The Banner of the Bull/The Urbinian
IN that shrewd chapter of his upon a prince's choice of ministers—of which I shall presently have more to say—Messer Niccolò Macchiavelli discovers three degrees in the intelligence of mankind. To the first belong those who understand things for themselves by virtue of their own natural endowments; to the second those who have at least the wit to discern what others understand; and to the third those who neither understand things for themselves nor yet through the demonstrations which others afford them. The first are rare and excellent, since they are the inventive and generative class; the second are of merit, since if not actually productive, they are at least reproductive; the third, being neither one nor the other, but mere parasites who prey for their existence—and often profitably—upon the other two, are entirely worthless.
There is yet a fourth class which the learned and subtle Florentine appears to have overlooked, a class which combines in itself the attributes of those other three. In this class I would place the famous Corvinus Trismegistus, who was the very oddest compound of inventiveness and stupidity, of duplicity and simplicity, of deceit and credulity, of guile and innocence, of ingenuity and ingenuousness, as you shall judge.
To begin with, Messer Corvinus Trismegistus had mastered—as his very name implies—all the secrets of Nature, of medicine, and of magic; so that the fame of him had gone out over the face of Italy like a ripple over water.
He knew, for instance, that the oil of scorpions captured in sunshine during the period of Sol in Scorpio—a most essential condition this—was an infallible cure for the plague. He knew that to correct an enlargement of the spleen, the certain way was to take the spleen of a goat, apply it for four-and-twenty hours to the affected part, and thereafter expose it to the sun; in a measure as the goat's spleen should desiccate and wither, in such measure should the patient's spleen be reduced and restored to health. He knew that the ashes of a wolf's skin never failed as a remedy for baldness, and that to arrest bleeding at the nose nothing could rival an infusion from the bark of an olive-tree, provided the bark were taken from a young tree in the case of a young patient, and from an old tree in the case of an old patient. He knew that serpents stewed in wine, and afterwards eaten, would make sound and whole a leper, by conferring upon him the serpent's faculty of changing its skin.
Deeply, too, was he versed in poisons and enchantments, and he made no secret—so frank and open was his nature—of his power to conjure spirits and, at need, to restore the dead to life. He had discovered an elixir vitae that preserved him still young and vigorous at the prodigious age of two thousand years, which he claimed to have attained; and another elixir, called Acqua Celeste—a very complex and subtle distillation this—that would reduce an old man's age by fifty years, and restore to him his lost youth.
All this and much more was known to Corvinus the Thrice-Mage, although certain folk of Sadducaic mind have sought to show that the sum of his knowledge concerned the extent to which he could abuse the credulity of his contemporaries and render them his dupes. Similarly it was alleged—although his adherents set it down to the spite and envy that the great must for ever be provoking in the mean—that his real name was just Pietro Corvo, a name he got from his mother, who kept a wine-shop in Forli, and who could not herself with any degree of precision have named his father. And these deriders added that his having lived two thousand years was an idle vaunt since there were still many alive who remembered to have seen him as an ill-kempt, dirty urchin wallowing in the kennels of his native town.
Be all that as it may, there is no denying that he had achieved a great and well-deserved renown, and that he waxed rich in his mean dwelling in Urbino—that Itala Atene, the cradle of Italian art and learning. And to wax rich is, after all, considered by many to be the one outward sign of inward grace, the one indubitable proof of worth. To them, at least, it follows that Messer Corvinus was worthy.
This house of his stood in a narrow street behind the Oratory of San Giovanni, a street of crazy buildings that leaned across to each other until, had they been carried a little higher, they must have met in a Gothic arch, to exclude the slender strip of sky which, as it was, remained visible.
It was a quarter of the town admirably suited to a man of the magician's studious habits. The greater streets of Urbino might tremble under the tramp of armed multitudes in those days when the Lord Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and Romagna, was master of the city, and the peaceful, scholarly Duke Guidobaldo a fugitive outcast. Down that narrow, ill-paved gap of sordid dwellings came no disturbers of the peace. So that Corvinus Trismegistus was left to pursue his studies unmolested, to crush his powders, and distil his marvellous elixirs.
Thither to seek his help and his advice came folk from every quarter of Italy. Thither in the first hour of a fair June night, about a fortnight after Cesare Borgia's occupation of Urbino, came, attended by two grooms, the Lady Bianca de' Fioravanti. This Lady Bianca was the daughter of that famous Fioravanti who was Lord of San Leo, the only fortress in Guidobaldo's territory which, emboldened by its almost impregnable position, still held out in defiance of the irresistible Valentinois.
With much had heaven blessed Madonna Bianca. Wealth was hers and youth, and a great name; culture and a beauty that has been the subject of some songs. And yet, with all these gifts there was still something that she lacked—something without which all else was vain; something that brought her by night, a little fearfully, to the grim house of Messer Corvinus as a suppliant. To attract the less attention she came on foot and masked, and with no more attendance than just that of her two grooms. As they entered the narrow street, she bade one of these extinguish the torch he carried. Thereafter, in the dark, they had come, almost groping, stumbling on the rough kidney stones, to the magician's door.
'Go knock, Taddeo,' she bade one of her servants.
And on her words there happened the first of those miracles by which Madonna Bianca was to be convinced beyond all doubting of the supernatural quality of the powers that Messer Corvinus wielded.
Even as the servant took his first step towards the door, this opened suddenly, apparently of itself, and in the passage appeared a stately, white-robed Nubian bearing a lanthorn. This he now raised, so that its yellow shafts showered their light upon Madonna and her followers. There was, of course, no miracle in that. The miracle lay in another apparition. In the porch itself, as if materialized suddenly out of the circumambient gloom, stood a tall, cloaked figure, black from head to foot, the face itself concealed under a black visor. This figure bowed, and waved Madonna onward into the house.
She drew back in fear; for, having come to a place of wonders, expecting wonders, she accounted it but natural that wonders she should find, and it never entered her mind to suppose that here was but another who sought Corvinus, one who had arrived ahead of her, and in response to whose earlier knock it was that the door had opened, just a courteous gentleman who stood now deferring to her sex and very obvious importance.
Devoutly she crossed herself, and observing that the act did not cause this black famulus—as she supposed him—to dissolve and vanish, she reflected that at least his origin could not be dæmoniac, took courage and went in, for all that her knees shook under her as she passed him.
The supposed famulus followed close upon her heels, the grooms came last, together and something cowed, though they were men she had chosen for the stoutness of their courage. The gloom, the uncanny gentleman in black, the grinning Nubian, all teeth and eyeballs, affected them unpleasantly.
The Nubian closed the door and barred it, the metal ringing shrilly as it fell. Then he faced about to ask them formally what and whom they sought. It was the lady who answered, unmasking as she spoke.
'I am Bianca de' Fioravanti, and I seek the very learned Messer Corvinus Trismegistus.'
The Nubian bowed silently, bade her follow, and moved down the long stone passage, his lanthorn swinging as he went, and flinging its yellow disc of light to and fro upon the grimy walls. Thus they came to a stout oaken door studded with great nails of polished steel, and by this into a bare anteroom. There were dried rushes on the floor, a wooden bench was set against the wall, and upon a massive, four legged table stood an oil-lamp, whose ruddy, quivering flame, ending in a pennon of black smoke, shed a little light and a deal of smell.
Their guide waved a brown hand towards the bench.
'Your lackeys may await your excellency here,' said he.
She nodded, and briefly gave her order to the grooms. They obeyed her, though with visible reluctance. Then the Nubian opened a second door, at the chamber's farther end. He drew aside a heavy curtain, with a startling clash of metal rings, and disclosed what seemed at first no more than a black gap.
'The dread Corvinus Trismegistus bids you enter,' he announced.
For all the stoutness of her spirit the Lady Bianca now drew back. But as her eyes remained fixed upon the gap, she presently saw the gloom in part dispelled, and dimly she began to perceive some of the furnishings of that inner room. She took courage, bethought her of the great boon she sought at the magician's hands, and so crossed the dread threshold and passed into that mysterious chamber.
After her, in close attendance, ever silent, came the gentleman of the mask. Believing him to be of the household of the mage, and his attendance a necessary condition, she made no demur to it; whilst the Nubian, on the other hand, supposing him, from his mask and the richness of his cloak, to be her companion, made no attempt to check his ingress.
Thus, together, these two passed into the dim twilight of the room. The curtains rasped together again behind them, and the door clanged sepulchrally.
Madonna peered about her, her breath shortened, her heart beating unduly. A line of radiance along the ceiling, mysterious of source, very faintly revealed her surroundings to her: three or four chairs, capacious and fantastically carved, a table of plain wood against the wall immediately before her, crowded with strange vessels of glass and of metal that gleamed as they were smitten by rays of the faint light. No window showed. From ceiling to floor the chamber was hung with black draperies; it was cold and silent as the tomb, and of the magician there was no sign.
The eeriness of the place increased her awe, trammelled her reason, and loosed her imagination. She sat down to await the advent of the dread Corvinus. And then the second miracle took place. Chancing to look round in quest of that black famulus who had materialized to escort her, she discovered, to her infinite amazement, that he had vanished. As mysteriously as he had first taken shape in the porch before her eyes, had he now dissolved again and melted away into the all-encompassing gloom.
She caught her breath at this, and then, as if something had still been needed to scatter what remained of her wits, a great pillar of fire leapt suddenly into being in mid-chamber, momentarily to blind her and to wring from her a cry of fear. As suddenly it vanished, leaving a stench of sulphur in the air; and then a voice, deep, booming, and immensely calm, rang in her ears.
'Fear not, Bianca de' Fioravanti. I am here. What do you seek of me?'
The poor, overwrought lady looked before her in the direction of the voice, and witnessed the third miracle.
Gradually before her eyes, where there had been impenetrable gloom—where, indeed, it had seemed to her that the chamber ended in a wall—she saw a man, an entire scene, gradually assume shape and being as she watched. Nor did it occur to her that it might be her eyesight's slow recovery from the blinding flash of light that conveyed to her this impression of gradual materialization. Soon it was complete—in focus, as it were, and quite distinct.
She beheld a small table or pulpit upon which stood a gigantic open tome, its leaves yellow with a great age, its colossal silver clasps gleaming in the light from the three beaks of a tall-stemmed bronze lamp of ancient Greek design, in which some aromatic oil was being burned. At the lamp's foot a human skull grinned horribly. To the right of the table stood a tripod supporting a brazier in which a mass of charcoal was glowing ruddily. At the table itself, in a high-backed chair, sat a man in a scarlet gown, his head covered by a hat like an inverted saucepan. His face was lean and gaunt, the nose and cheekbones very prominent; his forehead was high and narrow, his red beard bifurcate, and his eyes, which were turned full upon his visitor, reflecting the cunningly set light, gleamed with an uncanny penetration.
Behind him, in the background, stood crucible and alembic, and above these an array of shelves laden with phials, coffers, and retorts. But of all this she had the most fleeting and subconscious of impressions. All attention of which she was capable was focused upon the man himself. She was, too, as one in a dream, so bewildered had her senses grown by all that she had witnessed.
'Speak, Madonna,' the magician calmly urged her. 'I am here to do your will.'
It was encouraging, and would have been still more encouraging had she but held some explanation of the extraordinary manner of his advent. Still overawed, she spoke at last, her voice unsteady.
'I need your help,' said she. 'I need it very sorely.'
'It is yours, Madonna, to the entire extent of my vast science.'
'You—you have great learning?' she half-questioned, half-affirmed.
'The limitless ocean,' he answered modestly, 'is neither so wide nor so deep as my knowledge. What is your need?'
She was mastering herself now; and if she faltered still and hesitated it was because the thing she craved was not such as a maid may boldly speak of. She approached her subject gradually.
'You possess the secret of great medicines,' said she, 'of elixirs that will do their work not only upon the body, but at need upon the very spirit?'
'Madonna,' he answered soberly, 'I can arrest the decay of age, or compel the departed spirit of the dead to return and restore the body's life. And since it is Nature's law that the greater must include the less, let that reply suffice you.'
'But can you—' She paused. Then, impelled by her need, her last fear forgotten now that she was well embarked upon the business, she rose and approached him. 'Can you command love?' she asked, and gulped. 'Can you compel the cold to grow impassioned, the indifferent to be filled with longings? Can you—can you do this?'
He pondered her at some length.
'Is this your need?' quoth he, and there was wonder in his voice. 'Yours or another's?'
'It is my need,' she answered low. 'My own.'
He sat back, and further considered the pale beauty of her, the low brow, the black, lustrous tresses in their golden net, the splendid eyes, the alluring mouth, the noble height and shape. 'Magic I have to do your will at need,' he said slowly; 'but surely no such magic as is Nature's own endowment of you. Can he resist the sorcery of those lips and eyes—this man for whose subjection you desire my aid?'
