The Justice of the Duke
The Justice of the Duke
A trumpet blared beneath the walls of Fabriano, and its brazen voice reached the room of the Palazzo, where Cesare Borgia sat measuring distances on a map and casting up calculations. He laid down the compass at the sound, and raised his head, sharp interest written on his lofty countenance.
"Agabito," said he to the elderly man who had been writing diligently at another table, "that will be the Lord of Camerino."
"The same thought was in my mind Magnificent," answered the secretary. Cesare's brows grew knit in thought; his elbow rested on the carved arm of his chair, and his shapely white fingers tugged at his auburn beard. Presently he stirred and sighed.
"Please it God, we come to terms," said he. "I am over-weary of this situation."
"It grows, in truth, very wearisome," murmured Agabito, who considered it one of his duties to paraphrase whatever Cesare might deign to say to him.
The Duke of Romagna's clenched hand fell sharply on the map before him. "To be pinned here by this man whom I have stripped to the last brick of his possessions, whilst I am urgently wanted in the North, whilst every day increases the danger of a coalition against me. Body of God! It is intolerable! We must make an end."
There was enough irony in the situation to have exasperated a more long-suffering man. Camerino was in Cesare's power, held by his soldiers. But Cesare himself was all but in the hands of the despoiled Lord of Camerino, who held him fast in Fabriano, together with the little band of soldiers that had been with him when he had been surprised. And whilst he was held there his cloud of mercenaries in the North were paralysed by the absence of the Duke, and the work of conquest upon which he had set out was at a standstill, which meant danger; for the Northern States, which singly could not hope to stand against him, might coalesce to his undoing ere he could prevent it, unless he shook the dust of Fabriano from his feet without delay. Thrice had he attempted to send for help to Camerino; but each time his messenger had been brought back with ironical courtesy by the vigilant besiegers.
A servant entered.
"An ambassador from the Lord of Camerino begs audience of your Highness."
Cesare frowned. Was a servant come in answer to the invitation he had sent the master?
"Admit him," he ordered coldly. And in obedience to his command, the attendant held wide the door, and beckoned someone forward. To the click of spurs and clank of scabbard, a middle-aged gentleman, of middle-height, very splendidly apparelled, stepped into Cesare's dread presence. He bowed profoundly, servilely almost; then straightened himself, and out of a grey, vulture face, a pair of shifty eyes met the stern glance of the Duke of Romagna.
"Is it thou, Malipiero?" quoth Cesare, his brows ever so slightly lifting. The man bowed again.
"I am your servant always, Highness."
"Thou art the servant of the Lord of Camerino," the Duke emended. "The fox that waits upon the wolf." And in his voice there was the faintest suspicion of a sneer. "I bade thy master attend me that we might adjust the terms on which he will grant me leave to quit Fabriano. He sends thee! I marvel that he did not send a lackey. Well, well, it is but a pin-prick in the wake of many sword-thrusts. I lay it to his score. Let him flout me now as he pleases, but let him beware the day of reckoning."
"My Lord of Camerino was afraid to come," ventured Malipiero, conciliatingly.
"Afraid?" cried the Duke, and his beautiful eyes flashed terribly. "By the Host! but this is an affront! Since when have I dealt in treachery?" His passion fell from him as suddenly as it had flared up. Indeed, it was not his wont outwardly to manifest such anger as he might feel. "Are you empowered to treat with me?"
"I am, so please you, Highness."
"Speak out, then. You know the thing that I would buy. Tell me the price this trader of Camerino asks."
"He will raise the siege and withdraw his men, leaving you free to depart, in return for your signed undertaking to recall your mercenaries from Camerino, and to reinstate and leave him unmolested lord of it, and his sons after him."
Cesare stared at the man, amazed by the effrontery of the proposal.
"Was he drunk, this fellow of Camerino, when he sent that message?" he asked coldly.
Malipiero quailed under the chill scorn of the Duke's eye. Agabito, at his desk in the background, smiled and nodded approval of the answer.
"My lord", said the ambassador respectfully, "it may be that my Lord Gian Paolo is rash. But he is very firm in his resolve. He has you, he swears, in the hollow of his hand."
"Has he so? Aye, but he shall discover that I am made of gunpowder, and, when I burst, that hand of his will be most sorely maimed. Go tell him so."
