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From the valley, borne aloft on the wings of the evening breeze, rose faintly the tolling of an Angelus bell, and in a goat-herd's hut on the heights above stood six men with heads uncovered and bowed, obeying its summons to evening prayer. A brass lamp, equipped with three beaks, swung from the grimy ceiling, and, with more smoke than flame, shed an indifferent light, and yet a more indifferent smell, throughout the darkening hovel. But it sufficed at least to reveal in the accoutrements and trappings of that company a richness that was the more striking by contrast with the surrounding squalor.
As the last stroke of the Ave Maria faded on the wind that murmured plaintively through the larches of the hillside, they piously crossed themselves, and leisurely resuming their head-gear, they looked at one another with questioning glances. Yet before any could voice the inquiry that was in the minds of all, a knock fell upon the rotten timbers of the door.
"At last!" exclaimed old Fabrizio da Lodi, in a voice charged with relief, whilst a younger man of good shape and gay garments strode to the door in obedience to Fabrizio's glance, and set it wide.
Across the threshold stepped a tall figure under a wide, featherless hat, and wrapped in a cloak which he loosened as he entered, revealing the very plainest of raiment beneath. A leather hacketon was tightened at the waist by a girdle of hammered steel, from which depended on his left a long sword with ringed, steel quillons, whilst from behind his right hip peeped the hilt of a stout Pistoja dagger. His hose of red cloth vanished into boots of untanned leather, lacedin front and turned down at the knees, and completed in him the general appearance of a mercenary in time of peace, in spite of which the six nobles, in that place of paradoxes, bared their heads anew, and stood in attitudes of deferential attention.
He paused a moment to throw off his cloak, of which the young man who had admitted him hastened to relieve him as readily as if he had been born a servitor. He next removed his hat, and allowed it to remain slung from his shoulders, displaying, together with a still youthful countenance of surpassing strength and nobility, a mane of jet-black hair coiffed in a broad net of gold thread--the only article of apparel that might have suggested his station to be higher than at first had seemed.
He stepped briskly to the coarse and grease-stained table, about which the company was standing, and his black eyes ran swiftly over the faces that confronted him.
"Sirs," he said at last, "I am here. My horse went lame a half-league beyond Sant' Angelo, and I was constrained to end the journey on foot."
"Your Excellency will be tired," cried Fabrizio, with that ready solicitude which is ever at the orders of the great. "A cup of Puglia wine, my lord. Here, Fanfulla," he called, to the young nobleman who had acted as usher. But the new-comer silenced him and put the matter aside with a gesture.
"Let that wait. Time imports as you little dream. It may well be, illustrious sirs, that had I not come thus I had not come at all."
"How?" cried one, expressing the wonder that rose in every mind, even as on every countenance some consternation showed. "Are we betrayed?"
"If you are in case to fear betrayal, it may well be, my friends. As I crossed the bridge over the Metauro and took the path that leads hither, my eyes were caught by a crimson light shining from a tangle of bushes by the roadside. That crimson flame was a reflection of the setting sun flashed from the steel cap of a hidden watcher. The path took me nearer, and with my hat so set that it might best conceal my face, I was all eyes. And as I passed the spot where that spy was ambushed, I discerned among the leaves that might so well have screened him, but that the sun had found his helmet out, the evil face of Masuccio Torri." There was a stir among the listeners, and their consternation increased, whilst one or two changed colour. "For whom did he wait? That was the question that I asked myself, and I found the answer that it was for me. If I was right, he must also know the distance I had come, so that he would not look to see me afoot, nor yet, perhaps, in garments such as these. And so, thanks to all this and to the hat and cloak in which I closely masked myself, he let me pass unchallenged."
"By the Virgin!" exclaimed Fabrizio hotly, "I'll swear your conclusions were wrong. In all Italy it was known to no man beyond us six that you were to meet us here, and with my hand upon the Gospels I could swear that not one of us has breathed of it."
He looked round at his companions as if inviting them to bear out his words, and they were not slow to confirm what he had sworn, in terms as vehement as his own, until in the end the new-comer waved them into silence.
"Nor have I breathed it," he assured them, "for I respected your injunction, Messer Fabrizio. Still--what did Masuccio there, hidden like a thief, by the roadside? Sirs," he continued, in a slightly altered tone, "I know not to what end you have bidden me hither, but if aught of treason lurks in your designs, I cry you beware! The Duke has knowledge of it, or at least, suspicion. If that spy was not set to watch for me, why, then, he was set to watch for all, that he may anon inform his master what men were present at this meeting."
Fabrizio shrugged his shoulders in a contemptuous indifference which was voiced by his neighbour Ferrabraccio.
"Let him be informed," sneered the latter, a grim smile upon his rugged face. "The knowledge will come to him too late."
The new-comer threw back his head, and a look that was half wonder, half enlightenment gleamed in the black depths of his imperious eyes. He took a deep breath.