'Alas! He thinks not of such things. His mind is set on war and armaments. His only mistress is ambition.'
'His name,' quoth the sage imperiously. 'What is his name—his name and his condition?'
She lowered her glance. A faint flush tinged her cheeks. She hesitated, taken by a fluttering panic. Yet she dared not deny him the knowledge he demanded, lest, vexed by her refusal, he should withhold his aid.
'His name,' she faltered at length, 'is Lorenzo Castrocaro—a gentleman of Urbino a condottiero who serves under the banner of the Duke of Valentinois.'
'A condottiero blind to beauty, blind to such warm loveliness as yours, Madonna?' cried Corvinus. 'So anomalous a being, such a '’lusus naturæ'’ will require great medicine.'
'Opportunity has served me none too well,' she explained, almost in self-defence. 'Indeed, circumstance is all against us. My father is the castellan of San Leo, devoted to Duke Guidobaldo, wherefore it is natural that we should see but little of one who serves under the banner of the foe. And so I fear that he may go his ways unless I have that which will bring him to me in despite of all.'
Corvinus considered the matter silently awhile, then sighed. 'I see great difficulties to be overcome,' said that wily mage.
'But you can help me to overcome them?'
His gleaming eyes considered her.
'It will be costly,' he said.
'What's that to me? Do you think I'll count the cost in such a matter?'
The wizard drew back, frowned, and wrapped himself in a great dignity.
'Understand me,' said he with some asperity. 'This is no shop where things are bought and sold. My knowledge and my magic are at the service of all humanity. These I do not sell. I bestow them freely and without fee upon all who need them. But if I give so much, so very much, it cannot be expected that I should give more. The drugs I have assembled from all corners of the earth are often of great price. That price it is yours to bear, since the medicine is for your service.'
'You have such medicine, then!' she cried, her hands clasping in sudden increase of hopefulness.
He nodded his assent.
'Love philtres are common things enough, and easy of preparation in the main. Any rustic hag who deals in witchcraft and preys on fools can brew one.' The contempt of his tone was withering. 'But for your affair, where great obstacles must be surmounted, or ever the affinities can be made to respond, a drug of unusual power is needed. Such a drug I have—though little of it, for in all the world there is none more difficult to obtain. Its chief component is an extract from the brain of a rare bird—'’avis rarissima'’—of Africa.'
With feverish fingers she plucked a heavy purse from her girdle and splashed it upon the table. It fell against the grinning skull, and thus cheek by jowl with each other, lay Life's two masters—Death and Gold.
'Fifty ducats!' she panted in her excitement. 'Will that suffice?'
'Perhaps,' said he, entirely disdainful. 'Should it fall something short, I will myself add what may be lacking.' And with contemptuous fingers, eloquent of his scorn of mere profit, he pushed the purse aside, a thing of no account in this transaction.
She began to protest that more should be forthcoming. But he nobly overbore her protestations. He rose, revealing the broad, black girdle that clasped his scarlet robe about his waist, all figured with the signs of the zodiac wrought in gold. He stepped to the shelves, and took from one of them a bronze coffer of some size. With this he returned to the table, set it down, opened it, and drew forth a tiny phial—a slender little tube of glass that was plugged and sealed.
It contained no more than a thread of deep amber fluid—a dozen drops at most. He held it up so that it gleamed golden in the light.
'This,' he said, 'is my elixirium aureum, my golden elixir, a rare and very subtle potion, sufficient for your need.' Abruptly he proffered it to her.
With a little cry of gratitude and joy she held out avid hands to take the phial. But as her fingers were about to close upon it, he snatched it back, and raised a hand impressively to restrain her.
'Attend to me,' he bade her, his glittering eye regarding her intensely. 'To this golden elixir you shall add two drops of your own blood, neither more nor less; then contrive that Messer Lorenzo drink it in his wine. But all must be done while the moon is waxing; and, in a measure, as the moon continues to grow, so will his passion mount and abide in him. And before that same moon shall have begun to wane this Lorenzo Castrocaro will come to you, though the whole world lie between you, and he will be your utter and absolute slave. The present is a propitious time. Go, and be you happy.'
She took the phial, which he now relinquished, and broke into thanks.
But imperiously, by a wave of the hand and a forbidding look, he stemmed her gratitude. He smote a little gong that stood by.
There was the sound of an opening door. The curtains parted with a clash, and the white-robed Nubian appeared salaaming on the threshold, waiting to reconduct her.
Madonna Bianca bowed to the great magician, and departed overawed by the majesty of his demeanour. She had passed out, and still the Nubian waited on the threshold—waited for the man he had admitted with her. But Corvinus, knowing naught of his slave's motive for lingering, bade him harshly begone; whereupon the curtains were drawn together again, and the door was closed.
Left alone, the magician flung off the great mantle of overawing dignity, descended from the lofty indifference to gain, natural enough in one who is master of the ages, and became humanly interested in the purse which Madonna Bianca had left him. Drawing wide the mouth of it, he emptied the golden contents on to the vast page of his book of magic. He spread the glittering mass, and fingered it affectionately, chuckling in his red beard. And then, quite suddenly, his chuckle was echoed by a laugh, short, abrupt, contemptuous, and sinister.
With a startled gasp Corvinus looked up, his hands spreading to cover and protect the gold, his eyes dilating with a sudden fear, a fear that swelled at what he saw. Before him, in mid-chamber, surged a tall figure all in black—black cloak, black cap, and black face, out of which two gleaming eyes considered him.
Trembling in every fibre, white of cheek, his mouth and eyes agape, a prey to a terror greater far than any it had ever been his lot to inspire in others, the wizard stared at the dread phantom, and assumed—not unnaturally it must be confessed—that here was Satan come to claim his own at last.
There fell a pause. Corvinus attempted to speak, to challenge the apparition. But courage failed him; terror struck him dumb.
Presently the figure advanced, silent-footed, menacing; and the wizard's knees were loosened under him. He sank gibbering into his high-backed chair, and waited for death with Hell to follow. At least, you see, he knew what he deserved.
The apparition halted at last, before the table, within arm's length of Corvinus, and a voice came to break the awful spell, a voice infinitely mocking yet unquestionably, reassuringly human.
'Greetings, Thrice-Mage!' it said.
It took Corvinus some moments to realize that his visitor was mortal, after all, and some further moments to recover some semblance of self-possession. An incipient chagrin mingling with the remains of his fears, he spoke at last.
'Who art thou?' he cried, the voice, which he would fain have rendered bold, high-pitched and quavering.
The cloak opened, displaying a graceful well-knit figure in sable velvet that was wrought with golden arabesques. From a girdle studded with great fiery rubies hung a long and heavy dagger, whose hilt and scabbard were of richly chiselled gold. On the backs of the black velvet gloves diamonds hung and sparkled like drops of water, to complete the sombre splendour of the man's apparel. One of the hands was raised to pluck away the visor and disclose the youthful, aquiline, and very noble countenance of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and Romagna.
Corvinus recognized him on the instant, and recognizing him was far from sure that things would have been worse had his visitor been the devil, as he had at first supposed. 'My lord!' he cried, profoundly amazed, profoundly uneasy. And, thinking aloud in his consternation, he added the question, foolish in a master of all secrets: 'How came you in?'
'I too, know something of magic,' said the tawny-headed young duke, and there was mockery in his voice and in the smile he bent upon the wizard.
He did not think it necessary to explain that all the magic he had employed had been to enter as if in attendance upon Madonna Bianca de' Fioravanti, and then to slip silently behind the black arras with which, to serve his purposes of deception, Messer Corvinus hung his walls.
But the magician was not duped. Who makes the image does not worship it. The truth—the precise truth—of magic was known undoubtedly to Corvinus, and it therefore follows that he could not for a moment suppose that the means by which the Duke had gained admittance had been other than perfectly natural ones. Anon the Nubian should be keenly questioned, and if necessary as keenly whipped. Meanwhile, the Duke himself must claim attention, and Corvinus—knowing himself a rogue—was far from easy.
But if he was not easy at least he was master of an inexhaustible store of impudence, and upon this he made now a heavy draught. To cover his momentary discomfiture, he smiled now as inscrutably as the Duke. Quickly he thrust the gold back into the purse, never heeding a coin that fell and rolled away along the floor. He tossed that purse aside, and, retaining his seat what time his highness remained standing, he combed his long, bifurcate beard.
'Betwixt your magic and mine, Magnificent, there is some difference,' he said, with sly suggestion.
'I should not be here else,' replied the Duke; and abruptly he proceeded to the matter that had brought him. 'It is said you have found an elixir that restores the dead to life.'
'It is rightly said, my lord,' replied the wizard with assurance. He was becoming master of himself again.
'You have tested it?' quoth Cesare.
'In Cyprus, three years ago, I restored life to a man who had been dead two days. He is still living, and will testify.'
'Your word suffices me,' said the Duke; and the irony was so sly that Corvinus was left wondering whether irony there had been. 'At need, no doubt, you would make proof of it upon yourself?'
Corvinus turned cold from head to foot, yet answered boldly of very necessity:
'At need, I would.'
Valentinois sighed as one who is content, and Corvinus took heart again.
'You have this elixir at hand?'
'Enough to restore life to one man—just that and no more. It is a rare and very precious liquor, and very costly, as you may perceive, Magnificent.'
'Derived, no doubt, from the brain of some rare bird of Africa?' the Duke mocked him.
By not so much as a flicker of the eyelid did Corvinus acknowledge the hit.
'Not so, Magnificent,' he replied imperturbably. 'It is derived from—'
'No matter!' said the Duke, 'let me have it!'
The magician rose, turned to his shelves, and sought there awhile. Presently he came back with a phial containing a blood-red liquid.
'It is here,' he said, and he held the slender vessel to the light, so that it glowed like a ruby.
'Force apart the teeth of the dead man, and pour this draught down his throat. Within an hour he will revive, provided the body has first been warmed before a fire.'
Valentinois took the phial slowly in his gloved fingers. He considered it, his countenance very thoughtful.
'It cannot fail to act?' he questioned.
'It cannot fail, Magnificent,' replied the mage.
'No matter how the man may have died?'
'No matter how, provided that no vital organ shall have been destroyed.'
'It can conquer death by poison?'
'It will dissolve and dissipate the poison, no matter what its nature, as vinegar will melt a pearl.'
'Excellent!' said the Duke, and he smiled his cold, inscrutable smile. 'And now another matter, Thrice-Mage.' He thoughtfully fingered his tawny beard. 'There is a rumour afoot in Italy, spread, no doubt, by yourself to further the thieving charlatan's trade you drive, that the Sultan Djem was poisoned by the Holy Father, and that the poison—a poison so subtle and miraculous that it lay inert in the Turk for a month before it slew him—was supplied to his Holiness by you.'
The Duke paused as if for a reply, and Corvinus shivered again in fear, so coldly sinister had been the tone.
'That is not true, Magnificent. I have had no dealings with the Holy Father, and I have supplied him with no poisons. I know not how Messer Djem may have died, nor have I ever said I did.'
'How, then, comes this story current, and your name in it?'
Corvinus hastened to explain. Explanations were a merchandise with which he was well stocked.
'It may be thus. Of such a poison I possess the secret, and some there have been who have sought it from me. Hence, no doubt, knowing that I have it and conceiving that it was used, the vulgar have drawn conclusions, as the vulgar will, unwarrantably.'
'’Tis very subtle, Trismegistus.' And he nodded gravely. 'And you say that you have such a poison? What, pray, may be its nature?'
'That, Magnificent, is secret,' was the answer.
'I care not. I desire to know, and I have asked you.'
There was no heat in the rejoinder. It was quite cold—deadly cold. But it had more power to compel than any anger. Corvinus fenced no more; he made haste to answer.
'It consists chiefly of the juice of catapuce and the powdered yolk of an egg, but its preparation is not easy.'
'You have it at hand?'
'Here, Magnificent,' replied the mage.
And from the same bronze coffer whence he had taken the love-philtre—the golden elixir—he drew now a tiny cedar box, opened it, and placed it before the Duke. It contained a fine yellow powder.
'One drachm of that will kill thirty days after it has been administered, two drachms in half the time.'
Cesare sniffed it and eyed the mage sardonically.
'I desire to make experiment,' said he. 'How much is here?'
'Two drachms, highness.'
The Duke held out the box to Corvinus.
'Swallow it,' he bade him calmly.
The mage drew back in an alarm that almost argued faith in his own statement. 'My lord!' he cried, aghast.
'Swallow it,' Cesare repeated, without raising his voice.
Corvinus blinked and gulped.
'Would you have me die, my lord?'
'Die? Do you, then, confess yourself mortal, Thrice-Mage—you, the great Corvinus Trismegistus, whose knowledge is wide and deep as the limitless ocean, you who are so little sensible to the ills and decay of the flesh that already you have lived two thousand years? Is the potency of this powder such that it can slay even the immortals?'
