Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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In 1934-1935 Max Brand, writing under the name of "George Challis" penned a series of seven swashbuckling historical romances set in 16th-century Italy. These tales all featured a character, Tizzo, a master swordsman, nicknamed "Firebrand" because of his flaming red hair and flame-blue eyes, and were first published in Argosy.
The original titles and publication dates of the romances are:
1. The Firebrand, Nov 24 and Dec 1 (2 part serial)
2. The Great Betrayal, Feb 2-16, 1935 (3 part serial)
3. The Storm, Apr 6-20, 1935 (3 part serial)
4. The Cat and the Perfume Jun 8, 1935 (novelette)
5. Claws of the Tigress, Jul 13, 1935 (novelette)
6. The Bait and the Trap, Aug 3, 1935 novelette
7. The Pearls of Bonfadini, Aug 24, 1935 (novelette)
The digital edition of The Cat and the Perfume offered here includes a bonus section with a gallery of the covers of the issues of Argosy in which the seven romances first appeared.
—Roy Glashan, December 2019.
OUT of the Apennines the river plunged toward the flat strip of the Romagna, toward the gleam of the walls of distant Faenza that stands on the great Via Emilia; swiftly the river ran, and the road beside it, but swiftest of all was the gallop of Tizzo on a long-legged gelding that had made slow work through the climbing of the Apennines, but now on the downward slope stretched out in gigantic strides. And Tizzo let him run, only keeping a tight rein to balance the awkward beast on the corners. For a rain had ceased falling only a short time before and the river was frothed with new brown and bubbles and the big rocks beside the road flashed in the sun; the surface, being mere mud, was a treacherous footing, and the clumsy gelding needed a bit of steering. He was the fourth that Tizzo had ridden since he left Perugia. Even by the riverside the road sometimes went uphill. And now they came to a long rise up which the gelding started to gallop, fell to a trot, to a walk, and finally, in spite of spurring, stood still and let its head fall.
Tizzo, in a fury, tore the feathered cap from his head and dashed it on the ground; the steel lining of the headpiece clanged on a stone with a muffled note. Then, his passion leaving him as quickly as it had flared up, he slipped to the earth and glanced over the horse.
The eye of the gelding was dull, his muzzle twitched spasmodically, his sides heaved, and there was a tremor in his knees.
"Spent like a bad coin," said Tizzo. "Done for and gone, and be damned to all long legs on men or beasts."
He turned, his eyes straining toward the east, which was his goal, and through the strain of his baffled impatience he began to hear the musical conversation of the river, which talked to itself contentedly with many voices; he was aware of the blue of the sky, and the pines that climbed the mountains in thick, dark- green ranks. The river seemed to rush on with a redoubled speed and he was drifting back, back, losing fatal time in the race. A dim thunder began, behind him, and turned into a distinct rattling, and now a cart drawn by two mules appeared around the corner at the foot of the hill.
Tizzo at once stripped saddle and bridle from the dripping gelding. And from behind the saddle he took the leather-holstered ax which he hooked onto his belt so that the leather-covered head of it was behind his hip and the wooden handle sloped across his back toward his right shoulder. He wore, also, a short-bladed, light sword whose slender steel would be entirely useless to carve through the thick steel plate and the under-armoring of chain-mail of Milan such as men wore in Italy in the year 1500. The sword was balanced at the right hip by a slim-bodied little poniard, a very good instrument with which to look through the breathing holes of a visored helmet These were his weapons. He picked up his feather hat and put it on his head. That was the only defensive armor he wore. He had not even a shirt of fine mail under his long-sleeved, short-skirted jacket because his best guard was speed of hand and foot.
Now he stood waiting eagerly for the carter, with the wind ruffling the curled fringes of his flame-colored hair and tossing the plume in his steel-lined hat. At his call, the carter drew rein; the mules stretched their hind legs to keep the cart from rolling backward.
"When you went by me, back there," said the peasant, "I saw the belly of your horse pumping and I guessed you'd come to a stand before long, highness."
He added the last word out of respect to the plume and the edging of fur around the collar of the jacket. Tizzo flung bridle and saddle into the cart, laid his hand on the high edge of it, and vaulted lightly in.
"On toward Faenza, friend," said Tizzo, "as fast as your mules can run; and if they gallop all the way, you get this!"
He held up a florin, beautifully new from the Florence mint. The peasant opened his eyes so wide that the pupils became pinpoints in the big white circles. "But the horse--to leave your horse--"
"My servants will pick up the beast when they come along behind me," said Tizzo. "The whip! The whip! Gallop all the way, and you have the florin. Only half if the mules trot a step."
THERE were no servants following him. No man could have followed the frantic course he had ridden since that night of tumult when he rode conquering into Perugia at the side of Giovanpaolo Baglioni and then saw, far before him, the man on the gray horse, such a horse as Tizzo never had seen before, a horse of silk, a horse that flowed over miles like the wind. He had intended to chase the rider no farther than the northern wall of Perugia; and then, a single mile beyond the town he was prepared to halt, but the imp of the perverse and the beauty of the gray, horse had led him on, and on. For four days he had been led, stopping for brief moment, hollow-eyed for the lack of sleep, hardly ever in sight of the fugitive but always guided by report, for when men saw the gray stallion, they did not forget it readily.
The peasant, with one half-frightened glance over his shoulder, began to beat the mules with his long staff; by the time the cart reached the top of the hill, the gray mules were galloping with the short-striding, stiff-legged swing peculiar to the race.
"You hurry, my lord," said the peasant.
"Did you see a man on a gray horse?" said Tizzo. "A gray horse with four black points on its legs and a black silk muzzle?"
"I saw it," said the peasant. "A half hour before you went by me--"
"Gallop! Gallop!" said Tizzo. "If you bring me up with him, ten florins! Ten florins, d'you hear?"
"I hear!" said the peasant, and struck his mules in turn.
"Was the gray horse weakening?" asked Tizzo.
"It was only trotting when I saw it," said the peasant, "but it trotted faster than most horses would gallop, on a long road."
"Was it thin as if from a hard journey?" asked Tizzo, eagerly. "Was it gaunt beneath, and the back roached?"
"No, highness. It seemed in good condition."
"What a horse!" said Tizzo. "A Pegasus! A winged throne for a man; a glory and a triumph to the eye... Tell me, what was the look of the man that rode it?"
"A good, strong-built man," said the peasant, speaking loudly over the rattling of the cart, the groaning of the heavy axles. "A man that might make one and a half of you, highness!" He glanced almost with a smile over the lithe, slight body of Tizzo, and measured his inches. He was not, in fact, a hair's breadth above a middle height.
"A good, strong-built man--" said Tizzo, thoughtfully.
"You want to overtake him, very much? He wears a helmet at his saddlebow, and there is good steel plate from his neck to his knees; he has a two-handed sword, also!"
"Has he?" said Tizzo. "And a big-built man, with all that weight of armor to carry as well--and I with four horses dead beat behind me--and he with only one? No, it is not a horse. It is an immortal!"
"Perhaps," said the peasant, with a touch of malice, "when your highness comes up with this armored man, you will be sorry that you caught him."
"Sorry?" said Tizzo. "Tut, tut! It is a cousin of my wife's sister, and he left home without a purse of money that he may need along the way. No fighting, my friend. No fighting, at all. Just a matter of pure friendship!"
The peasant looked into the eyes of his passenger and saw them glimmer as bright as the blue of flame that underlies the yellow tip. After that, the man kept his eyes upon the road they were traveling. He was trying to think. It seemed to him that he had seen a man with eyes like that, once in his life before.