"You'll not accept his terms?" murmured Malipiero.
"Sooner would I sit in Fabriano till the crack of doom."
"The Northern States may coalesce," the other ventured. "Already Milan is—"
"If they coalesce from now to the Resurrection of the Flesh, that will not put Gian Paolo back on his throne of Camerino."
"I am not sure," began Malipiero.
"I know thou'rt not," broke in the Duke. "But I, who am, tell thee." He pushed back his chair and rose. "Agabito, reconduct me this messenger. See that he has refreshment ere he goes and courteous treatment."
And with that, as though he gave the matter no further thought, he sauntered toward the window, drawing from his pocket as he went a little comfit-box in gold and blue enamel.
But Malipiero made no sign of departing. He shuffled uneasily for a moment, his foxy old eyes now on the young Duke, now on the secretary, who was holding the door for him.
"Highness, may I speak with you—alone?" he said at last.
"To what purpose?"
"The advancement of your interests, Illustrious."
Cesare's eyes were very narrow as they surveyed the bowing Malipiero. A moment he seemed to hesitate. Then—"Leave us, Agabito," he said quietly, and a faint smile was on his lips.
"Highness," murmured the ambassador, so soon as they were alone, "the Lord of Camerino is in earnest."
"Already thou hast said so," answered the Duke, raising the lid of his comfit-box. "What else?"
"Your Excellency was pleased to correct me when, upon entering here, I announced myself your servant."
"You were my servant once; now you are his. Would you be mine again?"
Malipiero bowed in silent acquiescence. The Duke's lips parted to speak, but he changed his mind and closed them again without uttering a word. He shifted his eyes back to his comfit-box, and with deliberation picked a coriander-seed.
"The Lord of Camerino's fortunes do not wear so prosperous a look, eh?"
Malipiero's glance shunned the Duke's; his fingers toyed nervously with his grey beard.
"It was I," he said, "who made Gian Paolo afraid to come, to the end that he might send me. I did this that I might lay my services at your disposal, for at heart I have ever been your Excellency's most devoted. My only son is in your service."
"A traitor who yesterday sought to compass my assassination," Cesare informed him coldly. "It is well I wear a shirt of mail. This precious son of thine lies in my dungeons awaiting my pleasure."
"My God!" gasped Malipiero. His face was turned ashen, his limbs trembled under him.
"Hadst not heard of it? How poor are the Lord of Camerino's spies! It is the common talk of Fabriano. But thou knewest it was to be attempted, and what the price the Lord of Milan—yet another master of thine—was to have paid him. Thou damned, infernal traitor, darest so boldly bear me messages from Gian Paolo? Aye, that thou darest, knowing that as an ambassador thou'rt safe."
"My lord!" cried Malipiero in an anguish of terror, "I knew naught of such a plot."
"I think," said Cesare, "that I hate a liar almost more than an assassin; certainly as much." And he cracked the coriander-seed between his strong, white teeth.
"Highness," exclaimed the other, eagerly, "I have it in my power to make amends for what my son has done. I can rid you of this Lord of Camerino. Shall it be a deal between us? My son's life against the raising of this siege?"
Cesare shut his box with a snap and dropped it into his pocket.
"It was to make me some such proposal, I think, that thou didst request to speak with me alone. Possibly there was some other bargain in thy mind, some other price to ask for the treachery thou'rt proposing?"
Malipiero flung dissimulation to the winds. His avarice, which had made him a constant traitor to his every master had been his only stimulus to offer his foul services to Cesare Borgia. But now that he heard of the failure of that plot which he had hatched for gold, and which his only son seemed likely to pay for with his neck, the life of his boy was the only recompense he asked. He frankly said as much.
"I will not bargain with thee," was Cesare's contemptuous answer.
The distraught man dropped on his knees. With tears in his eyes he implored clemency and urged upon Cesare how much it imported that he should rejoin his army in the North.
"There is not in all Italy a knave with whom I would so scorn to deal as thou, Malipiero. Man, thou art so steeped in the mire of treachery that the very sight of thee offends me, and I think I have endured it long enough."
"My lord," the other clamoured, "I can find you a way out of this as could no other man. Give me my son's life, and it shall be done—to-morrow. I will draw Gian Paolo away—back to Camerino. What are his men without him? Hirelings all, mercenaries every man of them. They would never stay to oppose your sally and deliver battle if Gian Paolo were not by to urge them."