And now, at last, Corvinus began to apprehend the real scope of Cesare's visit. It was true that he had set it about that the Sultan Djem had been poisoned, and that he had boasted that he himself had supplied the Borgias with the fabulous secret drug that at such a distance of time had killed the Grand Turk's brother; and, as a consequence, he had made great profit by the sale of what he alleged was the same poison—a subtle veneno a termine, as he called it—so convenient for wives who were anxious for a change of husbands, so serviceable to husbands grown weary of their wives.
He understood at last that Cesare, informed of the defamatory lie that had procured the mage such profit, had sought him out to punish him. And it is a fact that Corvinus himself, despite his considerable knowledge, actually believed in the drug's fabulous power to slay at such a distance of time. He had found the recipe in an old manuscript volume, with many another kindred prescription, and he believed it with all the blind credulity of the Cinquecento in such matters, with in fact, all the credulity of those who came to seek his magician's aid.
The Duke's sinister mockery, the extraordinary sense which he ever conveyed of his power to compel, of the futility of attempting to resist his commands, filled Corvinus with an abject dread.
'Highness … alas! … I fear it may be as you say!' he cried.
'But even so, of what are you afraid? Come, man, you are trifling! Have you not said of this elixir that it will restore the dead to life? I pledge you my word that I shall see that it is administered to you when you are dead. Come, then; swallow me this powder, and see that you die of it precisely a fortnight hence, or, by my soul's salvation, I'll have you hanged for an impostor without giving you the benefit afterwards of your own dose of resurrection.'
'My lord—my lord!' groaned the unfortunate man.
'Now, understand me,' said the Duke. 'If this powder acts as you say it will, and kills you at the appointed time, your own elixir shall be given to you to bring you back again to life. But if it kills you sooner, you may remain dead; and if it kills you not at all—why, then I'll hang you, and publish the truth of the whole matter, that men may know the falsehood of the manner of Djem's death upon which you have been trading! Refuse me, and—'
The Duke's gesture was significant.
Corvinus looked into the young man's beautiful, relentless eyes, and saw that to hope to turn him from his purpose were worse than idle. As soon, then, risk the powder as accept the certainty of the rope, with perhaps a foretaste of hell upon the rack. Besides, some chemical skill he had, and a timely emetic might save him—that and flight. Which shows the precise extent of his faith in his elixir of life.
With trembling hands he took the powder.
'See that you spill none of it,' Cesare admonished him 'or the strangler shall valet you, Thrice-Mage!'
'My lord, my lord!' quavered the wretched warlock, his eyes bulging. 'Mercy! I …'
'The poison, or the strangler,' said the Duke.
In despair, and yet heartening himself by the thought of the emetic, Corvinus bore the edge of the box to his ashen lips, and emptied into his mouth the faintly musty contents, Cesare watching him closely the while. When it was done, the appalled magician sank limply to his chair.
The Duke laughed softly, replaced his visor, and, flinging his ample cloak about him, strode towards the curtains that masked the door.
'Sleep easily, Thrice-Mage,' he said, with infinite mockery. 'I shall not fail you.'
Watching him depart, so confidently, so utterly fearless and unconcerned, Corvinus was assailed by rage and a fierce temptation to extinguish the light and try conclusions with Cesare in the dark, summoning the Nubian to his aid. It was with that thought in his mind that he smote the gong. But, whilst the note of it still rang upon the air, he abandoned a notion so desperate. It would not save him if he were poisoned, whilst if he allowed Cesare to depart unmolested he would be the sooner gone, and the sooner Cesare were gone the sooner would Corvinus be free to administer himself the emetic that was now his only hope.
The curtains flashed back, and the Nubian appeared. On the threshold Cesare paused, and over his shoulder, ever mocking, he flung the warlock his valediction:
'Fare you well, Thrice-Mage!' he said; and, with a laugh, passed out.
Corvinus dashed wildly to his shelves in quest of that emetic, fiercely cursing the Duke of Valentinois and all the Borgia brood.
AS the Nubian opened the door of the mage's house to give egress to the Duke, he felt himself suddenly caught about the neck in the crook of a steely, strangling arm, whilst the shrill note of a whistle sounded almost in his very ear.
Instantly the hitherto silent and deserted street awoke to life. From out of doorways darted swift-footed men in answer to the Duke's summons. Into the hands of two of these he delivered the Nubian; to the others he issued a brief command.
'In!' he said, waving a hand down the passage. 'In, and take him.' And upon that he stepped out into the street and so departed.
Later that evening word was brought him at the palace of how Messer Corvinus had been taken in the very act of mixing a drug.
'The antidote, no doubt,' said Cesare to the officer who bore him the information. 'You would be just in time to save my experiment from being frustrated. A wicked, faithless, inconsiderate fellow, this Corvinus. Let him be kept in close confinement, guarded by men whom you can trust, until you hear from me again.'
Thereafter Cesare summoned a council of his officers—Corella the Venetian, Naldo the Forlivese, Ramiro de Lorqua, his lieutenant-general of Romagna, Della Volpe the one-eyed, and Lorenzo Castrocaro.
A tall, clean-limbed young man was this last, very proud in his bearing, very splendid in his apparel, with golden hair and handsome, dreamy eyes of a blue as dark as sapphires. Cesare held him in great regard, knowing him valiant, resourceful, and ambitious. To-night he regarded him with a fresh interest, in view of what at the magician's he had overheard.
The Duke waved his officers to their seats about his council board, and craved of Della Volpe, who was in charge of the siege operations, news of the fortress of San Leo.
The veteran's swarthy face was gloomy. His single eye—he had lost the other in the Duke's service—avoided his master's penetrating glance. He sighed wearily.
'We make no progress,' he confessed, 'nor can make any. San Leo is not a place to be carried by assault, as your magnificence well knows. It stands there upon its mountain-top like a monument upon a plinth, approached by a bridle-path offering no cover. And, for all that it is reported to be held by scarcely more than a score of men, a thousand cannot take it. There is no foothold at the summit for more than a dozen men at a time, and as for using guns against it, it were easier to mount a park of artillery upon a fiddle-string.'
'Yet until San Leo is ours we are not fully masters of Urbino,' said the Duke. 'We cannot leave the place in the hands of Fioravanti.'
'We shall have to starve him out, then,' said Della Volpe.
'And that would take a year at least,' put in Corella, who had been gathering information. 'They have great store of wheat and other victuals and they are watered by a well in the inner bailie of the fortress. With few mouths to feed, as they have, they can hold us in check for ever.'
'There is a rumour to-day,' said Della Volpe, 'that the Lord Fioravanti is sick, and that it is feared he may not live.'
'Not a doubt but Venice will say I poisoned him,' said Cesare, sneering. 'Still, even if he dies, it will be no gain to us. There is his castellan, Tolentino, to take his place; and Tolentino is the more obstinate of the two. We must consider some way to reduce them. Meanwhile, Taddeo, be vigilant, and hold the path against all.'
Della Volpe inclined his head.
'I have taken all my measures for that,' he said.
And now young Castrocaro stirred in his chair, leaning forward across the table.
'By your leave,' said he, 'those measures may not suffice.'
Della Volpe frowned, rolled his single eye, which was preternaturally fierce, and scowled contemptuously upon this young cockerel whose pretence it seemed to be to teach that war-battered old captain the art of beleaguering.
'There is another way to reach San Leo,' Castrocaro explained; and drew upon himself the attention of all, particularly the Duke, in whose fine eyes there gleamed now an eager interest very unusual in him.
Castrocaro met with a confident smile this sudden and general alertness he had provoked.
'It is not,' he explained, 'such a way by which a company can go, but sufficient to enable a bold man who is acquainted with it to bear messages, and, at need, even victuals into the fortress. Therefore, it will be necessary that Messer della Volpe surround the entire base of the rock if he would be sure that none shall slip through his lines.'
'You are certain of what you tell us?' quoth the Duke sharply.
'Certain!' echoed Castrocaro; and he smiled. 'The way of which I speak lies mainly to the south of the rock. It is perilous even for a goat, yet it is practicable with care to one who knows it. Myself, as a boy, have made the ascent more often than I should have cared to tell my mother. In quest of an eagle's nest I have more than once reached the little plateau that thrusts out under the very wall of the fortress on the southern side. Thence, to enter the castle, all that would be needed would be a rope and a grappling-hook; for the wall is extremely low just there—not more than twelve feet high.'
The Duke pondered the young soldier with very thoughtful eyes, in silence, for some moments.
'I shall further consider this,' he said at length. 'Meanwhile, I thank you for the information. You have heard, Della Volpe. You will profit by what Castrocaro tells us, encircling the base entirely with your troops.'
Della Volpe bowed, and upon that the council rose.
Next morning Cesare Borgia summoned Castrocaro to his presence. He received the young condottiero in the noble library of the palace, a spacious chamber, its lofty ceiling gloriously frescoed by Mantegna, its walls hung with costly tapestries and cloth of gold, its shelves stocked with a priceless and imposing array of volumes, all in manuscript; for, although the new German invention of the printing press was already at work, by not a single vulgar production of that machine would Duke Guidobaldo have contaminated his cherished and marvellous collection.
At work at a table spread with papers sat the black-gowned figure of Agabito Gherardi, the Duke's secretary.
'You have the acquaintance, have you not,' quoth Cesare, 'of Madonna Bianca, the daughter of Fioravanti of San Leo?'
The young man, taken by surprise, flushed slightly despite his habitual self-possession, and his blue eyes, avoiding the Duke's, considered the summer sky and the palace gardens through one of the windows that stood open to the broad marble balcony.
'I have that honour in some slight degree,' he answered; and Cesare considered from his air and tone that the magician's golden elixir was scarcely needed here as urgently as Madonna Bianca opined, and that what still was wanting to enchant him the sorcery of her beauty might accomplish unaided, as the magician had supposed.
He smiled gently.
'You may improve that acquaintance, if you so desire.'
The young man threw back his head very haughtily.
'I do not understand your potency,' said he.
'You have my leave,' the Duke explained, 'to convey in person to Madonna Bianca the news we have received that her father lies sick in San Leo.'
Still the young man held himself loftily upon the defensive, as a young lover will.
'To what end this, highness?' he inquired, his tone still haughty.
'Why, to what end but a Christian one, and'—the Duke slightly lowered his voice to a confidential tone, and smiled inscrutably—'a kindly purpose towards yourself. Still, if you disdain the latter, for the former any other messenger will serve.'
Ill at ease in his self-consciousness, a little mystified, yet well-content at heart, the condottiero bowed.
'I thank your highness,' he said. 'Have I your leave to go?'
The Duke nodded.
'You will wait upon me on your return. I may have other commands for you,' he said, and so dismissed him.
An hour later came Castrocaro back to the palace library in great haste and some excitement to seek the Duke again.
'My lord,' he cried, all in a trembling eagerness, 'I have conveyed the message, and I am returned to crave a boon. Madonna Bianca besought of me in her affliction a written order to pass the lines of Della Volpe, that she might repair to her father.'
'And you?' cried the Duke sharply, his level brows drawn together by a sudden frown.
The young captain's glance fell away. Obviously he was discouraged and abashed.
'I answered that I had no power to grant such an order, but—but that I would seek it of your highness; that I knew you would not desire to hold a daughter from her father's side at such time.'
'You know a deal,' said Cesare sourly, 'and you promise rashly. Precipitancy in making promises has never yet helped a man to greatness. Bear that in mind.'
'But she was in such sore affliction!' cried Messer Lorenzo, protesting.
'Aye!' said the Duke dryly. 'And she used you so kindly, eyed you so fondly, gave you such sweet wine to drink, that you had no strength to resist her soft appeal.'
Cesare, watching his condottiero closely, observed the flicker of the young man's eyelids at the mention of the wine, and was satisfied. But even more fully was he to have the assurance that he sought.
'Have I been spied upon?' quoth Messer Lorenzo hotly.
Cesare shrugged contemptuously, not deigning to reply.
'You have leave to go,' he said in curt dismissal.
But Messer Lorenzo was in a daring mood, and slow to obey.
'And the authority for Madonna Bianca to join her father?' he asked.
'There are good reasons why none should enter San Leo at present,' was the cold reply. 'Since you lay such store by it, I regret the necessity to deny you. But in time of war necessity is inexorable.'
Chagrined and downcast, the condottiero bowed and withdrew. Having promised, and finding himself now unable to fulfil the promise made to her over that cup of wine which she had brought him with her own fair hands, he dared not present himself to her again. Instead he dispatched a page to her with the unwelcome news of the Duke's refusal.
Yet in this matter Cesare Borgia was oddly inconsistent. For scarcely had Castrocaro left his presence than he turned to his white-faced secretary.