"What's forward in Faenza?" asked Tizzo. "Is the Duke of Valentinois in the town still?"
"Aye," said the peasant. "Cesare Borgia is there with his Frenchmen and his Swiss and with his good peasants of the Romagna, too."
"Will he make soldiers of them, as men say?"
"He will, as no other man can."
"And who has the Borgia poisoned lately?" asked Tizzo.
"Poisoned?" said the peasant. "He poisons no man. The good duke is stern with his soldiers, friendly to all others."
"The good duke?" said Tizzo.
"Aye, the good duke," said the peasant, looking at Tizzo with surprise.
"Well," explained Tizzo, laughing, "they say things about him in Rome. They say that the Borgias kill their man in an hour or in two years at their will. The wine they give is neither salty nor bitter. It has just the right breath of sweetness; it is a little richer in the aftertaste. He grows warm. He sweats with pleasure. He feels the strong wine mounting to his brain. He laughs--and in the middle of his laughter he becomes silent. He is dead. Or on the other hand, he goes home happily. The Borgias attend him cheerfully to the door. They send their servants to light him on the way home. He sleeps well. It is a month later before his eyes at noonday are as dim as evening light; his memory fails like that of any old dotard; food disgusts his sight; his hair falls, his teeth loosen, he crawls like a frost- bitten insect into his room and dies in the corner. Have you never heard stories like this about Cesare Borgia?"
"In Rome," said the peasant, "they will say anything. I have an uncle who once went there in the Holy Year. Well, they will say anything in Rome, but up here we know the great duke very well."
"How well do you know him?" asked Tizzo.
"I, with these eyes, have seen him take a great sword and stand to the charge of a bull, and cut off the head of the bull with one stroke. My God, how I howled. My throat still aches when I remember how I shouted. We all shouted."
"That proves he's a good man?" asked Tizzo.
"It proves he's a man," said the peasant, "and as for his goodness, ask the people of the Romagna what happens when other armies come among us. We do not care who wins. The victors are as great a plague as the defeated. For working people like us, there is no right in war. There is only wrong. I beg the pardon of your highness."
"I understand you perfectly," said Tizzo. "And Cesare Borgia?"
"Well, you should see the difference! He will have no stealing, no taking of men's wives and daughters, no plundering of wine-shops, no commandeering of food, no slaughtering of our cattle, our pigs, our chickens. No, no! The good duke stops all of that. He asks in the towns merely for bed, fire, and roof for his soldiers. He pays for everything else. And for the men who fail to obey his commands--well, God help them! I saw two fine fellows hanging by the heels from the windows of his own sleeping apartment in the palace only the day before yesterday. Great, big, wide-shouldered fighting men--hanging there like pigs at the autumn slaughtering time. And what had they done? Why, no great thing at all. They simply had taken a fancy to a girl, that Angela, the daughter of the old vintner; and when she ran they followed her into the house, and knocked her father over the head when he tried to stop them. Why, they didn't kill the old man. Half of one of his ears is gone, but otherwise he's as well as can be; but the good duke would not have it. And he hanged them out of his windows. No--there is a man to follow--there is a man to die for!"
"Perhaps," said Tizzo--and then he broke out with a shout. "Do you see? Do you see?"
"The walls of Faenza? Yes," said the driver.
"Damn the walls of Faenza along with the Romans that built them first; I see something better; I see my fellow of the gray horse turning in at that gate, yonder. Do I not? Are my eyes lying to me?"
"No, my lord. I see it, also. I see him turn to scan the road this way--and now he passes on into the tavern."
"Tavern?" said Tizzo.
"The Giglio Rosso, highness. And there a man that can afford to buy them can find the good wines of Tuscany, so good that they are food and drink all in one moment."
"Gallop!" said Tizzo. "Gallop, gallop!"
And off they rode.
THE rider of the gray horse knelt on the carpet beside the bed in the best room of the Giglio Rosso, with the arched windows giving on a pleasant garden; for the tavern had been a charming villa, in better days, and in the garden it offered on this hot day the delightful spectacle of half a dozen little fountains that raised trembling arms of silver into the sun. But the traveler had no eye for these things or for the luxurious appointments of the chamber, nor for the thin-faced, white-skinned man who stood in a corner. His whole regard was bent, with a modest discretion, on the man who lay lounging on the bed. He was half-dressed. One riding boot was on, smearing mud on the silken covering of the bed, the other boot lay on the floor. He had pulled off his jacket from one shoulder, but the other inert arm still remained in a sleeve. He lay, in fact, as though he had been struck down by a mortal wound and was now dying, or dead. No one could be sure of his expression, since he had a small mask across the upper part of his face. Under the edge of the cloth, one could see a red, pimply eruption on account of which, perhaps, he used the mask. The lower part of his face was covered with a short, heavy beard and cropped mustaches. He was a big man, and even the mask could not entirely obscure his large, handsome features.
"I remember you, Dino Sanudo," said a slow, weary voice. "Why do you come rushing here all the way from Perugia? What is wrong?"
"I have been chased, my lord," said Sanudo. "The man is at my heels now."
"Chased?" said the other. "And by one man--all the way from Perugia?"
"I have played the decoy, my lord of Valentinois. I have brought him here as a present to you. Giovanpaolo will pay a great deal of money for the life of this man who follows me."
"Giovanpaolo is an exile from his city," said Cesare Borgia.
"He has returned; he has taken the town," said Sanudo.
The Borgia closed his eyes and sighed.
"The traitor?" he inquired. "The rich one?"
"Dead, my lord."
"Dead, my lord."
"Delia Penna, too? Who killed him?"
"Was he a friend of yours, my lord?"
"The man who follows me is the one who slew him."
Cesare Borgia raised a finger.
"What is the name of this man?"
"Tizzo of Melrose."
"Italian and English?"
"A mongrel half-breed with red hair; his father is that condottiere, that Baron Melrose."
"Bonfadini, if this Tizzo, this redhead spark from the fire, enters the Giglio Rosso, have him secured for me."
The white-faced fellow in the corner bowed and left the room instantly.
"Tell me of the retaking of Perugia," said the Duke of Valentinois and the Romagna.
"It was a question of might," said Sanudo. "And a sudden attack. There was the question of Giovanpaolo Baglioni fighting like an Achilles; and that heavy-handed Englishman, Melrose, striking in; and the surprise troubled some of the defenders; they would not stand when they saw the iron chains across the street cloven in two."
"Ha?" said the Borgia, suddenly lifting himself on one elbow. "Cloven in two? By whom?"
"By this same Tizzo."
"A giant, is he?"
"No, but he carries an ax that has enchantment in the head of it."
The Borgia relaxed on the bed again.
"And then?" he said.
"A rout--murder--wild flight in all directions--and the shouting of 'Baglioni! Baglioni!' till my ears rang. I took my way out of the northern gate; this Tizzo followed me."
"Is he an old enemy?"
"No, my lord. It was very strange. Something drew him after me."
"And then you remembered me--and led him to me all the way from Perugia?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Very good," said the Borgia.
"This Tizzo," said Sanudo, "is betrothed to Beatrice, the sister of Giovanpaolo; and because of that and a thousand services that the half-breed Englishman has done to Giovanpaolo, he is willing to spend a great fortune to buy Tizzo into safety again."
"Be still, Sanudo. I wish to think."