Cesare was tempted. At all costs he must get out of Fabriano, and that soon, or he would suffer direly. Mistrust of Malipiero prompted his next question.
"What means hast thou to perform so much?"
At this suggestion that the Duke was inclined to treat with him, Malipiero rose. He shuffled a step nearer, licking his lips, his eyes screwed cunningly.
"Gian Paolo loves his throne of Camerino dearly—so dearly that he has risked all upon his throw against your Highness. But there is one thing he loves still more—his honour. Let it be whispered to him that the lady his wife—" He leered horribly. "You understand, Magnificent. He would leave his camp out yonder, and dash back to Camerino, where she bides in the palace your Excellency has left her, as fast as horse could bear him."
Cesare felt his soul revolt. The thing was vile, the fruit of a vile mind uttered by a vile mouth, and as he looked at the leering creature before him a sense of nausea took him. But his calm, inscrutable face showed naught of this; his beautiful, passionless eyes betrayed none of the repulsion with which they looked on the creature before him. Presently his lips parted in a smile, but what that smile portended Malipiero could not guess until he spoke.
"Possibly there is in Italy a viler thing than you. Probably there is not. Still, it is for me to use thee, not convert thee. Accomplish me this thing, since thou'rt sure 'tis to be done."
Malipiero drew a deep breath of relief. Insults were of no account to him so that he gained his end.
"Grant me my son's life, and I undertake that by to-night Gian Paolo shall be in the saddle."
"I make no bargain with thee," Cesare answered. "I'll not so smirch my hands. Do thou this thing, then look to me for payment."
"You will be merciful, Magnificent?"
"It is said by the few who do not malign me that I am ever just. Rest content; thou shalt find me so." Then, more briskly, he continued: "Tell me, Malipiero, hast power in thy master's name to grant a safe-conduct?"
"I have, Highness."
"There is what thou'lt need on that table. Write me one for a company of twenty men from Fabriano, under the command of—anyone thou pleasest."
When Malipiero had drawn up and signed the document, Cesare called Agabito to reconduct the ambassador, and when the secretary returned he found the Duke at the table again, but lost in thought.
"Set me that window wide, Agabito," he cried. "Wider, man; the air is fouled by that creature that was with me. Now summon me Don Miguel."
Agabito withdrew with a serious face. When Cesare's Spanish captain was bidden to wait upon his master, it was wont to augur ill for someone.
As Malipiero promised, so did he perform; though in the performance he went near to being strangled by the powerful hands of Gian Paolo.
At the first hint of his vile meaning the passionate Lord of Camerino had flung into a fury, and, catching him by the throat, would have made an end of him, thus, with his hands, but that returning reason awoke unreasoning jealousy and bade him stay until he had learnt what grounds this rascal had for bringing that foul charge.
When he had recovered breath Malipiero gasped out his story, and thanked his patron saint that he had bethought him of forging proofs to lend his accusation countenance, else he was likely to have fared ill. Those proofs he laid before his master. They purported to be letters purloined from the treasure-casket of Gian Paolo's wife, and they fired Gian Paolo's very ready jealousy. He strode to and fro within the narrow limits of his tent, tearing his hair and uttering foulnesses —a thing unusual in him—like a man demented. In that hour the fortunes of Italy weighed not a straw's weight with him; his throne of Camerino he cared for no more than had it been a dung-heap. The only thought then governing his mind was of this dishonour that had been discovered to him.
A furious hatred filled him, a feral thirst for the blood of that nameless one who had brought this shame upon him, and an almost equal hatred for the creature who had revealed the matter to him, and who was cowering now in a corner of the tent, appalled by the sight of the devil he had raised.
Suddenly he strode to the door of his tent, and, beating his hands together, called. Out of the dark surged the figure of his sentinel.
"Bid them saddle me three horses," he commanded, hoarse with passion, "and tell Ser Gustavo to prepare him for a journey." Then, swinging round again upon Malipiero—"You shall go with me," he threatened him, "and if it should please God that you have lied, it shall please God also that I stab you dead."
And now a great fear took possession of Malipiero, which it needed all his confidence in his resources to combat and quell. Like a man in a dream he obeyed Gian Paolo, and so came to find himself mounted between his master and Gustavo da Trani.