'Write me three lines to Della Volpe,' said he, 'ordering that if Madonna Bianca de' Fioravanti should attempt to steal through his lines and gain San Leo, he is to offer her no hindrance.'
Agabito's round, pale countenance reflected his amazement at this order. But Cesare, surveying him, smiled inscrutably for all reply, and, from his knowledge of his master and that smile, Agabito perceived that Cesare was embarked upon one of those tortuous, subtle courses whose goal none could perceive until it had been reached. He bent to his task, and his pen scratched and spluttered briskly. Very soon a messenger bearing the order was on his way to Della Volpe's camp.
That very night Madonna Bianca considerately did what the Duke expected of her. She slipped past the Borgia sentinels in the dark, and she was in San Leo by morning, though in Urbino none knew of this but Cesare, who had word of it privately from Della Volpe. Her palace by the Zoccolanti remained opened as if inhabited by her, but to all who came to seek her it was said that she was in ill-health and kept her chamber. And amongst these was Lorenzo Castrocaro, who, upon being denied admittance on this plea, concluded that she was angry with him for having failed to do as he had promised, and thereafter grew oddly silent and morose.
Two days after her flight came news of Fioravanti's death in the grim fortress he defended, and Castrocaro was dispatched by the Duke to Cesena on a mission which might well have been entrusted to a less-important officer. It was ten days later when his immediate return was ordered, and, in view of the terms of that order, he went, upon reaching Urbino, all dust-laden as he was, into the Duke's presence with the dispatches that he bore.
Valentinois sat in council at the time, and Della Volpe from the lines under San Leo was in attendance.
'You are very opportunely returned,' was his greeting of Messer Lorenzo, and he thrust aside, as of no consequence, the dispatches which the latter brought. 'We are met here to consider this resistance of San Leo, which is being conducted now by Tolentino with all the firmness that was Fioravanti's. We must make an end; and you, Messer Lorenzo, are the man to accomplish it.'
'I?' cried the young soldier.
'Sit,' Cesare bade him, and obediently Castrocaro took a chair at the table. 'Listen. You are to understand that I am not commanding you to do this thing, for I command no valued officer of mine so greatly to imperil his life. I but show you what is our need—what might be done by one who has your knowledge and whose heart is stout enough to bid him take the risk which the thing entails.'
The condottiero nodded his understanding, his blue eyes set upon the Duke's calm face.
'You told us here,' Cesare continued, 'of a perilous way into San Leo which is known to few, and to yourself amongst those few. You said that if a man were to gain the plateau on the southern side of the rock's summit he might, with a rope and a grappling hook, effect an entrance. Now, if a man were to do this at dead of night, choosing his time wisely so as to take the sentry unawares, stab that sentry, and thereafter reach the gates and loose the bars, the rest would be an easy task. Della Volpe's troops would, meanwhile, have crept up by the bridle-path to await the signal, upon which they would pour forth against the unbarred gate, and so San Leo might be reduced at last with little loss of life.'
Messer Lorenzo considered for some moments, the Duke watching him.
'It is shrewd,' he said, approvingly. 'It is shrewd and easy, and likely to succeed, provided the man who goes is one who knows the rock and the fortress itself.'
'Provided that, of course,' said Cesare; and he looked steadily at the young man.
Messer Lorenzo bore that look a moment with the self-possession that was natural to him. Then, translating its quiet significance:
'I will go,' he said quietly, 'and, Heaven helping me, I will succeed.'
'You have counted the cost of failure?' said Cesare.
'It needs no counting. It is plain enough. A rope and a beam from the castle wall, or a leap from the rock itself.'
'Then, since who gambles should know not only what he may chance to lose, but also the stake he stands to win,' said the Duke, 'let me say that if you succeed I'll give you the governorship of the fortress with a stipend of ten thousand ducats.'
Messer Lorenzo flushed in his agreeable surprise. His eyes sparkled and his tone rang with youth's ready confidence in its own powers.
'I will not fail,' he promised. 'When do I make the attempt?'
'To-morrow night, since you have resolved. See that you rest betwixt this and then to fit you for the fatigue of such an enterprise. And so, sirs, let us hope that we have found at last a solution to this riddle of San Leo.'
YOU see, I hope, what Messer Castrocaro did not yet see, nor for that matter ever saw—knowing nothing of what had happened on the night when the duke visited Messer Corvinus Trismegistus. You see in the Duke's choice of him for this enterprise an instance of that fine discrimination with which Cesare picked his instruments.
Macchiavelli, who studied the Duke at close quarters, and who worshipped him as the very embodiment of all the virtues of princeship, was no doubt inspired by the duke's unerring wisdom in the choice of ministers to devote to the subject a chapter of his 'The Prince'.
'The first conjecture made of a prince and of his intellectual capacity,' he writes, 'should be based upon a consideration of the men by whom he surrounds himself, and when these are faithful to him, and sufficient for his occasions, he is to be accounted a wise prince, for having chosen them sufficient and kept them faithful.'
Macchiavelli writes thus no more than Cesare might, himself, have written had he theorized upon princeship instead of practising it. It is, indeed upon Cesare Borgia's practices—as Macchiavelli half admits in one place—that the Florentine founded his theories. So that it is hardly an over-statement to say that whilst Macchiavelli wrote 'The Prince', Cesare Borgia was its real author, since his were the conceptions and actions that Macchiavelli converted into precepts.
You see him here selecting for this task one who although the youngest among all his captains, was yet undoubtedly the most sufficient for his particular need. And observe the quality of his sufficiency. In a measure it was adventitious, depending upon Castrocaro's chance acquaintance with that back way up the rock of San Leo. But in a still greater measure it was the result of Cesare's clever manipulation of circumstances.
If that is not yet quite clear to you, it shall become abundantly so ere all is told. But do not fall into the error of supposing that anything that befell was the result of chance. From now onward all happens precisely as Cesare had designed. He had discovered certain forces, and he had harnessed them to his needs, setting them upon a course by him predetermined and marked out.
He realized that chance might disturb their career, and fling them out of that course, but he did not depend upon chance to bear them to the goal at which he aimed them.
On the afternoon of the following day, thoroughly rested and refreshed, Messer Lorenzo Castrocaro rode out of Urbino with a bodyguard of a half-dozen of his men-at-arms and took the road to Della Volpe's camp under San Leo. He arrived there without mishap towards nightfall, and having supped with the commander of the beleaguerers in the latter's tent, he thereafter completed his preparations. Towards the third hour of night he set out alone upon his perilous undertaking.
To lessen the risk of being perceived by any watcher in the castle, he had dressed himself entirely in black, taking the precaution to put on under his doublet a shirt of mail, which whilst being dagger-proof, was yet so finely wrought that your two cupped hands might contain it. He was armed with sword and dagger, and bandolier-wise about his body, was coiled a rope, to which he had attached a strong, double-pronged grappling hook very broad in the bend, all swathed in straw. This had been carefully and firmly adjusted upon his back, so that it should not hamper his movements.
With Della Volpe he had concerted that the latter, at the head of fifty men, should quietly approach the fortress by the bridle-path, and, having gained the summit, lie concealed until the gate should be opened by Castrocaro himself. Then they were instantly to spring forward, and so effect an entrance.
It was a fine clear night of summer, and a full moon rode in the heavens, rendering the landscape visible for miles. This was well for the earlier part of Messer Lorenzo's climb; and before midnight, by when he hoped to reach the summit, that moon would have set, and darkness would lend him cover.
Alone, then, he set out, and made his way round to the southern side of the great precipitous hill on the crest of which, like the capital of a column, the bulk and towers of the fortress showed grey in the white moonlight.
At first the ascent was easy, and he was able to go forward swiftly; soon, however, the precipice grew more abrupt, the foothold became scantier, and in places failed almost entirely, so that his progress was retarded and for his life's sake he was compelled to move with infinite caution, husbanding his strength against the still more strenuous labour that lay before him.
Hesitation or doubt he had none. It was a good ten years since last, in boyhood, he had scaled those heights; but boyhood's memories are tenacious, and he was as confident of his way as if he had trodden it but yesterday. Every little projection of that cliff, every fissure that afforded foothold, every gap to be overcome, he knew before he reached it.
At the end of an hour he had not accomplished more than a third of the ascent, and the most difficult part of it was yet to come. He sat down upon a grassy ledge, unusually spacious, and there he rested him awhile and recovered breath.
Thence he viewed the Emilian plain, revealed for miles in the moon's white light, the glittering, silvery spread of sea away in the distance to the east, the glimmering snow-capped peaks of the Apennines to westward. Above him towered the grey cliff, abrupt and sheer as the very walls of the fortress that crowned its summit, a climb that well might have appalled the hardiest mountaineer, that might, indeed, have baffled even a goat. Surveying it with his calm blue eyes, Messer Lorenzo realized that the worst danger he had to face that night was the danger of this climb. By comparison, the rest—the scaling of the castle wall, the poniarding of a sentry or two, and the opening of the gate—were safe and simple matters. Here, however, a false step, a misgiving even, or a moment of giddiness, such as might well beset him, must plunge him down to instant death.
He rose, inhaled the fragrance of the summer night, breathed a short prayer to his patron saint, the Holy Lawrence, and pushed on. Clinging with hands and feet and knees to the face of the cliff, he edged along a narrow strip of rock, for some few yards, to another ledge; there he paused to breathe again, thankful that so much was accomplished.
Thereafter for a while the going was easier. A natural path, some three feet wide, wound upwards along the precipice's face. At the end of this he was confronted by another gap, to be surmounted only by a leap.
Fearing lest his sword should trip him, he unbuckled his belt, and cast the weapon from him. He did so with regret, but constrained to it by the reflection that if he kept it he might never live to need it. Then he took a deep breath, seized his courage in both hands, and jumped across the black unfathomable void at a stunted tree that thrust out from that sheer wall. With arms and legs he clutched like an ape at the frail plant, and had its hold given way under his weight, there would have been an end of him forthwith. It held, however, and clinging to it, he groped for foothold, found it, and went on. This brought him to a narrow fissure in the cliff. Up this fissure he swarmed, supported by just the pressure of knees and forearms against the rock, and only at times finding a projection affording a safer grip for one or the other.
Up, straight up, he went for nearly twenty feet, until at last he reached the fissure's summit; one of its walls permitted him to get astride it, and there he rested, bathed in sweat and winded by the stupendous exertions he had put forth. Seated thus, his breast close against the cliff, he looked sideways and down into the awful depths below him. He shuddered, and clung with his bruised hands to the rock, and it was some time before he could proceed upon the second half of his ascent, for by now he knew that he was a good midway.
At last he resumed his climb, and by similar means, and surmounting similar and constant perils, he pushed on and ever upwards.
One narrow escape he had. As he clung with both hands to that awful wall at a place where the foothold was but a few inches wide, a great brown body, with a shrieking whirr, dashed out of a crevice just above his head, and went cawing and circling in the void beyond. So startled was he that he almost loosed his hold, and a cold sweat broke out upon his roughened skin as he recovered and knew the thing for what it was. And later, when, an hour or so before midnight, the moon went down and left him in utter darkness, fear at last assailed his stout spirit, and for a time he did not dare to move. Presently, however, as he grew accustomed to the gloom, his eyes were able to pierce it to an extent that restored his courage. The night, after all, was clear and starlit, and at close quarters objects were just visible; yet immense care was necessary lest he should now commit the irreparable error of mistaking substance for shadow, or should misjudge his distances, as was so easy.
At long length, towards midnight, utterly spent, with bleeding hands and rent garments, he found himself on the roomy platform at the very foot of the castle's southern wall; and not for all the wealth of the world would he have consented to return by the way he had so miraculously ascended—for miraculous did he now account it that he should have reached his goal in safety. He flung himself down, full length, there at the foot of the wall, to rest awhile before attempting the escalade. And what time he rested, he whispered a prayer of thankfulness for his preservation so far, for a devout soul was this Messer Lorenzo.
He looked up at the twinkling stars, out at the distant sheen of the Adriatic, down at the clustering hamlets in the plain, so far below him, from which so painfully he had climbed. Immediately above his head he could hear the steady measured tread of the sentry, approaching, passing, and receding again, as the man patrolled the embattled parapet. Thrice did the fellow pass that way before Castrocaro stirred; and when at length he rose, as the steps were fading in the distance for the third time, he felt a certain pity for the soldier whose spirit he must inevitably liberate from its earthly prison-house that night.
He uncoiled the rope from his body, stood back, and swung the grappling hook a moment, taking aim, then hurled it upwards. It soared above the wall, and fell beyond, between two merlons, then thudded softly against the masonry, the straw in which he had the foresight to swathe it muffling the sound of the metal.