THE chamber grew silent. Sanudo, moving slowly as though he feared to attract attention, rose to his feet. He saw that the eyes of the other were closed. The moments passed. In the distance, there came a sudden outbreaking of shouts and crashing noises. Sanudo, his head jerked back, listened with shining eyes and parted lips. A door closed with a shock that ran all through the building. After that followed not silence, but a confusion of rapid murmuring. And still Cesare Borgia did not move on the bed, did not open his eyes. By the regularity of the rise and fall of the breast, on which appeared the golden rose of the Gonfaloniere of the Church, Sanudo made sure that the duke was sleeping. But he dared not move. The catlike humors of this man he had heard too much about.
The door opened. It was white-faced Alessandro Bonfadini again.
"The man is taken," he said.
"How?" asked the Borgia.
"By numbers--fighting," said Bonfadini.
"Dead or alive?"
"Unharmed, my lord. But Pietro is cut in the leg; Roberto is speared through both cheeks; Giovanni--"
"Ah, Giovanni?" said the Borgia.
"He is hurt in the body. He may not live. They came at Tizzo at last in a wave. He no longer had room to dance between the swords. They fell on him with weight of numbers. Now he is in chains."
"Sanudo, leave the room," said the Borgia.
Dino Sanudo bowed very low, made three steps backward, turned, and carried his big shoulders through the doorway. He closed the door after him with softness.
"Give me wine," said the Borgia.
Alessandro Bonfadini went to the table and took from it a silver pitcher with a gleaming dance of nymphs carved around the swelling sides of it and incidents of boar-hunt worked about the top. He poured clear red wine into a golden cup with a wide, shallow bowl. The pedestal of it was a bowed Atlas whose pillow that cushioned his shoulders against the crushing weight of the sky was a single huge sapphire. This cup Bonfadini filled, carried to his master, and sank on one knee. With his left hand, gently, he raised the inert head of his master. With the other he offered the cup, tilting it delicately as the Borgia drank. At exactly the correct moment, he drew the cup away and cautiously lowered the head of Cesare Borgia into the pillow again.
"Talk," said the Borgia.
Bonfadini did not have to ask what the subject should be.
"He is a young man," he said, "with flame-red hair and eyes the color of blue--let me see--the color of the blue part of a flame when he is excited. All his life he will be excited until he dies. He will die young. He is of middle height, slenderly made, but with strength; there are long fingerings of muscle over his shoulders and arms. When the men arrested him, he was away from them with a whirl and a leap. He drew from his pack what seemed a short truncheon, a short staff, but it turned out to have the head of an ax of fine blue steel, Damascus steel, I would say. However, he had not time to swing this. Too many blades were at his throat. He had to drop the ax as he jumped for his life, and he drew out a light sword with a narrow blade. After that he began his dance. He danced, as I said, between the swords. Every moment I saw a heavy blade cleaving him through the brain, but it was only his shadow, his ghost, that the blows fell on. He laughed as he danced."
"Ah?" said the Borgia.
"He danced both in and out, he bent and twisted and leaped among the swords like a fish on a hook. And his own sword kept darting. Mostly for the head. Some of the men were in half armor; some only had breast-plates. Giovanni was wounded through the side as he turned in making a heavy stroke."
"What armor was he wearing when he did all this dancing?"
"No armor except a steel lining in his hat."
"No armor?" cried the Borgia, in a rich, ringing voice.
"None whatever, my lord. Not even a shirt of mail."
"I have a wish," said the Borgia.
"Yes, my lord."
"This Dino Sanudo is a proved soldier. I have seen him fight. Yet he saw this Tizzo do such things that, rather than face him, he ran all the way from Perugia to this place like a whipped dog. Now, however, he shall face Tizzo. Give him advantages. Give him complete armor from head to foot, the heaviest and best plate that you can find. Place him in a place where I can see the thing and then send in this Tizzo to confront him. Send Tizzo without armor."
"My lord--against a man armed cap-a-pie?"
"If the fool fought once without armor for his own pleasure, he can fight again for mine. Give him his sword--and that ax which he had no chance to use. Tell Sanudo that the death of Tizzo is the price of my favor. Then bring them together."
"It shall be done. In what place?"
"Where I can look on without being seen. In the chapel, perhaps."
Alessandro Bonfadini drew up his shoulders till they were half their normal width.
"In the chapel, my lord?"
The deep voice of Borgia answered, wearily: "Yes, fool. In the chapel. Then I can look down through the window above and see everything through the grating. To see and be unseen, that is to be like God. And Godlike things are what should be found happening in sanctified chapels."
Bonfadini raised his eyes to the ceiling, shivered a little, and went from the room with his quick, noiseless step. The Borgia closed his eyes again. He began to smile.
THEY unlocked the irons that held Tizzo, hand and foot, and thrust him with many hands, suddenly, into a small chapel, slamming and locking the door behind him.
He looked about him, bewildered. It was a modest little chapel with a high ceiling supported on rounded pilasters. And the walls were buff, the ceiling sky-blue, the altar a shimmering intricacy of marble lacework.
Tizzo, when he saw the cross, knelt to it. He was not a very religious soul, but now he uttered a characteristic prayer.
"O Lord, you see where I am; let me have a sign that I am not forgotten!"
As he rose, the door was unlocked behind him again, and at his feet reaching hands flung his own scabbarded sword, together with his ax. And across the threshold advanced toward him a big- shouldered man armed from head to foot in massive steel plate, perfectly plain but jointed with all the exquisite skill that the Milan armorers knew how to use. And, in his hand, he carried a long sword with a knob at the end of the hilt to counterbalance the weight of the steel. The door slammed and was again locked behind this formidable metal monster, who came straight at Tizzo, without uttering a word and only with the clanking echoes of his sollerets filling the room. So, with a sudden side-stroke, he cut at the head of Tizzo.
The blade whistled, such was the force of the blow; and the keen edge caught like many little claws at the red curls of Tizzo's hair as he ducked. The back-stroke which followed he was prepared for and sprang away so that the point swept harmlessly past him.
Tizzo cast his sword from him. It was a magic little weapon against men in half-armor or less, but this complete suit of plate was impregnable to the needle point. There remained the ax with its curved head of Damascus steel, but the ax was a weapon to be used by a man in full armor who could give all his attention to sheer striking and let his accouterments take care of the counter attack. Yet Tizzo, as he whirled the ax lightly over his head, looked calmly down the long sword of the stranger, and prepared to evade the next blow.
"What are you, brother?" asked Tizzo. "It seems that I've fallen into the hands of the Duke. Are you his executioner? Does he wash his chapel every day with blood?"
"It will be washed with yours today, Tizzo," said a deep, stern voice.
"Ah, you know me?" said Tizzo.
"Know you? Why else have I been leading you on for four days?" asked the stranger.
"Ah ha! You are the man of the gray horse? And leading me on, do you call it? Tell me your name, my friend."
"I tell it to you gladly," said the other. "It's right for you to know my name before I clip the head off your shoulders. I am Dino Sanudo."
"Then, Dino," said Tizzo, "you are a lying coward. You were not decoying me. For four days you've been running for your life. Step in, my lad, and do your best; but you'll see that heavy armor is not worth a breath when a coward wears it. Come on, Sanudo!"
Sanudo, under the insults, hesitated, leaned, and then rushed with a tremendous stroke. To avoid it, Tizzo leaped back and up onto a stone bench that stood against the wall. Even so, the sword drove humming past his throat and breast, the sharp point ripping the breast of his jacket. The force of the blow swung Dino Sanudo more than half-way round, for he had struck in the perfect confidence that this time the blade surely would find flesh.