The captain of the mercenaries drew nigh as they were departing. He had heard the rumour that Gian Paolo was leaving the camp, and, marvelling that he had received no orders, he went to seek them.
"Plague me not!" Gian Paolo had barked at him.
"But, Excellency," the man protested, "from whom shall we take orders in your absence?"
"From whom you like. From the devil, or from Cesare Borgia for aught I care. Malipiero, come on; forward, Gustavo." And, clapping spurs to his horse, he rode off in the summer night with his two companions.
By dawn they had scaled the hills above Camerino, by noon they were in the city. They had abandoned their horses some way out, and, that they might suffer no hindrance from the Borgia soldiery in possession, they entered quietly on foot, making their way to the Osteria del Sole—a quiet tavern in a poor quarter. Here they lay and waited for the night, by Malipiero's own suggestion, whose only object was to gain time, hoping meanwhile for some opportunity to escape. But towards evening there was a surprise for him. Gian Paolo, who had been absent a little while from the room they had taken, returned looking very white, his anger and his spirit all seeming to have died out of him. Between his fingers he carried a scrap of paper. His eyes rested sorrowfully on Malipiero.
"Malipiero," said he brokenly, "I prayed God all night, as we rode, that you might have lied to me. But—"—a sob cut the strong man's utterance—"there is no more pity in Heaven than on earth. What you told me is no more than true, it seems. I was recognised below," he proceeded to explain, "and the fellow who recognised me wrote on this slip the confirmation of your shameful story. The—the man, he tells me here, is in the habit of repairing to my house at the Ave Maria, and leaves it again towards the second hour of night."
He paused, and, sinking into a chair, took his head in his hands and sat awhile like one bereft of his wits. His companions looked on in silence, Gustavo in pity to behold this man so broken, Malipiero in secret glee at the miracle which had been wrought for his salvation. Thus a full half-hour sped. Then a bell, somewhere in the neighbourhood, tinkled the Angelus, and the sound acted upon Gian Paolo as might have done a trumpet-call in the hour of battle. He rose abruptly, and, for all that his face was haggard, his eyes were stern and his mouth set hard.
"Come," he bade them, "it is the hour." His fingers rested caressingly a moment on the hilt of his sword, ere he girt himself with it.
They went forth as dusk was falling, out into the hot, scented evening-tide, bent upon a deed of blood.
They gained the gates of the palace, where, by the generosity of Cesare Borgia, Gian Paolo's wife was lodged, and at their approach a man detached himself from the shadow of the wall. The Lord of Camerino's hand went swiftly to his sword, but as swiftly fell back to his side at seeing who it was that came. It was his friend of the inn.
"Lord," said he softly, "I knew that you would come, for I can guess what has brought you back to Camerino. I have kept watch for you. He is within."
Gian Paolo's figure stiffened, suggesting the self-control which he was exercising.
"Let us go in," he said to his companions.
"You had best wait, my Lord, and take him as he comes forth," the man suggested, and to this Gustavo and Malipiero urged him also, so that in the end their counsel prevailed.
In a thicket commanding the main entrance, they concealed themselves and waited. An hour went by, and Gian Paolo's impatience grew such that it needed all the persuasiveness of his companions to prevent him from forcing an entrance. Another hour sped, and then, just as Gian Paolo was swearing that not a moment longer would he wait, the door swung open, and in a flood of light the black figure of a man came down the steps and briskly forward until he was within ten yards of the trees that concealed the watchers.
Gian Paolo had turned to his companions.
"Do you remain here until it is done?" he bade them. Then he stepped out, and ran to meet the fellow, sword in hand. The door had closed again.
At that harsh challenge and the sight of that sword gleaming in such light as there was, the other man stepped back a pace and whipped out his own blade.
"Who art thou?" he asked.
"The man thou hast most foully wronged, Gian Paolo, Lord of Camerino."
"Was it my fault—" the other began.
"No more!" snarled the maddened Gian Paolo. Rage and disdain were choking him. "On guard!"
And with the words his sword leapt forward a quivering tongue of death. The other parried, and would have staid to parley, but in the dark he had more than enough to do to fight, nor did he do that long. In one of his parries he missed the resistance of his opponent's blade. In the gloom he never saw the point come at him over his guard, knew nothing of it till it was in his throat, and little then. Yet, ere he fell, Gian Paolo had withdrawn the blade and passed it through his body twice. He lay on his back with his three wounds, his glazing eyes staring up at the stars he would never see again, whilst Gian Paolo went forward to knock upon the door with the hilt of his reeking sword.