He pulled gently at the rope, hoping that the hooks would fasten upon some projection in the stone or lodge within some crevice. But neither happened. The hooks came to the summit of the wall, and toppled back, falling at his feet. Again he repeated the operation, with a like result; but at the third attempt the hooks took hold. He swung his entire weight upon the rope to test the grip, and found that it held firmly.
But now the sentry's return warned him that the moment was unpropitious. So he waited, intently listening, crouching at the wall's foot, until the man had passed, and his footsteps were once more receding in the distance.
Then he began the ascent in sailor fashion, hauling himself up hand over hand, his feet against the masonry to lighten the labour of his arms. Thus he came swiftly to the top of the wall, and knelt there, between two merlons, peering down into the black courtyard. All was silent. Save for the tramp of the sentry, who was now turning the north-western angle of the ramparts, as Messer Lorenzo rightly judged, no sound disturbed the stillness of the place.
He loosed the hooks from the crevice in which they had fastened. He flung them wide, the rope with them, and sent them hurtling over the precipice, that there might be no evidence of the manner of his coming. Then he dropped softly down upon the parapet, exulting to realize that his journey was accomplished, and that he was within the fortress.
His mission was all but ended. The rest was easy. Within a few moments the Borgia troops would be pouring into San Leo, and the soldiers of the garrison, surprised in their beds, would make a very ready surrender. It no longer appeared even necessary to Messer Lorenzo to butcher that single sentry. If he but wisely chose his moment for the unbarring of the gates, the whole thing might be done without the man's suspicions being aroused until it was too late. Indeed, it was the safer course; for, after all, if he came to grapple with the soldier, there was always the chance that the fellow might cry out and give the alarm before Castrocaro could dispatch him.
Resolved thus upon that score, he moved forward swiftly yet very cautiously, and gained a flight of stone steps that wound down into the inner bailie. This he descended, and so reached the quadrangle. Round this vast square he moved, keeping well within the shadows, until he came to the gateway opening upon a passage that ran past the guard-room on one side and the chapel on the other, into the outer bailie of the fortress.
In this gateway he crouched, and waited until the sentry, who was coming round again, should have passed once more to the castles northern side. No window overlooking the courtyard showed a single light; the place was wrapped in slumber.
Messer Lorenzo waited calmly, his pulse quite regular. Should the door be locked, then he must return, deal with the sentry, and make his way to the main gates by the battlements. But it was unlikely that such would be the case.
High up, immediately before him upon the ramparts, he saw the sentry, passing slowly, pike on shoulder, a black shadow dimly outlined against the blue-black, star-flecked dome of sky. He watched him as he passed on and round, all unsuspicious, and so vanished once more. Then, very softly, Messer Lorenzo tried the latch of that big door. It yielded silently to his pressure and a black tunnel gaped before him. He entered it, and very softly closed the door again on the inside. Then he paused, reflecting that were he to go straight forward and pass out into the northern court he must risk detection by the sentry, who was now on the northern battlements. Therefore he must wait until the fellow should come round again.
Interminable seemed his wait this time, and once he fancied that he heard a man's voice coming from the guard-room on his right. The sound momentarily quickened his pulses that had been steady hitherto. But hearing no more, he concluded that his senses, strained by so much dodging, waiting, and listening, had deceived him.
At last he caught the sound of the sentry's step approaching again along the parapet. Satisfied that he had waited long enough he made shift to grope his way through the black darkness of that passage. And then, even as he turned, his heart almost stood still. Upon the chapel door, at the height of some three feet, there was a tiny oval splash of light, along the ground at the same spot a yellow gleam long and narrow as a sword-blade. Instantly he understood. The guard-room, whose windows looked upon the northern court, was still tenanted, and what he beheld was the light that shone through the keyhole and under the door.
A moment he paused, considering. Then he perceived that, having come so far, he must go on. To retreat and reopen the door would be fraught with the greater risk, whilst to linger in the passage would be but to increase the already imminent danger of discovery. His only chance of winning through lay in going forward at once, taking care to make no sound that should reach those within. Thus, no doubt, all would be well. With extremest caution, then, he stepped forward on tip-toe, his hands upon the wall on the chapel side to guide and steady him.
Not more than three of four steps had he taken when, quite suddenly, an oath rang out in a deep male voice, followed by the laughter of several men. With that there was a scraping of chairs, and heavy steps came tramping towards the door.
With this door Messer Lorenzo was now level, and, being startled, he made his one mistake. Had he taken the risk of speeding forward swiftly, he might even now have won safely the outer bailie. But he hung there hesitating, again considering retreat even, his every sinew taut. And that pause was his ruin. In a moment he realized it, saw that he was trapped, that retreat was now utterly hopeless, and that to go forward was no better. Therefore with set teeth, and angry misery in his soul to reflect that he had won so far and at such peril only to fail upon the very threshold of success, he stood at bay, to meet what he no longer could avoid.
The door was pulled open from within, and a flood of light poured out into that black place, revealing Messer Lorenzo, white of face, with staring eyes, one hand instinctively upon his poniard-hilt, poised there as if for a spring.
Thus did the foremost of the five men who issued behold him, and at sight of him all checked abruptly, staring. This foremost one, a big, heavily-built fellow all clad in leather, black-browed and bearded, seemed in some slight measure the superior of those other four. All five were very obviously soldiers.
He fell back a step in sheer amazement, startled even by the sight of Messer Lorenzo. Then, recovering, he set his arms akimbo, planted wide his feet, and looked our gentleman over with an eye of deepest interest.
'Now who the devil may you be?' he demanded.
Messer Lorenzo's wits were ever very ready, and in that moment he had a flash of inspiration. He stepped forward easily in answer to that challenge, and so came more fully into the light.
'I am glad to see there is someone alive and awake in San Leo,' he said; and he seemed to sneer, as one who had the right to utter a reproof.
On the faces of those five men amazement grew and spread. Looking beyond them into the room, which was lighted by torches set in iron sconces in the walls, Messer Lorenzo beheld the explanation of the silence they had kept. There was a table on which remained spread a pack of greasy cards. They had been at play.
'Body of God,' he went on, 'you keep a fine watch here! The Borgia soldiery may be at your very gates. I myself can effect an entrance, and no man to hinder or challenge me, or so much as give the alarm! By the Host! were you men of mine, I should find work for you in the kitchen, and hope that you'd give a better account of yourselves as scullions than you do as soldiers.'
'Now, who the devil may you be, I say?' again demanded the black-browed warrior, scowling more truculently than before.
'And how the devil come you here?' cried another, a slender, loose-lipped fellow, with a wart on his nose, who pushed forward to survey the intruder at closer quarters.
Castrocaro on the instant became very haughty
'Take me to your captain—to Messer Tolentino,' he demanded. 'He shall learn what manner of watch you keep. You dogs, the place might be burnt about your ears while you sit there cheating one another at cards, and set a fellow who appears to be both deaf and blind to pace your walls.'
The note of cool authority in his voice produced its effect. They were entirely duped by it. That a man should so address them whose right to do so was not entirely beyond question seemed to them—as it might indeed to any—altogether incredible.
'Messer Tolentino is abed,' said the big fellow in a surly voice.
They did not like the laugh with which Messer Castrocaro received that information. It had an unpleasant ring.
'I nothing doubt it from the manner of your watch,' he sneered. 'Well, then, up and rouse him for me!'
'But who is he, after all, Bernardo?' insisted the loose-lipped stripling of their leader; and the others grunted their approval of a question that at least possessed the virtue of being timely.
'Aye,' quoth black-browed Bernardo. 'You have not told us who you are?' His tone lay between truculence and sulky deference.
'I am an envoy from the Lord Guidobaldo, your duke,' was the ready and unfaltering answer; and the young condottiero wondered in his heart whither all this would lead him, and what chance of saving himself might offer yet.
Their deference was obviously increased, as was their interest in him.
'But how came you in?' insisted the one who already had posed that question.
Messer Lorenzo waved the question and questioner impatiently aside.
'What matters that?' quoth he. 'Enough that I am here. Are we to trifle away the night in silly questions? Have I not told you that the Borgia troops may at this moment be at your very gates?'
'By Bacchus, they may stay there,' laughed another. The gates of San Leo are strong enough, my master; and should the Borgia rabble venture to knock, we shall know how to answer them.'
But even as the fellow was speaking, Bernardo fetched a lanthorn from the room, and shouted to them to follow him. They went down the passage towards the door leading to the outer bailie. They crossed the courtyard together, pestering the supposed envoy with questions, which he answered curtly and ungraciously, showing them by his every word and gesture that it was not his habit to herd with such as they.
Thus they came to the door of the maschio tower, where Messer Tolentino had his dwelling; and, what time they paused there, Castrocaro sent a fond glance in the direction of the great gates, beyond which Della Volpe and his men were waiting. He was so near them that to reach and unbar those gates would be an instant's work; but the way to rid himself of those five dogs of war was altogether beyond his devising. And now the sentry on the walls above peered down and hailed them to know whom they had with them, and the young condottiero prayed that thus Della Volpe, who must be intently on the watch without, might have warning that he was taken. Yet at the same time he knew full well that, even so, Della Volpe would be powerless to assist him. He had but his own wits upon which he could depend and he realized how desperate was his situation.
Up a winding staircase, the walls and ceilings very rudely frescoed, they led Messer Lorenzo to the apartments of Tolentino, the castellan who had been ruler of San Leo since the death, ten days ago, of the Lord Fioravanti.
As he went the young condottiero took heart once more. So far all had gone well. He had played his part shrewdly, and his demeanour had so successfully imposed upon the men that no shadow of suspicion did they entertain. Could he but succeed in similarly befooling their captain, it might well be that he should be assigned some chamber from which he anon might slip forth still to do the thing he was come to do.
As he went he prepared the tale he was to tell, and he based it upon his knowledge that Fioravanti's resistance of Cesare Borgia had been almost in opposition to the wishes of Duke Guidobaldo—that mild and gentle scholar who had desired all fortresses to make surrender, since no ultimate gain could lie in resistance and naught ensue but a useless sacrifice of life.
The difficulty for Messer Lorenzo lay in the fact that Tolentino would desire to see credentials; and he had none to offer.
He was kept waiting in an antechamber what time the big Bernardo went to rouse the castellan and to inform that grumbling captain that an envoy from Duke Guidobaldo had stolen into the castle and was seeking him. No more than just that did Bernardo tell Tolentino. But it was enough.
The castellan roused himself at once, with a wealth of oaths, first incoherent, then horribly coherent; he shook his great night-capped head, thrust out a pair of long hairy legs from the coverlet, and sat up on the bed's edge to receive this envoy, whom he made Bernardo to admit.
Messer Lorenzo, very uneasy in his heart, but very haughty and confident in his bearing, entered and gave the captain a lofty salutation.
'You are from Duke Guidobaldo?' growled Messer Tolentino.
'I am,' said Castrocaro. 'And had I been from Cesare Borgia, with a score of men at my heels, I could by now have been master of San Leo, so zealous are your watchers.'
It was shrewdly conceived, because it seemed to state an obvious truth that was well calculated to disarm suspicion. But the tone he took though well enough with men-at-arms, was a mighty dangerous one to take with a castellan of such importance and such a fierce, ungovernable temper as was notoriously Messer Tolentino's. It flung that gentleman very naturally into a rage, and might well have earned the speaker a broken head upon the instant. This Messer Lorenzo knew and risked; for he also knew that it must earn him confidence, both for the reason already given and also because it must be inferred that only a person very sure of himself would dare to voice such a reproof.
Tolentino stared at him out of fierce, blood-injected eyes, too much taken aback to find an answer for a moment. He was a tall, handsome, big-nosed man, with black hair, an olive, shaven face, and a long, square chin. He stared on awhile, and then exploded.
'Blood of God!' he roared. 'Here is a cockerel with a very noisy cackle! We'll mend that for you ere you leave us,' he promised viciously. 'Who are you?'
'An envoy from Duke Guidobaldo, as you have been informed. As for the rest—the cockerel and the cackle—we will discuss it at some other time.'
The castellan heaved himself up and sought to strike a pose of dignity, no easy matter for a man in his shirt and crowned by a night-cap.
'You pert lap-dog!' said he, between anger and amazement. He breathed gustily, words failing him, and then grew calmer. 'What is your name?'
'Lorenzo Snello,' answered Castrocaro, who had been prepared for the question, and he added sternly: 'I like it better than the one you have just bestowed upon me.'
'Are you come hither to tell me what you like?' bellowed the castellan. 'Look you, young sir, I am the master here, and here my will is law. I can flog you, flay you, or hang you, and give account of it to none. Bear you that in mind, and—'
'Oh, peace!' cried Messer Lorenzo, in his turn, waving a contemptuous hand, and dominating the other by his very tone and manner. 'Whatever I may have come for, I have not come to listen to your vapourings. Have I climbed from the plain, risked my life to get through the Borgia lines, and my neck a score of times in the ascent, to stand here and have you bellow at me of what you imagine you can do? What you cannot do, I have seen for myself.'