And while Sanudo hung for an instant, amazed, off balance, Tizzo leaped from the bench like a cat, and added the force of his springing body to the full weight he could put in the head of the axe. It struck with beautiful accuracy between the bowl of the helmet and the jugular plate, springing the heavy steel apart or cleaving sheer through it.
Sanudo fell, his sword hurling before him into the corner and his armored weight falling against the blade and snapping it into three singing fragments; Tizzo leaped on over Sanudo and wrenched out the imbedded edge of the ax. He whirled, ready to strike desperately again--and saw his enemy lying with his head at the foot of the altar steps and the blood oozing from the cleft in the armor.
"Dead?" said Tizzo. But before he made sure, he looked to the edge of his ax. It was hardly blunted. The chisel edge remained entirely sound.
"Now God bless the Saracen hands that found the iron and worked it into this steel!" said Tizzo, aloud. "Our Italian stuff is tin, compared with this."
HE took note of Dino Sanudo again and, lest any of the blood should run out on the altar steps, he took hold of the prostrate body by the foot and dragged it, bumping and clattering, over the floor to the corner of the chapel. Even at that distance from the altar, blood on the floor would be a sacrilege. He stripped off his jacket and laid it under the head of Sanudo. Not until that had been done did he turn the body on its back and undo the visor. When it was raised, he looked a moment on the swarthy, ugly face, now gray green with pallor. Some of the blood had run forward and traced a crimson streak down the face of Sanudo. The eyes were not closed, but slightly open, and that to Tizzo was perfect proof of death. He drew a fold of the jacket over the face of Sanudo and facing toward the altar raised his hands, the ax still gripped in one of them.
"O Lord," said Tizzo, "I have had the sign. In return for this, if I fail to build a house on earth for some saint, if I fail to fit it out from bell to altar, let me have no more place in heaven than a rat!"
This satisfied his sense of devotion and he began to look about the chapel again until his eye lighted on the stone grille- work of the window, high up on a side wall. The capital of a pilaster projected just beneath this marble open-work and Tizzo measured the distance. First he cased his ax in the holster at his back; his sword he belted around him aslant across the front of his body. Next he laid hands on a wooden bench, put it under the column, and backed across the chapel to the opposite wall. There he paused, gathering in himself the electric strength which could be piled up in the nerves and discharged in one great flash of effort.
At last he crouched, ran forward, stamped on the top of the bench and hurled himself high up. His fingers brushed the edge of the capital, but he could get no secure hold, and his body struck heavily against the wall. He dropped, half stunned. On one knee he waited a moment for the shock to pass; and again he stepped back to examine the problem. He began to sing a little, very softly. And now and then his glance flashed toward the door which might open at any moment and let danger pour in at him.
He rearranged the bench, now, putting it at a slant between the floor and the side of the pilaster, the two ends braced as firmly as he could manage. Afterward, he went to the little marble bowl of holy water, sunk in a niche in the wall.
"May it be forgiven, O Father in Heaven!" said Tizzo, and with some of the water he carefully moistened the soft leather soles of his shoes so that they might stick better to wood. Now, again, he took his place opposite the bench, waited the vital instant, felt the full charge of energy built up in his nerves, and raced across the room once more.
This time, he ran up the sharp slant of the bench, leaped, and caught the head of the pilaster easily. One more arm-haul set his grip on the stone grille of the window.
Through the white bars, he could see the little semi-circular chamber where the lord of the house might come to attend divine service at his pleasure, unhampered by the public presence of many people.
Still hanging by one hand, he slipped the ax free over his shoulder and with the hammer-head that balanced the blue blade of it, he tapped carefully on the stone rods until they cracked, broke, dropped down on a floor where the noise of their fall was muffled by a carpet or prayer rug. His shoulders were aching before he managed to break out a portion sufficient to allow even his lithe body to wriggle through. But now he stood in the little room with a passage slanting away from it into dimness. He paused only to take a few deep breaths. Then, with the ax again holstered and the slender sword in his hand, he made forward through the obscurity.
A door stopped him. And it was locked! He gave his shoulder to the wood. It was so heavy that it would take a number of strokes to cut his way through it. Besides, the noise he made would be as fatal as beating on a drum.
He paused for thought, singing softly, drumming the thin, hard tips of his fingers against his chin. The key was not on his side of the door, of course; and the lock itself was secured inside a big, square plate of iron which was screwed strongly into its socket.
The screws were the vulnerable part. With a corner of his ax set into the grooves of the screws, he turned them out of their holes one after another, until the lock came freely into his hand. Once it was exposed, nothing was easier than to manipulate the rusted old springs inside it and so move the bolt.
Cautiously, therefore, bit by stealthy bit, he opened the door until he made sure that there was a deep obscurity beyond it.
When he discovered that, he advanced more confidently and closed the door behind his back.
The room was very dark, but there were things in it that surprised his senses. This was full daylight that must be shuttered and curtained out with much care in order to produce this darkness and yet the room did not have the musty air of a chamber that has been sealed up for a long time. Instead, there were various savors that were very pleasing. With an accurate sense he numbered them to himself--the fragrance of fruit--of apples, and a dusty sweetness that might come from plums. The thin, sour-sweet of a wine, a red wine, was dimly in that air, together with that slight taint of soot which is left when a candle has been burning for some time, or a lamp with too long a wick. Beyond this, he thought he could make out, more obscurely than the rest, the presence of some unknown perfume, an unnatural, blended fragrance.
He stooped and touched the floor. It was tiled and the tiles were smooth with wax. It had been polished within a day or two, at the most.
This thing had become a mystery. It was a habitable room, one ordinarily in constant use, perhaps, and yet today it had been darkened. Not merely darkened for coolness in the middle of hot weather, but actually closed up so that not a ray, no matter how he turned and looked in all directions, could be found.
The wall would guide him somewhat. He went along it with poised, reaching steps, feeling his way by hands and feet together. So it was that he found a chair.
The wood, by the rough of the grain under the seat, was probably oak; the cushion was silk velvet; the back of the chair was covered with intricate carvings, not deeply incised. And at the base of the chair, on the floor, he found a pair of soft cloth slippers such as one might wear in a bedroom. He slid a hand inside one of the slippers. No woman was apt to wear slippers of such a size. He was in a man's bedroom, then.
He started forward again and had made one or two of those stealthy, gliding steps when he heard a sound of metal scraping against metal; a yellow cone of light sprang out into the room, flashed across his eyes, returned to catch and hold him as with a bodiless hand.
He could see, now, that he was lost. Four motionless figures on the farther side of the room, holding up big-headed halberds, were not dummies with waxen, painted faces. They were living men in stout half-armor. They were more to deal with than his single pair of hands could cope with, and yet they seemed nothing compared to the figure of the big man who sat in a chair near the wall between two shuttered windows, with a mask over his face.
THE shock of the sudden burst of light from the unhooded lantern perhaps had had an effect in straining the nerves of Tizzo more than a little; but at any rate the vision of this man poured in and in through his mind with a sensation like the cold of the wind at dawn, touching flesh that is warm and tender from the bed.
He could not see the eyes of this man clearly behind the mask, but he felt them as he never had felt a man's eyes before.
Tizzo dropped the point of his sword, put his left hand on his hip, and waited.
He could not go forward. It was foolish to turn back because he knew where the passage led.
"Open the windows," said the masked man.
They were flung open at once. The keen daylight shocked the eyes of Tizzo for a moment--he had been straining his pupils in order to pierce the darkness of a moment before.
And now from the masked man came a deep, resonant, slow- speaking voice again, which said: "There is enough of this childish game. The rest of you, begone."
