her, "what have you to say?"

"Only, my lord, that I have suffered more I think in these past few days than has ever fallen to the life-time's share of another woman. I think, my lord, that I have suffered enough to have earned me a little peace and a little happiness for the remainder of my days. All my life have men plagued me with marriages that were hateful to me, and this has culminated in the brutal act of Ramiro del' Orca. Do you not think that I have endured enough?"

He stared at her for a moment.

"Then you love this fellow?" he gasped. "You, Madonna Paola Sforza di Santafior, one of the noblest ladies in all Italy, confess to love this lordling of a few barren acres?"

"I loved him, Illustrious, when he was less, much less, than that. I loved him when he was little better than the Fool of the Court of Pesaro, and not even the shame of the motley that disgraced him could stay the impulse of my affections."

He laughed curiously.

"By my faith," said he, "I have gone through life complaining of the want of frankness in the men and women I have met. But you two seem to deal in it liberally enough to satisfy the most ardent seeker after truth. I would that Pontius Pilate could have known you." Then he grew sterner. "But what account of this evening's adventure am I to bear to my cousin Ignacio?"

She hung her head in silence, whilst my own spirit trembled. Then suddenly I spoke.

"My lord," said I, "if you take her back to Pesaro, you may keep the deed of Biancomonte. For unless Madonna Paola goes thither with me, your gift is a barren one, your reward of no account or value to me."

"I would not have it so," said he, his head on one side and his fingers toying with his auburn beard. "You saved my life, and you must be rewarded fittingly."

"Then, Illustrious, in payment for my preservation of your life, do you render happy mine, and we shall thus be quits."

"My lord," cried Paola, putting forth her hands in supplication, "if you have ever loved, befriend us now."

A shadow darkened his face for an instant, then it was gone, and his expression was as inscrutable as ever. Yet he took her hands in his and looked down into her eyes.

"They say that I am hard, bloodthirsty and unfeeling," he said in tones that were almost of complaint. "But I am not proof against so much appeal. Ignacio must find him a bride in Spain; and if he is wise and would taste the sweets of life, he will see to it that he finds him a willing one."

"As for you two, Cesare Borgia shalt stand your friend. He owes you no less. I will be godfather to your nuptials. Thus shall the blame and consequences rest on me. Paola Sforza di Santafior is dead, men think. We will leave them thinking it. Filippo must know the truth. But you can trust me to make your brother take a reasonable view of what has come to pass. After all, there may be a disparity in your ranks. But it is purely adventitious, for noble though you may be, Madonna Paola, you are wedding one who seems no less noble at heart, whatever the parts he may have played in life." He smiled inscrutably, as he added: "I have in mind that you once sought service with me Messer Biancomonte, and if a martial life allures you still, I'll make you lord of something better far than Biancomonte."

I thanked him, and Madonna joined me in that expression of gratitude--an expression that fell very short of all that was in our hearts. But touching that offer of his that I should follow his fortunes, I begged him not to insist.

"The possession of Biancomonte has from my cradle been the goal of all my hopes. It is patrimony enough for me, and there, with Madonna Paola, I'll take a long farewell of ambition, which is but the seed of discontent."

"Why, as you will," he sighed. And then, before more could be said, there came from the adjoining room a piercing scream.

Cesare raised his head, and his lips parted in the faintest vestige of a smile.

"They are exacting the truth from the Governor of Cesena," said he. "I think, Madonna, that we had better move a little farther off. Ramiro's voice makes indifferent music for a lady's ear."

She was white as death at the horrid noise and all the things of which it may have reminded her, and so we passed from the antechamber and sought the more distant places of the castle.

Here let me pause. We were married on the morrow which was Christmas eve, and in the grey dawn of the Christmas morning we set out for Biancomonte with the escort which Cesare Borgia placed at our disposal.

As we rode out from the Citadel of Cesena, we saw the last of Ramiro del' Orca. Beyond the gates, in the centre of the public square, a block stood planted in the snow. On the side nearer the castle there was a dark mass over which a rich mantle had been thrown; it was of purple colour, and in the uncertain light it was not easy to tell where the cloak ended, and the stain that embrued the snow began. On the other side of the block a decapitated head stood mounted on an upright pike, and the sightless eyes of Ramiro del' Orca looked from his grinning face upon the town of Cesena, which he had so wantonly misruled.

Madonna shuddered and turned her head aside as we rode past that dread emblem of the Borgia justice.

To efface from her mind the memory of such a thing on such a day, I talked to her, as we cantered out into the country, of the life to come, of the mother that waited to welcome us, and of the glad tidings with which we were to rejoice her on that Christmas day.

There is no moral to my story. I may not end with one of those graceful admonitions beloved of Messer Boccacci to whom in my jester's days I owed so much. Not mine is it to say with him "Wherefore, gentle ladies"--or "noble sirs--beware of this, avoid that other thing."

Mine is a plain tale, written in the belief that some account of those old happenings that befell me may offer you some measure of entertainment, and written, too, in the support of certain truths which my contemporaries have been shamefully inclined and simoniacally induced to suppress. Many chroniclers set forth how the Lord Vitellozzo Vitelli and his associates were barbarously strangled by Cesare's orders at Sinigaglia, and wilfully--for I cannot believe that it results from ignorance--are they silent touching the reason, leaving you to imagine that it was done in obedience to a ruthlessness of character beyond parallel, so that you may come to consider Cesare Borgia as black as they were paid to paint him.

To confute them do I set down these facts of which my knowledge cannot be called in question, and also that you may know the true story of Paola di Santafior--and more particularly that part of it which lies beyond the death she did not die.

The sun of that Christmas day was setting as we drew near to Biancomonte and the humble dwelling of my old mother. We fell into talk of her once more. Suddenly Paola turned in her saddle to confront me.

"Tell me, Lord of Biancomonte, will she love me a little, think you?" she asked, to plague me.

"Who would not love you, Lady of Biancomonte?" counter-questioned I.


(THE END)
Rafael Sabatini's Novel: Shame of Motley

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