'And what may that be?' quoth Tolentino, now wickedly gentle.
'You cannot guard a castle, and you cannot discriminate between a lackey and one who is your peer and perhaps something more.'
The castellan sat down again and rubbed his chin. Here was a very hot fellow, and, like all bullies, Messer Tolentino found that hot fellows put him out of countenance.
In the background, behind Messer Lorenzo, stood Tolentino's men in line, silent but avid witnesses of his discomfiture. The castellan perceived that at all costs he must save his face.
'You'll need a weighty message to justify this insolence and to save you from a whipping,' said he gravely.
'I'll need no weightier a message than the one I bear,' was the sharp answer. 'The duke shall hear of these indignities to which you are subjecting one he loves, and who has run great peril in his service.'
His dignity, his air of injury was now overwhelming. 'And mark you, sir, it is not the way to treat an envoy, this. Were my duty to the Duke less than it is, or my message of less moment, I should depart as I have come. But he shall hear of the reception I have had, rest assured of that.'
Tolentino shuffled, ill at ease now.
'Sir,' he cried, protesting, 'I swear the fault is yours. Who pray are you, to visit me with your reproofs? If I have failed in courtesy it was you provoked me. Am I to bear the gibes of every popinjay who thinks he can discharge my duties better than can I? Enough, sir!' He waved a great hand, growing dignified in his turn. 'Deliver the message that you bear.' And he held out that massive hand of his in expectation of a letter.
But Messer Lorenzo's pretence was, of necessity, that he bore his message by word of mouth.
'I am bidden by my lord to enjoin you to make surrender with the honours of war, which shall be conceded you by the Duke of Valentinois,' said he; and seeing the surprise, doubt, and suspicion that instantly began to spread upon Tolentino's face for all to read, he launched himself into explanations. 'Cesare Borgia has made terms with Duke Guidobaldo, and has promised him certain compensations if all the fortresses of his dominions make surrender without more ado. These terms my lord has been advised to accept, since by refusing them nothing can he hope to gain, whilst he may lose all. Perceiving this, and satisfied that by prolonging its resistance San Leo can only be postponing its ultimately inevitable surrender and entailing by that postponement the loss of much valuable life, Duke Guidobaldo has sent me to bid you in his name capitulate forthwith.'
It had a specious ring. It was precisely such a message as the humanitarian duke might well have sent, and the profit to accrue to himself from the surrender he enjoined seemed also a likely enough contingency. Yet the shrewd Tolentino had his doubts, doubts which might never have assailed another.
Wrinkles increased about his fierce black eyes as he bent them now upon the messenger.
'You will have letters of this tenor from my lord?' he said.
'I have none,' replied Messer Lorenzo, dissembling his uneasiness.
'Now, by Bacchus, that is odd!'
'Nay, sir, consider,' said the young man too hastily, 'the danger of my carrying such letters. Should they be found upon me by the Borgia troops, I—'
He checked, somewhat awkwardly, perceiving his mistake. Tolentino smacked his thigh with his open palm, and the room rang with the sound of it. His face grew red. He sprang up.
'Sir, sir,' said he, with a certain grimness, 'we must understand each other better. You say that you bring me certain orders to act upon a certain matter that has been concerted between Valentinois and my lord, and you talk of danger to yourself in bearing such orders in a letter. Be patient with me if I do not understand.' Tolentino's accents were unmistakably sardonic. 'So desirable is it from the point of view of Valentinois that such commands should reach me, that he could not have failed to pass you unmolested through his troops. Can you explain where I am wrong in these conclusions?'
There but remained for Messer Lorenzo to put upon the matter the best face possible. A gap was yawning at his feet. He saw it all too plainly. He was lost, it seemed.
'That explanation, my lord, no doubt, will furnish you, should you seek it from him. I hold it not. It was not given me, nor had I the presumption to request it.' He spoke calmly and proudly, for all that his heart-beats had quickened, and in his last words there was a certain veiled reproof of the other's attitude. 'When,' he continued, 'I said that it would have been dangerous to have given me letters, I but put forward, to answer you, the explanation which occurred to me at the moment. I had not earlier considered the matter. I now see that I was wrong in my assumption.'
Messer Tolentino considered him very searchingly. Throughout his speech, indeed, the castellan's eyes had never left his face. Messer Lorenzo's words all but convinced Tolentino that the man was lying. Yet his calm and easy assurance, his proud demeanour, left the captain still a lingering doubt.
'At least you'll bear some sign by which I am to know that you are indeed my lord's envoy?' said he.
'I bear none. I was dispatched in haste. The Duke, it seems, did not reckon upon such a message as this being doubted.'
'Did he not?' quoth Tolentino, and his note was sardonic. Suddenly he asked another question. 'How came you to enter the fortress?'
'I climbed up from the plain on the southern side, where the rock is accounted inaccessible.' And, seeing the look of surprise that overspread the captain's face, 'I am of these parts: he explained. 'In boyhood I have frequently essayed the climb. It was for this reason that Duke Guidobaldo chose me.'
'And when you had gained the wall, did you bid the sentry lower you a rope?'
'I did not. I had a rope of my own, and grappling-hooks.'
'Why this, when you are a messenger from Guidobaldo?' The castellan turned sharply to his men. 'Where did you find him?' he inquired.
It was Bernardo who made haste to answer that they had found him lurking in the passage outside the guard-room as they were coming out.
Tolentino laughed with fierce relish, and swore copiously and humorously.
'So-ho!' he crowed. 'You had passed the sentry unperceived, and you were well within the fortress ere suddenly you were discovered, when, behold! you become a messenger of Guidobaldo's bearing orders to me to surrender the fortress, and you take this high tone about our indifferent watch to cover the sly manner of your entrance. Oh-o! 'Twas shrewdly thought of, but it shall not avail you—though it be a pity to wring the neck of so spirited a cockerel.' And he laughed again.
'You are a fool,' said Castrocaro with finality, 'and you reason like a fool.'
'Do I so? Now, mark me. You said that it was because you knew a secret way into this castle that Guidobaldo chose you for his messenger. Consider now the folly of that statement. You might yourself have construed that Guidobaldo's wish was that you should come hither secretly, though yourself you have admitted the obvious error of such an assumption. But to tell me that an envoy from the Duke bidding us surrender to Cesare Borgia, and so do the will of the latter, should need come here by secret ways at the risk of his neck—' Tolentino shrugged and laughed in the white face of Messer Lorenzo. 'Which of us is the fool in this, sir?' he questioned, leering. Then, with an abrupt change of manner, he waved to his men. 'Seize and search him,' he commanded.
In a moment they had him down upon the floor, and they were stripping him of his garments. They made a very thorough search, but it yielded nothing.
'No matter,' said Tolentino as he got into bed again. 'We have more than enough against him already. Make him safe for the night. He shall go down the cliff's face again in the morning, and I swear he shall go down faster than ever he came up.'
And Messer Tolentino rolled over, and settled down comfortably to go to sleep again.
LOCKED in the guard-house—since a man who was to die so soon was not worth the trouble of consigning to a dungeon, Messer Lorenzo Castrocaro spent, as you may conceive, a somewhat troubled night. He was too young and too full of life and the zest and warmth of it to be indifferent about quitting it, to look with apathy upon death. He had seen death and a deal of it—in the past two years of his martial career. But it had been the death of others, and never until now had it seemed to him that death was a thing that very much concerned himself. Even when he had imagined that he realized the dangers before him in this enterprise of San Leo, he had felt a certain confidence that it was not for him to die. He was, in fact, in that phase of youth and vigour when a man seems to himself immortal. And even now that he lay on the wooden bench in the guard-room, in the dark, he could hardly conceive that the end of him was really at hand. The catastrophe had overtaken him so suddenly, so very casually; and surely death was too great a business to be heralded so quietly.
He sighed wearily, and sought to find a more comfortable position on his pitilessly hard couch. He thought of many things—of his past life, of early boyhood, of his mother, of his companions in arms, and of martial feats accomplished. He saw himself hacking a way through the living barrier that blocked the breach in the wall of Forli, or riding with Valentinois in the mighty charge that routed the Colonna under Capua; and he had a singularly vivid vision of the dead men he had beheld on those occasions and how they had looked in death. So would he look to-morrow, his reason told him. But still his imagination refused to picture it.
Then his thoughts shifted to Madonna Bianca de' Fioravanti, whom he would never see again. For months he had experienced an odd tenderness for that lady, of a sweetly melancholy order, and in secret he had committed some atrocious verses in her honour.
It had been no great affair when all was said; there had been other and more ardent loves in his short life; yet Madonna Bianca had evoked in him a tenderer regard, a holier feeling than any other woman that he had known. Indeed, the contrast was as sharp as that which lies between sacred and profane love. Perhaps it was because she was so unattainable, so distant, so immeasurably above him, the daughter of a great lord, the representative to-day of a great house, whilst he was but a condottiero, an adventurer who had for patrimony no more than his wits and his sword. He sighed. It would have been sweet to have seen her again before dying—to have poured out the story of his love as a swan pours out its death-song. Yet, after all, it did not greatly matter.
You see that his examination of conscience in that supreme hour had little to do with the making of his soul.
He wondered would she hear of the end he had made; and whether, hearing, she would pity him a little; whether, indeed, she would do so much as remember him. It was odd he reflected that he should come to meet his end in the very castle that had been her father's; yet he was glad that it was not her father's hand that measured out to him this death that he must die to-morrow.
Physically exhausted as he was by the exertions of his climb, he fell at last into a fitful slumber; and when next he awakened it was to find the morning sunlight pouring through the tall windows of his prison.
He had been aroused by the grating of a key in the lock, and as he sat up, stiff and sore, on his hard couch, the door opened, and to him entered Bernardo, followed by six soldiers, all in their harness.
'A good day to you,' said Bernardo civilly, but a trifle thoughtlessly, considering what the day had in store for Messer Lorenzo.
The young man smiled as he swung his feet to the ground.
'A better day to you,' said he; and thus earned by his pleasantry and his debonair manner, the esteem of the gruff soldier.
It had come to Messer Lorenzo that, since die he must, the thing would be best done jocosely. Lamentations would not avail him. Let him then be blithe. Perhaps, after all, death were not so fearful a business as priests represented it; and as for that flaming hell that lies agape for young men who have drunk of the lusty cup of their youth there would be shrift for him before he went.
He rose, and ran his fingers through his long, fair hair, which had become tousled. Then he looked at his hands, grimy and bruised from yesternight's adventure, and begged Bernardo to fetch him water.
Bernardo's brows went up in surprise. The labour of washing did not seem a reasonable thing to him under the circumstances. Outside in the courtyard a drum began to beat a call. Bernardo thrust out a dubious lip.
'Messer Tolentino is awaiting you,' he said.
'I know,' replied Castrocaro. 'You would not have me present myself thus before him. It were to show a lack of proper respect for the hangman.'
Bernardo shrugged, and gave an order to one of his men. The fellow set his pike in a corner and went out, to return presently with an iron basin full of water. This he placed upon the table. Messer Lorenzo thanked him pleasantly, removed his doublet and shirt, and stripped to the waist he proceeded to make the best toilet that he could as briefly as possible.
Washed and refreshed, his garments dusted and their disarray repaired, he acknowledged himself ready. The men surrounded him at a word from Bernardo, marched him out into the open where the impatient castellan awaited him.
With a firm step, his head high, and his cheeks but little paler than their habit, Messer Lorenzo came into the spacious inner bailie of the castle. He glanced wistfully at the cobalt sky, and then considered the line of soldiers drawn up in the courtyard, all in their harness of steel and leather, with the grey walls of the fortress for their background. Not more than thirty men in all did they number, and they composed the castle's entire garrison.
A little in front of them the tall castellan was pacing slowly. He was all in black, in mourning for his late master, the Lord Fioravanti, and his hand rested easily upon the hilt of his sheathed sword, thrusting the weapon up behind. He halted at the approach of the doomed prisoner, and the men surrounding the latter fell away, leaving him face to face with Messer Tolentino.
The castellan considered him sternly for a little while, and Messer Lorenzo bore the inspection well, his deep blue eyes returning the other's solemn glance intrepidly.
At last the captain spoke:
'I do not know what was your intent in penetrating here last night, save that it was traitorous; that much the lies you told me have made plain, and for that you are to suffer death, as must any man taken as you had been.'
'For death I am prepared,' said Messer Lorenzo coolly; 'but I implore you to spare me the torture of a funeral oration before I go. My fortitude may not be equal to so much, particularly when you consider that I have had no breakfast.'
Tolentino smiled sourly, considering him.
'Very well,' said he. And then: 'You will not tell me who you are and what you sought here?'