The soldiers moved instantly from the room. There remained in a corner a slight, pale-faced fellow who kept his bright eyes constantly on the face of Tizzo.
"You, also, Alessandro," said the master, and the slender man with that dead-white face passed from the room in turn.
And now Tizzo became very keenly aware that he had a naked sword in his hand while the big man in the chair was unarmed except for a dagger which he wore hanging from a golden chain and cased in a golden scabbard richly worked over with emeralds. Except for that single ornament, his clothes were not rich--a pair of muddy riding boots were on his feet. He sat half sprawling, and yet with an effect of powerful dignity.
"An armed man, a barred window, a locked door could not hold you, Tizzo," said that deep voice. "You are free. Leave when you wish. Not a hand will be raised to stop you. I have given the order to the soldiers, and I am the Duke of Valentinois and the Romagna."
Tizzo unbelted the scabbard of his sword, placed it again around his hips, and slipped the blade back into the scabbard.
"My lord duke," he said, "shall I be grateful to you, or shall I ask if you sent Dino Sanudo in full armor to murder a naked man?"
"I sent him to you," said the Borgia.
"In the name of God, will you tell me why?"
"You had injured a servant of mine; you had driven Sanudo for four days, like a dog."
"In that case, if you wished to have me dead, why do you set me free?"
"Because I would rather please you than please the ghost of a dead coward."
"My lord, you stood behind the barred windows and watched us fight."
"I did, and then sat here in a darkened room to wait for you to enter the trap, when I saw that you had courage and wit enough to break into it. But when it closed on you, you neither ran like a woman, nor tried to fight the impossible like a fool. By the light of that lantern, I saw a man. That is why you are free. If you had shrunk--if you had tried to storm out of the room--" He paused.
"I would by this time be hanging by the neck in your courtyard?" asked Tizzo.
"You would," said the Borgia. "You would have been hanged properly for murder."
"But as it is?"
"A brave man can do no wrong in my Romagna," said the duke.
"You've said a number of friendly things, my lord," said Tizzo. "And you are doing things that are more friendly than your words. From now on, if I ever hear words against Cesare Borgia, my hand will be against the speaker. May I ask you a final favor?"
"You may," said the Borgia.
"My lord, Sanudo I was chasing for the sake of the horse he rode. May I buy him at your own price?"
"A very good horse?"
"A very good horse, my lord. You may have what's in my purse and my pledge to pay more."
"This stallion is something you have fixed your heart on, Tizzo?"
"Aye," said Tizzo, "and until I've sat on his back--by God, until he's run up perpendicular walls with me--and jumped whole rivers--why, until then I'll never live as a happy man."
"In that case," said the duke, "you shall have him. Is that he, now?"
He pointed out the window, and there Tizzo saw the unsaddled stallion passing, led by a pair of grooms; and two were necessary, for the gray was dancing as though he wanted to leap into the sky.
"Yes--yes--yes!" cried Tizzo. "That is he! See how he steps with wings instead of fetlocks--that light on his flanks runs through my soul like a sword--and all that life and glory in him after four days of running with the weight of a coward in armor on his back! Four days of work--and then this! Why, if they turned him loose, he'd jump to the head of that hill with the first bound, and hop onto the back of that cloud with the next!"
"He is yours, Tizzo," said Valentinois.
"I thank you from the bottom of my heart. This is noble of you, my lord. I can see in your own eye that you know a horse-- but now, to let me buy him--"
"You cannot, Tizzo," said the duke. "I'd rather sell flesh cut from my own body than such a horse as that. You cannot buy him, but it will enrich me to have him ridden by a friend."
Here Tizzo started, and struck a hand over his heart as though to cover a wound. "A gift, my lord?" he said. "A gift of that gray beauty--that living flash of silver--that winged glory? I cannot take it."
"Can you not?" asked the duke. "You have heard some dark things about me, Tizzo. A gift from me would make you feel unclean?"
"I have heard tales, my lord," said Tizzo, keeping his head at an imperious height.
"Poison--stabbings in the dark--murder, murder, murder, lechery and murder?" The duke smiled.
And suddenly Tizzo cried out: "Tell me that they are lies, my lord, and I shall forget them--they have no existence for me!"
"You would wash my memory and reputation clean with enthusiasm, Tizzo," said Cesare Borgia, "but I must tell you the truth because I want it to be a friend that rides away on the gray stallion. So I must tell you the truth. If I buy your friendship with a lie today, I lose it at the first touch of truth tomorrow. They have made a beast out of me with their talking; they have exaggerated; but the truth is that I have been the death of many men."
Tizzo burst into a sweat. He shuddered.
"By poison--and stabbings in the back?" he asked.
"Well, yes. By many ways. By wine at my table, by a strange fragrance in the smoke of a candle after it is snuffed; or, again, an accident on shipboard, or a sudden rush of ruffians in a dark alley. In many ways."
Tizzo peered at the eyes of this man; a shadow fell over them from the mask, but through the shadow they could be felt. Then the word, the only word for it, came with horror out of the stiffening throat of Tizzo: "Murder!"
"No," said the Borgia, "sacrifice."
"Sacrifice? To what?" asked Tizzo.
"To Italy," said the duke.
And when he saw that Tizzo had been struck to a silence, he said: "They have cut the garment of God into pieces and thrown dice for it. And a few of the dicers have been removed--by me! Look!"
He pointed out the window, and the eyes of Tizzo glanced over the deep green of the rolling land, enriched with vineyards and orchards and bright here and there with the gold of grain-fields. "Florence, Venice, Naples, Rome at the throats of one another fighting with hired soldiers, borrowing the help of Spaniards and Frenchmen who suck out the blood of our land. Do you see? Italy is my mistress, and I see dogs eating her beautiful body. There will be no great Italy till it is free and united; it will never be free until Italians fight Italian battles. And here in the little Romagna, away from the eye of the world, hidden by the mountains, I have taught the peasants to fight as steadily as Spanish pikemen, as gayly as the French, as furiously as the Swiss. Here, in the ranks of those drilled peasants of mine, begins the real life of Italy. Old Rome shall be born again. The tyrants of the cities shall be swept away. Italy shall be her own!"
"By God," cried Tizzo, "you are a great and good man, my lord. Let me serve behind you, beneath you, under your feet!"
WHITE-FACED Alessandro Bonfadini, coming again into his master's room, found him alone, slumped forward in his chair.
"I am tired, Alessandro," said the duke. "Help me to my bed. I've had a fire burning in my brain."
Bonfadini drew one of the long, heavy, muscular arms over his shoulders and helped his master strongly to his feet. Leaning on him, the Borgia shambled to the bed and slumped down on it. With his face half buried, he said: "Did you hear?"
"Naturally, my lord."
"I never was better," said the Borgia.
"It was very convincing," said Bonfadini. "But is he worth the horse--and the expense of my lord's spirit as well?"
"He is worth something for himself," said the Borgia, "but he is worth still more because he has in his hand Giovanpaolo of Perugia. I need the Baglioni brain fighting for me and five hundred or a thousand of those tough Perugia soldiers."
"Can this Tizzo bring you all that?"
"He is betrothed to that famous beauty, Beatrice, the sister of Giovanpaolo. And Giovanpaolo himself is the sworn brother in arms of Tizzo. He has written me a letter to the Baglioni endorsing my character. I send the letter and ten thousand florins to Perugia and--you will see that Giovanpaolo will not refuse. But get the letter which this red-headed firebrand has written. You will find the whole man in what he writes."
Alessandro Bonfadini picked up the letter. "This is addressed to the Lady Beatrice, not to Giovanpaolo Baglioni," he said.