At the same time two figures crept from the thicket and advanced towards the fallen man. Gustavo da Trani stooped and put his hand to the fellow's heart.
"Dead," said he in an emotionless, colourless voice.
"And well he deserved his death," chuckled Malipiero, who could scarce realise the magnitude of this coincidence, nor sufficiently congratulate himself upon it.
The door opened, and they saw Gian Paolo pass in, whereupon they set themselves to pace the alley where the dead body lay, whilst they awaited their master's return.
After the gloom without Gian Paolo was half blinded by the brilliant light within. But as his sight grew clearer he found himself confronted by a tall man with a grave, dark countenance and a very martial bearing. To ask the man's name was his immediate impulse, but a second glance at his face removed the need.
"Don Miguel?" he gasped, recognising Cesare Borgia's famous captain. "What make you here? I am seeking my wife."
"Excellency," the other answered him, "she left Camerino this morning for her country house. Will you follow me, my lord? I have a message for you from the Duke of Romagna, my master."
Like one in a dream Gian Paolo followed him into the chamber that once had been his study. Don Miguel closed the door, then, coming forward, told his tale.
"My lord, you have been the victim of treachery; but not of the treachery you came hither to find. The traitor is that rogue Malipiero, a part of whose plot against you it was most foully to slander the fair name of Madonna your wife."
"It is not true, then?" cried Gian Paolo. "You swear it is not true?"
"I swear it readily, my lord. It is not true."
A great sob burst from Gian Paolo's breast, and the tears coursed down his war-worn cheeks. What did it signify to him that he had been betrayed in other matters? What signified losses or reverses so that his Eulalia was true?
A moment Don Miguel paused, then he gave Gian Paolo the details of Malipiero's plot to get him away from Fabriano, so that in his absence Cesare and his men might cut through the ungoverned ranks of the besiegers. Malipiero had intended to sell the service for gold, but, discovering that his son was under arrest for attempted assassination of the Duke, he sought to make that son's enlargement the price of the betrayal.
"Yesterday morning," pursued the Captain, "his Highness sent for me, and gave me a safe-conduct for twenty men signed by Malipiero in your name. With that escort and one man whom the Duke entrusted to my keeping I rode ahead of you to Camerino. First I removed Madonna your wife, as I have told you. Then I established myself here, and sent a man of mine to meet you with messages that should confirm Malipiero's story."
"Be these the methods of your Duke?" cried Gian Paolo wrathfully.
"They were necessary steps in the accomplishment of his design, my lord," answered Don Miguel. "I waited this evening, with that individual whom Cesare had entrusted to me, until word was brought me that you were hiding in the garden. Then, in the Duke of Romagna's name, I bade the fellow go. He went, my lord, to meet your sword. I trust that he is dead."
"Cesare Borgia shall account to me for having put upon me the slaying of an innocent man," exclaimed the Lord of Camerino, springing up.
Don Miguel looked at him a moment. Then—"Come with me, Excellency," he said so impressively that without another word Gian Paolo followed him. In the hall he took a torch from an attendant, and with this he passed out of the house and led Gian Paolo down to the alley where the dead man lay and the living ones were pacing.
At the sight of Cesare's captain Malipiero's cheeks went a shade paler. To see Don Miguel was to become uneasy. What did the fellow here? Don Miguel beckoned him at that moment.
"Messer Malipiero," said he, "his Highness, the Duke of Romagna bids me say that, thanks to your betrayal of your master, he is now out of Fabriano and on his way to the army in the North. He bade you do the thing you proposed, and undertook that you and your son should find him deal justly with you. Yonder, Messer, will you find your payment, meted out to you by the hand of the very Lord of Camerino whom you betrayed." And he pointed to the body, lying so quietly there, at peace with all men and recking naught of ambition or of factions.
With twitching lips and haggard face Malipiero stumbled toward that silent thing.
Don Miguel flashed the light of his torch on the dead face, and Malipiero saw it, and fell on his knees beside the body of his only son. A peal of strident, horrid laughter burst from his ashen lips.
"The justice of the Duke!" he screamed, and fainted.