'I have told you already, but you choose to discredit what I say. What need, then, for further words? It were but to weary you and me. Let us get to the hanging, which, from the general look of you, is no doubt a matter that you understand better.'
'Ha!' said Tolentino.
But now quite suddenly, from the line of men there was one who, having heard question and answer, made bold to call out:
'Sir captain, I can tell you who he is.'
The captain wheeled sharply upon the man-at-arms who had made the announcement.
'He is Messer Lorenzo Castrocaro.'
'One of Valentinois' condottieri?' exclaimed Tolentino.
'The same, sir captain,' the man assured him; and Messer Lorenzo, looking, recognized one who had served under his own banner some months since.
He shrugged indifferently at the captain's very evident satisfaction.
'What odds?' he said. 'One name will serve as well as another to die under.'
'And how,' quoth the captain, 'would you prefer to die? You shall have your choice.'
'Of old age, I think,' said Messer Lorenzo airily, and heard the titter that responded to his sally.
But Tolentino scowled, displeased.
'I mean, sir, will you be hanged, or will you leap from the ledge to which you climbed last night?'
'Why, that now is a very different matter. You circumscribe the choice. Appoint for me, I pray, the death that will afford you the greater diversion.'
Tolentino considered him, stroking his long chin, his brows wrinkled. He liked the fellow for his intrepid daring in the face of death. But—he was Castellan of San Leo, and knew his duty.
'Why,' said he slowly at length, 'we know that you can climb like an ape; let us see if you can fly like a bird. Take him up to the ramparts yonder.'
'Ah, but stay!' cried Messer Castrocaro, with suddenly startled thoughts of those sins of his youth and with a certain corollary hope. 'Are you all pagans in San Leo? Is a Christian to be thrust across the black edge of death unshriven? Am I to have no priest, then?'
Tolentino frowned, as if impatient of this fresh motive for delay; then he signed shortly to Bernardo.
'Go fetch the priest,' said he; and thus dashed that faint, sly hope Messer Lorenzo had been harbouring that the place might contain no priest, and that these men, being faithful children of Mother Church, would never dare to slay unshriven a man who asked for shrift.
Bernardo went. He gained the chapel door on the very pronouncement of the 'Ite Missa est,' just as the morning Mass was ended, and on the threshold, in his haste, he all but stumbled against a lady in black who was coming forth attended by two women. He drew aside and flattened himself against the wall, muttering words of apology.
But the lady did not at once pass on.
'Why all this haste to chapel?' quoth she, accounting it strangely unusual in one of Tolentino's men.
'Messer Father Girolamo is required,' said he. 'There is a man about to die who must be shriven.'
'A man?' said she, with a show of tender solicitude, conceiving that one of the all too slender garrison had been wounded to the death.
'Aye, a captain of Valentino's—one Lorenzo Castrocaro—who came hither in the night. And,' he added vaingloriously, 'it was I, Madonna, who took him.'
But the Lady Bianca de' Fioravanti never heard his last words. She fell back a step, and rested, as if for support, against one of the diminutive pillars of the porch. Her face had become deathly white, her eyes stared dully at the soldier.
'What … What is his name, did you say?' she faltered.
'Lorenzo Castrocaro—a captain of Valentino's,' he repeated.
'Lorenzo Castrocaro?' she said in her turn, but on her lips the name seemed another, so differently did she utter it.
'Ay, Madonna,' he replied.
Suddenly she gripped his arm, so that she hurt him.
'And he is wounded—to the death?' she cried with a sudden fierceness, as it seemed to him.
'Nay; not wounded. He is to die, having been captured. That is all. Messer Tolentino will have him jump from the rock. You will have a good view from the battlements, Madonna. It is—'
She released his arm, and fell back from him in horror, cutting short his praise of the entertainment provided.
'Take me to your captain,' she commanded.
He stared at her, bewildered. 'And the priest?' he inquired.
'Let that wait. Take me to your captain.'
The command was so imperious that he dared not disobey her. He bowed, muttering in his beard, and, turning, went up the passage again, and so out into the courtyard, the lady and her women following.
Across the intervening space Madonna Bianca's eyes met the proud glance of Messer Lorenzo's, and saw the sudden abatement of that pride, saw the faint flush that stirred at sight of her in those pale cheeks. For to the young man this was a startling apparition, seeing that—as Cesare Borgia had been careful to provide—he had no knowledge or even suspicion of her presence in San Leo.
A moment she paused, looked at him, her soul in her eyes; then she swept forward, past Bernardo, her women ever following her. Thus came she, very pale but very resolute of mien, to the captain of her fortress.
Messer Tolentino bowed profoundly, uncovering, and at once explained the situation.
'Here is a young adventurer, Madonna, whom we captured last night within these walls,' said he. 'He is a captain in the service of Cesare Borgia.'
She looked at the prisoner again standing rigid before her, and from the prisoner to her officer.
'How came he here?' she asked, her voice curiously strained.
'He climbed the rock on the southern side at the risk of his neck,' said Tolentino.
'And what sought he?'
'’Tis what we cannot precisely ascertain,' Tolentino admitted. 'Nor will he tell us. When captured last night he pretended to be an envoy from Duke Guidobaldo, which plainly he was not. That was but a subterfuge to escape the consequences of his rashness.'
And the captain explained, with a pardonable parade of his own shrewdness, how he had at once perceived that had Messer Lorenzo been what he pretended, there would have been no need for him to have come to San Leo thus, in secret.
'Nor need to risk his neck, as you have said, by climbing the southern side, had he been employed by Cesare Borgia,' said the lady.
'That is too hasty a conclusion, Madonna,' Tolentino answered. 'It is only on the southern side that it is possible to climb the wall; and along the summit itself there is no way round.'
'To what end, then, do you conceive that he came?'
'To what end? Why, to what end but to betray the castle into the hands of the Borgia troops,' cried Tolentino, a little out of patience at such a superfluity of questions.
'You have proof of that?' she asked him, a rising inflection in her voice.
'To common sense no proof is needed of the obvious,' said he sententiously, snorting a little as he spoke, out of his resentment of this feminine interference in men's affairs. 'We are about to fling him back the way he came,' he ended with a certain grim finality.
But Madonna Bianca paid little heed to his manner.
'Not until I am satisfied that his intentions were as you say,' she replied; and her tone was every whit as firm as his, and was invested with a subtle reminder that she was the mistress paramount of San Leo, and he no more than the castellan.
Tolentino glowered and shrugged.
'Oh, as you please, Madonna. Yet I would make bold to remind you that my ripe experience teaches me best how to deal with such a matter.'
The girl looked that war-worn veteran boldly in the eye.
'Knowledge, sir captain, is surely of more account than mere experience.'
His jaw fell.
'You mean that you—that you have knowledge of why he came?'
'It is possible,' said she, and turned from the astonished captain to the still more astonished prisoner.
Daintily she stepped up to Messer Lorenzo, whose deep sapphire eyes glowed now as they regarded her, reflecting some of the amazement in which he had listened to her words. He had weighed them, seeking to resolve the riddle they contained, and—be it confessed at once—wondering how he might turn the matter to his profit in this present desperate pass.
I fear you may discover here something of the villain in Messer Lorenzo. And I admit that he showed himself but little a hero of romance in that his first thought now was how he might turn to account the lady's interest in him. But if it was not exactly heroic, it was undeniably human, and if I have conveyed to you any notion that Messer Castrocaro was anything more than quite ordinarily human, then my task has been ill-performed indeed.
It was not so much his love of her as his love of himself, youth's natural love of life, that now showed him how he might induce her to open a door for his escape from the peril that encompassed him. And yet, lest you should come to think more ill of him than he deserves, you are to remember that he had raised his eyes to her long since, although accounting her far beyond his adventurer's reach.
She looked at him in silence for a moment. Then, with a calm too complete to be other than assumed she spoke.
'Will you give me your arm to the battlements, Messer Lorenzo?'
A scarlet flush leapt to his cheeks; he stepped forward briskly to her side.
Tolentino would still have interposed.
'Consider, Madonna,' he began.
But she waved him peremptorily aside; and, after all, she was the mistress in San Leo.
Side by side the prisoner and the lady paramount moved away towards the staircase that led up to the embattled parapet. Tolentino growled his impatience, cursed himself for being a woman's lackey, dismissed his men in a rage, and sat down by the well in the centre of the courtyard to await the end of that precious interview.
Leaning on the embattled wall, looking out over the vast, sunlit Emilian Plain, Madonna Bianca broke at last the long spell of silence that had endured between herself and Castrocaro.
'I have brought you here, Ser Lorenzo,' she said, 'that you may tell me the true object of your visit to San Leo.' Her eyes were averted from his face, her bosom heaved gently, her voice quivered never so slightly.
He cleared his throat, to answer her. His resolve was now clear and definite.
'I can tell you what I did not come to do, Madonna,' he answered, and his accents were almost harsh. 'I did not come to betray you into the hands of your enemies. Of that I here make oath as I hope for the salvation of my soul.'
It may seem perjury at the first glance; yet it was strictly true, if not the whole truth. As we have seen, he had not dreamt that she was in San Leo, or that in delivering up the castle to Della Volpe's men he would be delivering up Madonna Bianca. Had he known of her presence, he would not, it is certain, have accepted the task. Therefore was he able to swear as he had done, and to swear truly, though he suppressed some truth.
'That much I think I knew,' she answered gently.
The words and the tone if they surprised him emboldened him in his deceit, urged him along the path to which already he had set his foot. At no other time—considering what he was, and what she—would he have dared so much. But his was now the courage of the desperate. He stood to die, and nothing in life daunts him who is face to face with death. He threw boldly that he might at the eleventh hour win back the right to live.
'Ah, ask me not why I came,' he implored her hoarsely. 'I have dared much, thinking that I dared all. But now—here before you, under the glance of your angel eyes—my courage fails me. I am become a coward who was not afraid when they brought me out to die.'
She shivered at his words. This he perceived, and inwardly the villain smiled.
'Look. Madonna.' He held out his hands, bruised, swollen, and gashed. 'I am something in this state from head to foot.' He turned. 'Look yonder.' And he pointed down the sheer face of the cliff. 'That way I came last night—in the dark, risking death at every step. You see that ledge, where there is scarce room to stand. Along that ledge I crept, to yonder wider space, and thence I leapt across that little gulf.' She shuddered as she followed his tale. 'By that crevice I came upwards, tearing knees and elbows, and so until I had gained the platform on the southern side, there.'
'How brave!' she cried.
'How mad!' said he. 'I show you this that you may know what courage then was mine, what indomitable impulse drove me hither. You would not think, Madonna, that having braved so much, I should falter now, and yet—' He stopped, and covered his face with his hands.
She drew nearer, sidling towards him. 'And yet?' said she softly and encouragingly.
'Oh! I dare not!' he cried out. 'I was mad—mad!' And then by chance his tongue stumbled upon the very words to suit his case. 'Indeed, I do not know what was the spirit of madness that possessed me.'
He did not know! She trembled from head to foot at that admission. He did not know! But she knew. She knew, and hence the confidence with which she had interposed to brush Tolentino aside. For had he died, had the executioner driven him over that ledge in that horrible death-leap, it would have been her hands that had destroyed him.
For was it not she who had bewitched him? Was it not she who had drugged him with a love philtre—the elixirium aureum procured from Messer Corvinus Trismegistus? Did she not know that it was that elixir, burning fiercely and unappeasably in his veins, that had possessed him like a madness and brought him thither, reckless of all danger, so that he might come to her?
The mage had said that he would become her utter slave ere the moon had waned again. What had been the wizard's precise words? She strove to recall them, and succeeded: 'He will come to you though the whole world lie between you and him.'
Again the confident promise rang in her ears, and here, surely, was its fulfilment. Behold how truly had the mage spoken—how well his golden elixir had done its work.
Thus reasoned Madonna Bianca, clearly and confidently. There were tears in her dark eyes as she turned them now upon the bowed head of the young captain at her side; the corners of her gentle mouth drooped wistfully. She put forth a hot hand, and laid it gently upon his fair head, which seemed all turned to gold in the fierce sunlight.
'Poor—poor Lorenzo!' she murmured fondly.
He started round and stared at her, very white.
'Oh, Madonna!' he cried, and sank upon one knee before her. 'You have surprised my secret—my unutterable secret! Ah, let me go! Let them hurl me from the rock, and so end my wretchedness!'
It was supremely well done, the villain knew; and she were no woman but a very harpy did she now permit his death. He was prepared for a pitying gentleness towards an affliction which she must now suppose her own beauty had inspired, and so he had looked for a kindly dismissal. But he was not prepared for any such answer as she made him.
'Dear love, what are you saying? Is there no other happiness for you save that of death? Have I shown anger? Do I show aught but gladness that for me you should have dared so much?'