"I have already opened it," said the Borgia. "You may have the trouble of closing it again."
Bonfadini smiled a little. He never smiled very much. Then he read aloud, distilling the words with a voice of infinite precision:
"My beautiful Beatrice,
"How shall I prefer to think of you? Scampering on horseback in men's clothes, or walking through the night from Perugia with the Great Betrayal behind us, or in my Lady Atalanta's tower, or sitting in a crimson velvet chair with your hands folded on the blue velvet of your dress? When I dwell on your hands, my mind stops there. I see them again; I feel them as though they were clasped in mine; they are gesturing and making laughter in the air; the little polished nails are ten points of fire in my soul.
"Why am I here in the Romagna when I should be south, far south in happy Perugia, high in one of those towers that lance the sky, on my knees before your chair, kissing the hands of my lovely lady? No, we would now be galloping over the hills, or walking the walls and planning a foray as far as Arezzo, or making the music play in the hall while we dance, you and I alone, whirling or slowly, you in my arms, and happiness under our feet.
"My God, if I were a bird I would fly till my wing were hot with speed, and hurl myself suddenly out of the air before you. If I could catch a lightning flash by the haft, I would have it fling me this instant at your feet. What happiness!
"Why am I here? Not for long. Soon we shall be together. Raise your head and listen. My love is all around you. It is in the silence behind your chair. It is the dazzle of sunlight falling through the casement.
"Farewell. Be true not to me but to our love, which is from heaven. When I think of you, I could be a priest or anything. I curse the mountains that lie between us. When I look up from this writing, they may lie flat!
"Farewell. Love me. Close me inside your eyelids when you fall asleep at night.
"Thine, forever, and ever, and ever and ever, and ever.
"P.S. I forgot to say that I have the gray horse. He is mine. It is like owning the wind. His rider is dead and the horse was given to me by the noblest soul, the greatest heart in Italy. I name him. Forget all you have heard of him. He is Cesare Borgia. Believe in him, trust him. The messenger who carries this to you will present ten thousand florins to Giovanpaolo. The duke wants your brother and a thousand good soldiers in the Romagna. He pays for part of his service in this open-handed way and asks as a sure hostage for Giovanpaolo's truth of hand and heart--what? Why, my beautiful, he makes a jest of it, a happiness to me, his newest and humblest follower--he asks only that you should come to the Romagna. Therefore, conclude everything instantly with Giovanpaolo and let my father bring you north to me and to the duke while Giovanpaolo raises the army we need.
WHEN Bonfadini had finished the letter, he folded it once more with the greatest care, his pale, thin fingers moving with wonderful surety as he reformed the seal of the letter over a lamp.
"Well?" demanded the Borgia, suddenly. "Why don't you speak?"
"I was finding words for my thought," said Bonfadini. "This Tizzo, this firebrand as he is aptly named, you may pick from the fire and use to cast a great light down your path. But on the other hand, he may be a coal that will burn your flesh to the bone."
"You find him too honest?" asked the Borgia.
"A little too honest, my lord."
"He is on fire with the dream of a free, united, powerful Italy," said the Borgia. "He is ready to die for the cause."
"It would be better if he were ready to die for Cesare Borgia."
"The cause of Italy and the cause of Borgia are one and the same thing," said the duke.
"As long as you can make him believe that, it is well."
"Perhaps, Alessandro, it is true."
"Perhaps," said Bonfadini.
"Is Sanudo dead?" asked the Borgia.
"Almost. His eyes are fixed, his flesh is cold, his heart makes a stroke now and then, like the wings of a soaring hawk. He will die within the hour."
"Try on him the new elixir," said the Borgia.
"It should be tried first on dogs and cats," said Bonfadini.
"Sanudo is a dog, and there is something of the cat in him, also. An honest fellow like Tizzo--yes, that is one thing to possess. But a poisonous cat-clawed creature like Sanudo has his uses, also. Try the elixir on him."
"It probably will kill him instantly."
"The world will lose nothing."
"No, it will gain another story linking the Borgia and strange death together."
"Let the stories be told," said the duke. "Even if there is only a little truth in them, they make men feel that I am omniscient."
"Yes," said Bonfadini, "omniscient like the devil."
"If I can make them fear me first, I'll take care of getting their affections later on. That is a small matter. First master the house. Afterward, put it in order. Have Sanudo brought here."
Four men carried Sanudo into the room and left him stretched on a couch. His armor had been removed and he was left merely in a flowing undergarment of finely woven steel, bright as water. This hauberk and the shirt beneath it, Bonfadini opened and laid his hand over the heart of Sanudo. He shook his head. And the Borgia, now turned on his side, regarded the wounded man with a lack-luster eye. Death already seemed to be working in the body of Sanudo.
"A beautiful stroke, my lord," said Bonfadini. "It cut through the heavy steel plate of the helmet like tin. Who would think that a man of Tizzo's inches could deliver such a blow?"
"The brain, Alessandro," said the Borgia. "It is the brain that does all things, even the handwork in this life of ours. The brain, even in the tips of the fingers! Now try the elixir if there is any chance at all."
"If the edge of the ax touched the brain--"
"Even so--tell me, Alessandro, if it is impossible to call back the dead? I mean, those who have taken only the first brief step over the threshold away from life."
Bonfadini raised his head, slowly. Color ran up through his starved face. "I have a hope," he said.
"If you can do it," said the Borgia, "then we have the power of God himself. You know, now, how to kill with a wisp of candle- smoke, the fragrance of roses, a pair of silken gloves, a drop or two in the glass of wine to deepen its flavor; if you can do the other thing--if you can call back the dead to life--"
He had raised himself to one elbow, his eyes on fire. But Bonfadini suddenly crossed himself. "God forgive me!" he said.
"Come, come," said the Borgia. "Leave God to women and children. Set about your work."
Bonfadini, accordingly, took a tall goblet of crystal and poured into it, first, several powders, all white. Then he uncorked a phial that let a clear, amber liquid run into the cup. At once the whole frothed up like smoke with Bonfadini dropping into the bubbles and froth drop after drop of oily liquid from another little flask. He stopped these drops, at length, and the fuming stuff mounted at once to the brim of the cup, swelling above it with snapping bubbles that cast up thin, sparkling showers of spray.
The hand of Bonfadini that held the cup was shaking a little. Such anxiety was in his face that it seemed a light was cast upon it by the frothing mixture.
This now settled down into a trembling liquid of a clear red, like wine, but with a constant glitter of bubbles that sprang from an invisible presence at the bottom of the cup.
"Now!" said Bonfadini.
The Borgia watched with eyes of fire and said not a word. Something made him pull off his mask, which showed the slight red corrugations over the top of his face like an erupting fever.
Alessandro Bonfadini, going to the couch, placed his hand over the heart of the wounded.
"Ah, well," he said, "it is plainly too late. I feel no heartbeat whatever. You see that his jaws are locked, now, in rigor mortis, or in the last spasm."
"Pry open his jaws! Pry open his jaws!" shouted Borgia, as if in a rage.
He leaped from the bed, ran with that sudden activity of his to Sanudo, and with his own hands wrenched at the stubborn jaws until they were forced open. Bonfadini lifted the head of Sanudo, and poured the drink gradually into the throat that swallowed it with occasional laborings. After that, they stood back.
"Nothing!" said Bonfadini. "Nothing at all. Nothing will happen."
"Be silent," said the Borgia. "The greatest fool is the one who despairs at the last moment. Ah-hah! Look! Look!"