"It would seem, sirs, that I was right," said he, with a touch of sternness, "and that treason is indeed your business."
"My Lord of Aquila," Fabrizio answered him, "we are traitors to a man that we may remain faithful and loyal to a State."
"What State?" barked the Lord of Aquila contemptuously.
"The Duchy of Babbiano," came the answer.
"You would be false to the Duke that you may be faithful to the Duchy?" he questioned, scorn running ever stronger in his voice. "Sirs, it is a riddle I'll not pretend to solve."
There fell a pause in which they eyed one another, and their glances were almost as the glances of baffled men. They had not looked for such a tone from him, and they questioned with their eyes and minds the wisdom of going further. At last, with a half-sigh, Fabrizio da Lodi turned once more to Aquila.
"Lord Count," he began, in a calm, impressive voice, "I am an old man; the name I bear and the family from which I spring are honourable alike. You cannot think so vilely of me as to opine that in my old age I should do aught to smirch the fair fame of the one or of the other. To be named a traitor, sir, is to be given a harsh title, and one, I think, that could fit no man less than it fits me or any of these my companions. Will you do me the honour, then, to hear me out, Excellency; and when you have heard me, judge us. Nay, more than judgment we ask of you, Lord Count. We ask for guidance that we may save our country from the ruin that threatens it, and we promise you that we will take no step that has not your sanction--that is not urged by you."
Francesco del Falco, Count of Aquila, eyed the old noble with a glance that had changed whilst he spoke, so that from scornful that it had been, it had now grown full of mild wonder and inquiry. He slightly inclined his head in token of acquiescence.
"I beg that you will speak," was all he said, and Fabrizio would forthwith have spoken but that Ferrabraccio intervened to demand that Aquila should pass them his knightly word not to betray them in the event of his rejection of the proposals they had to make. When he had given them his promise, and they had seated themselves upon such rude stools as the place afforded, Fabrizio resumed his office of spokesman, and unfolded the business upon which he had invited the Count among them.
In a brief preamble he touched upon the character of Gian Maria Sforza, the reigning Duke of Babbiano--seated upon its throne by his powerful uncle, Lodovico Sforza, Lord of Milan. He exposed the man's reckless extravagances, his continued self-indulgence, his carelessness in matters of statecraft, and his apparent disinclination to fulfil the duties which his high station imposed upon him. On all this Fabrizio touched with most commendable discretion and restraint, as was demanded by the circumstance that in Francesco del Falco he was addressing the Duke's own cousin.
"So far, Excellency," he continued, "you cannot be in ignorance of the general dissatisfaction prevailing among your most illustrious cousin's subjects. There was the conspiracy of Bacolino, a year ago, which, had it succeeded, would have cast us into the hands of Florence. It failed, but another such might not fail again. The increased disfavour of his Highness may bring more adherents to a fresh conspiracy of this character, and we should be lost as an independent state. And the peril that menaces us is the peril of being so lost. Not only by defection of our own, but by the force of arms of another. That other is Caesar Borgia. His dominion is spreading like a plague upon the face of this Italy, which he has threatened to eat up like an artichoke--leaf by leaf. Already his greedy eyes are turned upon us, and what power have we--all unready as we are--wherewith successfully to oppose the over-whelming might of the Duke of Valentinois? All this his Highness realises, for we have made it more than clear to him, as we have, too, made clear the remedy. Yet does he seem as indifferent to his danger as to his salvation. His time is spent in orgies, in dancing, in hawking and in shameful dalliance, and if we dare throw out a word of warning, threats and curses are the only answer we receive."
Da Lodi paused, as if growing conscious that his manner was becoming over-vehement. But of this, his companions, at least, were all unconscious, for they filled the pause with a murmur of angry confirmation. Francesco wrinkled his brow, and sighed.
"I am--alas!--most fully conscious of this danger you speak of. But--what do you expect of me? Why bear me your grievance? I am no statesman."
"Here is no statesman needed, lord. It is a soldier Babbiano requires; a martial spirit to organise an army against the invasion that must come--that is coming already. In short, Lord Count, we need such a warrior as are you. What man is there in all Italy--or, indeed, what woman or what child--that has not heard of the prowess of the Lord of Aquila? Your knightly deeds in the wars 'twixt Pisa and Florence, your feats of arms and generalship in the service of the Venetians, are matters for the making of epic song."
"Messer Fabrizio!" murmured Francesco, seeking to restrain his eulogistic interlocutor, what time a faint tinge crept into his bronzed cheeks.
But Da Lodi continued, all unheeding: "And shall you, my lord, who have borne yourself so valiantly as a condottiero in the service of the stranger, hesitate to employ your skill and valour against the enemies of your own homeland? Not so, Excellency. We know the patriotic soul of Francesco del Falco, and we count upon it."