To Messer Lorenzo it seemed in that moment that something was amiss with the world, or else with his poor brain. Was it conceivable that this noble lady should herself have turned the eyes of favour upon him? Was it possible that she should return this love of his, which he had deemed of such small account that in his urgent need he had not scrupled to parade it for purposes of deceit, where he would not have dared parade it otherwise?
He gave utterance to his overmastering amazement.
'Oh, it is impossible!' he cried; and this time there was no acting in his cry.
'What is impossible?' quoth she; and, setting her hands under his elbows, she raised him gently from his kneeling posture. 'What is impossible?' she repeated when they stood face to face once more.
And now the fire in his eyes was not simulated.
'It is impossible that you should not scorn my love,' said he.
'Scorn it? I? I who have awakened it—I who have desired it?'
'Desired it?' he echoed, almost in a whisper. 'Desired it?' For a spell they stood so, staring each into the other's eyes; then they fell into each other's arms, she sobbing in her extreme joy, and he upon the verge of doing no less, for, as you will perceive, it had been a very trying morning for him.
And it was thus—the Lady of San Leo and the Borgia captain clasped heart to heart under the summer sky—that Messer Tolentino found them.
Marvelling at the long delay, the castellan had thought it well to go after them. And what he now beheld struck him to stone, left him gaping like a foolish image.
They fell apart for very decency, and then the lady, rosily confused, presented Messer Lorenzo to the castellan as her future lord, and explained to him in confidence—and as she understood it—the true reason of that gentleman's visit to San Leo.
That Tolentino profoundly and scornfully discountenanced the whole affair—that he accounted it unpardonable in his mistress, a loyal subject of Duke Guidobaldo's, the holder, indeed, of one of the fortresses of Urbino, to take to husband one whose fortunes followed those of the Borgia usurper—there is no doubt; for Messer Tolentino has left it upon record. And if he did not there and then tell her so, with all that warmth of expression for which he was justly renowned, it was because he was dumbfounded by sheer amazement.
Thereafter, Messer Lorenzo was cared for as became a man in his position. A bath was prepared for him; fresh garments were found to fit him, the richest and most becoming being selected; the garrison was disappointed of its execution, and the Borgia captain went to dine at Madonna's table. For this banquet the choicest viands that the besieged commanded were forthcoming, and the rarest wines from Fioravanti's cellar were procured.
Messer Lorenzo was gay and sprightly, and in the afternoon, basking in the sunshine of Madonna Bianca's smiles, he took up a lute that he discovered in her bower, and sang for her one of the atrocious songs that in her honour he had made. It was a dangerous experiment. And the marvel of it is that, despite a pretty taste of her own in lyric composition, Madonna Bianca seemed well pleased.
In all Italy there was no happier man in that hour than Lorenzo Castrocaro, who, from the very edge of death, saw himself suddenly thrust up to the highest and best that he could have dared to ask of life. His happiness entirely engrossed his mind awhile. All else was forgotten. But suddenly, quite suddenly, remembrance flooded back upon him and left him cold with horror. He had been midway through his second song, Madonna languishing beside him, when the thought struck him, and he checked abruptly. The lute fell clattering from his grasp, which had suddenly grown nerveless.
With a startled cry his mistress leaned over him.
'Enzo! Are you ill?'
He rose precipitately.
'No, no; not ill. But—Oh!' He clenched his hands and groaned. She too had risen, all sweet solicitude, demanding to know what ailed him. He turned to her a face that was blank with despair.
'What have I done? What have I done?' he cried, thereby increasing her alarm.
It crossed her mind that perhaps the effect of the magician's philtre was beginning to wane. Fearfully, urgently she insisted upon knowing what might be alarming him; and he, seeing himself forced to explain, paused but an instant to choose a middle course in words, to find expressions that would not betray him.
'Why, it is this,' he cried, and there was real chagrin in his voice as there was in his heart. 'In my hot madness to come hither, I never paused to count the cost. I am a Borgia captain, and at this moment no better than a traitor, a deserter who has abandoned his trust and his condotta to go over to the enemy—to sit here and take my ease in the very castle that my Duke is now besieging.'
At once she perceived and apprehended the awful position that was his.
'Gesù!' she cried. 'I had not thought of that.'
'When they take me, they will surely hang me for a traitor!' he exclaimed; and indeed he feared it very genuinely, for what else was he become? All night he had left Della Volpe and his men to await in vain the unbarring of the gate. For having failed there could be no excuse other than death or captivity. That he should not only remain living, but that he should later be discovered to have made alliance with Madonna Bianca de' Fioravanti was a matter that could have no issue but one.
'By heaven, it had been a thousand times better had Tolentino made an end of me this morning as he intended!' Then he checked abruptly, and turned to her penitently. 'Ah, no, no! I meant not that, Madonna! I spoke without reflecting. I were an ingrate to desire that—an ingrate and a fool. For had they killed me I had never known this day of happiness.'
'Yet what is to be done?' she cried, crushing her hands together in her agony of mind. 'What is to be done, my Enzo? To let you now depart would no longer save you. Oh let me think, let me think!' And then, almost at once: 'There is a way!' she cried; and on that cry, which had been one of gladness, she fell suddenly very gloomy and thoughtful.
'What way?' quoth he.
'I fear it is the only way,' she said never so wistfully.
And then he guessed what was in her mind and repudiated the suggestion.
'Ah! Not that,' he protested. 'That way we must not think of. I could not let you—not even to save my life.'
But on the word she looked up at him and her dark eye kindled anew with loving enthusiasm.
'To save your life—yes. That is cause enough to justify me. For nothing less would I do it, Enzo; but to save you—you whom I have brought into this pass—'
'What are you saying, sweet?' he cried.
'Why, that the fault is mine, and that I must pay the penalty.'
'Did I not bring you hither?'
He flushed, something ill at ease to see—as he supposed—his lie recoiling now upon him.
'Listen!' she pursued. 'You shall do as I bid you. You shall go as my envoy to Cesare Borgia, and you shall offer him the surrender of San Leo in my name, stipulating only for the honours of war and the safe-conduct of my garrison.'
'No, no!' he protested still, and honestly, his villainy grown repugnant. 'Besides, how shall that serve me?'
'You shall say that you knew a way to win into San Leo and accomplish this—which,' she added, smiling wistfully, 'is, after all, the truth. The Duke will be too well content with the result to quarrel with the means employed.'
He averted his face.
'Oh! But it is shameful!' he cried out, and meant not what she supposed him to mean.
'In a few days—in a few weeks, at most—it will become inevitable,' she reminded him. 'After all, what do I sacrifice? A little pride, no more than that. And shall that weigh against your life with me? Better surrender now, when I have something to gain from surrender, than later, when I shall have all to lose.'
He considered. Indeed, it was the only way. And, after all, he was robbing her of nothing that she must not yield in time—of nothing, after all, that it might not be his to restore her very soon, in part at least. Considering this, and what the Duke had promised him, he gave her the fruit of his considerations, yet hating himself for the fresh deceit he practised.
'Be it so, my Bianca,' he said; 'but upon terms more generous than you have named. You shall not quit your dwelling here. Let your garrison depart, but you remain!'
'How is that possible?' she asked.
'It shall be,' he assured her confidently, the promised governorship in his mind.
THAT evening, with letters appointing him her plenipotentiary, he rode out of San Leo alone, and made his way down into the valley by the bridle-path. At the foot of this he came upon Della Volpe's pickets, who bore him off to their captain, refusing to believe his statement that he was Lorenzo Castrocaro.
When Della Volpe beheld him, the warriors single eye expressed at once suspicion and satisfaction.
'Where have you been?' he demanded harshly.
'In San Leo, yonder,' answered Castrocaro simply.
Della Volpe swore picturesquely.
'We had accounted you dead. My men have been searching for your body all day at the foot of the rock.'
'I deplore your disappointment and their wasted labour,' said Lorenzo, smiling; and Della Volpe swore again.
'How came you to fail, and, having failed, how come you out alive?'
'I have not failed,' was the answer. 'I am riding to the Duke with the garrison's terms of capitulation.'
Della Volpe very rudely refused to believe him, whereupon Messer Lorenzo thrust under the condottiero's single eye Madonna Bianca's letters. At that the veteran sneered unpleasantly.
'Ha! By the horns of Satan! I see! You ever had a way with the women, Lorenzo. I see!'
'For a one-eyed man you see too much,' said Messer Lorenzo, and turned away. 'We will speak of this again—when I am wed. Good-night!'
It was very late when he reached Urbino. But late as it was—long after midnight—the Duke was not abed. Indeed, Cesare Borgia never seemed to sleep. At any hour of the day or night he was to be found by those whose business was of import.
His highness was working in the library with Agabito preparing dispatches for Rome, when Messer Lorenzo was ushered into his presence.
He looked up as the young captain entered.
'Well,' quoth he sharply. 'Do you bring me news of the capture of San Leo?'
'Not exactly, highness,' replied the condottiero. 'But I bring you a proposal of surrender, and the articles of capitulation. If your highness will sign them, I shall take possession of San Leo in your name to-morrow.'
The Duke's fine eyes scanned the confident young face very searchingly. He smiled quietly.
‘You will take possession?' he said.
'As the governor appointed by your highness,' Messer Lorenzo blandly explained.
He laid his letters before the Duke, who scanned them with a swift eye, then tossed them to Agabito that the latter might con them more minutely.
'There is a provision that the Lady Bianca de' Fioravanti is to remain in San Leo,' said the secretary, marvelling.
'Why that?' quoth Cesare of Messer Lorenzo. 'Why, indeed, any conditions?'
'Matters have put on a curious complexion,' the condottiero expounded. 'Things went not so smoothly with me as I had hoped. I will spare your highness the details; but, in short, I was caught within the castle walls, and—and I had to make the best terms I could under such circumstances.'
'You do not, I trust, account them disadvantageous to yourself?' said Cesare. 'It would distress me that it should be so. But I cannot think it; for Madonna Bianca is accounted very beautiful.'
Castrocaro crimsoned in his sudden and extreme confusion. For once he was entirely out of countenance.
'You are informed of the circumstances, highness?' was all that he could say.
Cesare's laugh was short and almost contemptuous.
'I am something of a seer,' he replied. 'I could have foretold this end ere ever you set out. You have done well,' he added, 'and the governorship is yours. See to it at once, Agabito. Ser Lorenzo will be in haste to return to Madonna Bianca.'
A half-hour later, after the bewildered yet happy Castrocaro had departed to ride north again, Cesare rose from his writing-table, yawned, and smiled at the secretary, who had his confidence and affection.
'And so, San Leo, that might have held out for a year, is won,' he said, and softly rubbed his hands in satisfaction. 'This Castrocaro thinks it is all his own achievement. The lady imagines that it is all her own—by the aid of that charlatan Trismegistus. Neither dreams that all has fallen out as I had intended, and by my contriving.' He made philosophy for the benefit of Messer Agabito: 'Who would achieve greatness must learn not only to use men, but to use them in such a manner that they never suspect they are being used. Had I not chanced to overhear what I overheard that night at the house of Corvinus Trismegistus, and, knowing what I knew, set the human pieces in this game in motion to yield me this result, matters might have been different indeed, and lives would have been lost ere San Leo threw up its gates. And I have seen to it that the wizard'sof love should do precisely as he promised for it. Madonna Bianca, at least, believes in that impostor.'
'You had foreseen this, highness, when you sent Castrocaro on that dangerous errand?' Agabito ventured to inquire.
'What else? Where should I have found me a man for whom the matter was less dangerous? He did not know that Madonna Bianca was there. I had the foresight to keep that matter secret. I sent him, confident that, should he fail to open the gates to Della Volpe and be taken, he was crafty enough not to betray himself, and Madonna must, of course, assume that it was her love philtre had brought him to her irresistibly. Could she have hanged him, knowing that? Could she have done other than she has done?'
'Indeed, Corvinus has served you well.'
'So well that he shall have his life. The precious poison has failed to kill him, and this is the sixteenth day.' The Duke laughed shortly, and thrust his thumbs into the girdle of his robe, which was of cloth of gold, reversed with ermine. Give the order for his release to-morrow, Agabito. But bid them keep me his tongue and his right hand as remembrances. Thus he will never write or speak another lie.'
San Leo capitulated on the morrow: Tolentino and his men rode out with the honours of war, lance on thigh, the captain very surly at the affair, which he contemptuously admitted passed his understanding.
Into the fortress came then Messer Lorenzo Castrocaro at the head of a troop of his own men, to lay his governorship at the feet of Madonna Bianca.
They were married that very day in the chapel of the fortress, and although it was some years before each made to the other the confession of the deceit which each had practised, the surviving evidence all shows—and to the moralists this may seem deplorable—that they were none the less happy in the mean time.