Dino Sanudo had sat up, with his-head fallen far back on his shoulders and his hand groping blindly before him. The Borgia caught those hands.
"Come safely back from hell!" said Cesare Borgia. "Come back, Sanudo!"
Here the soldier staggered to his feet and began to look around him.
"My lord!" he gasped. "My lord!" And stared down at the powerful hands of Cesare Borgia which held his own. "I was in hell--and a voice called me safely back from it. Was it yours, my lord?"
"It was mine," said the Borgia. "Take him away, Alessandro. Now that he has a new life, let us see what he'll do with it. Take him away and have the wound dressed."
Dino Sanudo put his hand over the wound at the side of his skull. That wound, the Borgia noticed with the most interest of all, had commenced to bleed again, and strongly.
"I pour my life out at your feet, my lord," said Sanudo. "What you have given, you may take again when you will."
"What was the last you knew?" asked Borgia, overcome with curiosity.
"The last I knew, I was driving my sword through the twisting, dodging body of Tizzo; and the flash of his ax leaped in at me suddenly, and then I was dropping a thousand leagues into swift darkness--and then pains of fire caught me by the head--I still feel them as though the fingers of the master devil had seized me with fingers like talons along the cheek and jaw to tear open my mouth and pour molten lead down my gullet. And while the lead was still pouring--I heard your voice calling me back from hell--my lord, I heard your voice!"
Self-pity, or gratitude, made Dino Sanudo fall at the knees of the Borgia, who smiled above him toward Alessandro Bonfadini.
"Take him," said Cesare Borgia. And Sanudo was led out of the room.
THE Lady Beatrice Baglioni, having come that very day as hostage and surety that her brother Giovanpaolo would duly fulfill his contract with the Borgia, stood at a window high in the tower room of the tavern near Faenza with the Borgia and Henry, Baron of Melrose, behind her. She had been waiting there for some time in expectation that a cloud of dust might emerge from the mouth of the valley into the plain; for Tizzo had not been on hand to welcome her. He, the Borgia had explained, had taken that day his newly-raised company of a hundred Romagnol peasants, and with them had challenged an equal number of veteran Swiss, also in the employ of Cesare Borgia, to a twenty-mile march into the mountains and back. At any time the two little columns might approach.
"But the big, long-legged Swiss," complained the Lady Beatrice, "have done nothing but march and fight with their pikes and long swords all these years! And how can the poor peasants match them?"
"That," said Cesare Borgia, "I pointed out to Tizzo. But you know that he is like his name--always setting fire to a new idea. He no sooner saw his men in their new uniforms than he began to feel that they were perfect soldiers. There come the two columns- -there you can see the dusty clouds blowing, and they are close together. It will be a race!"
"I'll ride to meet him!" exclaimed the girl.
"Stay here with us," said the father of Tizzo.
She looked up at his gray head, his robust, slightly wine- reddened features.
"Because," he explained, "if you keep out of the picture you may see something interesting. When Tizzo is left alone, he usually manages to keep both hands busy with some sort of deviltry. These peasants of the Romagna, my lord," he added to the Duke of Valentinois, "do you hope to make them into serious soldiers?"
"That is my hope," said the Borgia.
"It never has been done in Italy," said Henry of Melrose, "since the days of the old cities when the Milanese had their citizen levies of pikemen who were like a hedgehog--hard to handle, but easy to walk around. The Hohenstaufens would rush at the long front of the pikes and so go down with all their chivalry; but since those days, the citizens and the peasants never have been worth mustering. Am I wrong?"
"You are not wrong. But new things must be tried," said the duke. "And fire-new ideas are what pleases Tizzo the most."
"I see the white horse!" cried the girl--"and it is at the head of the second column! Tizzo is losing!"
"What of it?" said the baron. "It's only a little friendly wager."
"But he never loses," answered the girl.
"You've been saying, yourself, that the Swiss are the finest marchers in the world," answered the baron.
"No matter what I said--they won't beat him," she declared.
"Aye, but you see they are doing it!" remarked the Borgia.
"The white horse is gaining, though," she pointed out. "Do you see that it is creeping up the flank of the leading column?"
The two bodies of men had come close enough for all the soldiers to be seen in spite of the dust they were raising. In fact, the second body was gaining on the first, the white horse moving at the head.
"Twenty miles," said the Borgia, "and only seven hours for the doing of it, in spite of marching in helmets and body armor, the Swiss with their pikes, the Romagnols with their pikes for half the men and heavy arquebuses for the other half. Twenty miles in seven hours! We'll have a tired lot of fellows at the end. Such marching hasn't been seen in Italy for a good many days. If they had horses under them, they would hardly do better!"
He was in a great enthusiasm, striding up and down, looking now and again out the window at the approaching soldiers, and exclaiming again and again in that peculiarly deep, resonant voice: "It is the same as victory for the peasants, even if they are beaten a step or two. See how the Swiss are straggling! If you see the Swiss march out of formation, it's a sure sign that they're nearly done for. But notice the Romagnols--all closed up well and marching in fours neatly enough. Well done, Tizzo! Done like a captain!"
"Who is that on the white horse?" demanded the girl. "That is not Tizzo--it's a poor lout who lets his head fall and holds onto the pommel with both hands!"
THEY could see now that the white horse carried in the saddle a fellow who reeled from side to side a little, as though he were drunk; and he was in the red and black uniform of the Borgian infantry. Moreover, a man clung to each stirrup of the white horse, and still another actually held by the tail of the stallion.
"The spent men! The weak and the exhausted--he's given up his place in the saddle and let his peasants use the horse," said Cesare Borgia, softly and slowly. "Now, a man who will go on foot like that will go farther in the world than a thousand of the haughty cavaliers."
"He has hung his helmet and his cuirass on either side of the pommel," said the big Englishman, "Do you see them like a pair of drums? Aye, and his leg armor is there, too. Where is that red head of his?"
"There!" cried the girl. "There he is! I see the flame of his hair by the flag. He's carrying the flag of the company, and that's the greatest weight of all. Look, look! They are gaining, my lord, are they not?"
"They are not," said the Borgia, grimly, staring with fixed eyes.
"Where does the race end?" asked the girl.
"Here, in front of the tavern--ah ha! Do you see?"
The whole length of Tizzo's column of peasants, laden though all of them were with heavy weights of armor and of weapons, broke into a slow and dragging trot. Slow as it was, it pushed them straight past the head of the Swiss column. The Swiss raised a broken shout that was audible even as far as the tavern. They responded with a double-quick, but a number of their men were incapable of increasing past a walk, though their officer could be seen riding his horse down the long, straggling line, and striking at the laggards with the flat of his sword.
"Not the whip! Not the whip!" said the Borgia. "You will not make soldiers with the whip. Lead them and they'll follow--lead them as Tizzo leads them. Oh, my brave Romagnols!"
The very last of the peasant ranks had by this time passed in front of the flag-bearer at the head of the Swiss column.
"Ah, they are tired!" cried out Beatrice Baglioni. "See how their poor heads flop from side to side, I wish I were out there carrying a pike for one of them!"
She began to wave a scarf from the window, and she shouted with a far-heard piercing voice: "A Baglioni! Baglioni! Tizzo and Baglioni! Tizzo!"
The two big men, standing behind her at the window, looked at one another with faint smiles. And Baron Melrose murmured: "I heard that same voice in the streets of Perugia when the cross- bow bolts and the bullets were flying, and the spears were crashing, and the swords were crack-ling like wood on every side."
"Do you mean that she rode in the attack?" demanded the Borgia, startled.
"She did--in armor--and laughing and singing--no man can be a coward when there is such a girl to set an example."
The Borgia, instead of answering, looked long and fixedly at the slender girl. She, with her hands clasped against the sides of her face, was swaying a bit from side to side, as though this effort of hers might lend a little strength to the exhausted peasants.
But the race was won. That slow dog-trot the men of the Romagna maintained until they had poured into the court of the tavern, and the moment they were inside, they fell in heaps and lay on their backs. The Swiss followed, staggering in an even greater exhaustion, for defeat adds a leaden weight to every man.
FROM the tower window, the three watchers saw the captain of the Swiss cursing violently, raging up and down with a brandished sword, until suddenly he took himself off into the inn.
"Shall we go down?" asked Henry of Melrose.
"No--but watch him a moment from here!" cried the girl. "You will see him--every moment he shows himself, no matter what he's employed at. There--there--do you see? He's having wine served to his own men--not those on their feet cheering him, but to those that are down, first!"
Perhaps a third of the peasants were on their feet, and these, crowding about Tizzo, cheered and yelled, staggering as they were, till he broke from them to hurry the servants from the tavern, who were carrying out whole buckets of wine and giving dripping cups of it, right and left; others followed with bread and cheese.
Suddenly Cesare Borgia flung up an arm: "Ha! There! There! There is the master-stroke--there is the man revealed in full! There is the leader of armies, not of companies!"
For Tizzo was passing among the Swiss, with a wine-bucket in his own hands, ladling out the red liquor right and left while those big men from the north gaped and stared in bewilderment before they accepted the charity.
Beatrice almost wept with happiness. She caught the arm of the baron and pointed. "That's his way!" she exclaimed. "He ties up the wounds he makes. Between Romagnols and Swiss there'll be no dissension after this. Do you see the peasants sharing their bread and cheese with the Swiss now that the example is set? Ah, Tizzo, what a heart you have, you mad-head!"
Cesare Borgia, his face strangely lighted by thought, was striding up and down with only occasional glances out of the window. He stopped suddenly and laid a big hand on the shoulder of the baron.
"I owe a certain share of gratitude to you for giving such a son to Italy," he said.
"No thanks to me," said Melrose, honestly. "If I had my way with him, we'd both be out of Italy and on our way to green England as fast as horses or ships could take us."
"Ah?" said the Borgia. "Ah?"
And a cloud ran suddenly over his face. But the pale, bright blue eyes of Melrose dwelt unflinchingly on the Duke until Cesare Borgia turned suddenly away, saying: "I shall send word to him that you are here."
He went quickly down the stairs from the tower and the girl, sobered in a moment, murmured to the baron: "Is he angry? What have you done to him?"
"I touched him in the wrong place, and the snake hissed at me. That's all," said Henry of Melrose. "I told you--I told Giovanpaolo--what the Borgia is, no matter what he seems. But you, like a little wild-head, you would come whether your brother wanted you to or not. Perhaps you're safe enough, but for my part, I'll have to guard every breath I draw from this time forward."
THE Borgia, reclining in his room, said gloomily: "Did you see them meet?"
"I saw them," said Alessandro Bonfadini.
"And the girl?" asked Cesare Borgia.
"Ran to him and took him in her arms, all dusty as he was, and kissed him, and then broke away and did a whirling dance step or two, and came back and kissed him again."
"If women meant much to me either by day or night," said the Borgia, "I would put something in the wine of Tizzo and take the girl for myself. As it is, he is safe. And the baron?"
"Sat in a chair and stretched his legs and called for wine. And sunned himself with looking at them and chuckled a little, as the English do."
"Did you see his eye?"
"I did, my lord. It is the flame-blue of the eye of Tizzo."
"He is my enemy, Bonfadini."
"I say what I mean. He is my enemy, Alessandro. That blue eye of his burned straight into my brain. Neither talk nor money will ever clear away the impression he has of me. He stared into me as though he were seeing murder. Perhaps I was a mirror to him. Perhaps he was seeing his own death. Do you understand?"
Alessandro Bonfadini ran the tip of his tongue across the dryness of his lips.
"Quickly, or slowly?" he asked.
"Too quickly for him to have a chance to think before he dies."
"Like a sword thrust?"
"Yes, like the thrust of a sword. But something that will not leave his face contorted, if possible. Something that will kill him in his bed, or in his chair, and in the morning people may look at his placid face and say: 'His heart simply stopped in the night! What a pity!'"
"I understand," said Bonfadini. "I only ask: Is it necessary? Is it really necessary to put the baron to sleep forever? If a hint of a whisper, if a dream of the truth comes to Tizzo, you will have to kill him, also."
"In three days," said the Borgia, "the baron will have poisoned the mind of Tizzo against me. In the talk of a single day, he will put doubts in the mind that underlies that red hair. And that would be a disaster. Did you do as I said? Did you send a man into the Swiss cantonment? Did you hear what they were saying about the marching, today?"
"They say that the peasants are men, and that Tizzo is a noble leader. They would poison their own general with a pint of wine if they could be sure of having Tizzo to take care of them afterward."
"Do you understand why he is valuable to me?"
"I do," said the poisoner.
"Listen!" said the Borgia, and lifted a finger. Laughter came faintly from across the garden court, with one heavy, booming note in it.
"That's from the throat of the baron," said the Borgia. "I want him silenced before tomorrow. In the meantime, find out what the talk is about."
"I shall, at once," agreed Bonfadini.
"Alessandro, what should I do without you?" asked the duke.
"You would kill even more, but with the knife, my lord."
"And thereby lose half my mystery? No, Alessandro, without you I am only a common man. Now, go to find out what underlies all that laughter."
ON one side, the windows of the room looked into the garden court; on the other they opened on the stable yard, where a groom was leading the gray horse up and down to cool him off after his hard work of the day. He neighed, and Tizzo started up from the table where he sat at wine with his father, crossed the room from the garden side, and stood looking down on the stallion. The big baron, following his son, leaned on his shoulder and looked on the same scene.
"He could carry my weight, even," said Melrose.
"For the last six miles," said Tizzo, "the peasants were hanging onto the stirrups by turns. When one set of them had caught their wind again, another lot caught on. A dozen of them never would have finished the march except 'for him."
"And what of you, Tizzo, with the weight of the flag-staff to carry?"
"I had worse than that. I had the weight of the whole company on my mind, and when I called out for them to double-quick, and set them the example, my knees turned to water. I thought I would fall on my face, but a moment later I heard the whole crew of them swinging along behind me, and all the weariness went out of my legs. I could have run miles. And after that, there was you, and Beatrice, and now it's as though I had rested for a whole night. Ah hail Falcone!"
The stallion stopped so short that the lead-strap was jerked out of the hand of the groom. The gray horse lifted his head and whinnied a soft inquiry.
"Falcone!" said Tizzo again. The horse trotted to the foot of the wall, reared, seemed to look for a ladder by which to climb, and then cantered back and forth. The groom, laughing, caught the lead-strap, but Falcone refused to move until Tizzo had waved him away.
"There has been little time. How have you managed to do it?" asked Melrose.
"I slept for three nights in the end of his manger, and for three days I never left him. When I was drilling the Romagnols, I led him every step, until he began to follow me. I did the feeding of him, groomed him, watered him, fed him bunches of wheat-heads and apples. He has a tooth for grapes, too, and before long he began to know me, then to look for me, then to wait for me. And so you see him now. What a richness to have a horse as true to one's hand as a good sword! What a wealth of joy there is in this world, father! When I think of you, for instance, and of Beatrice, I feel that my hands are full, my arms are full, my heart is full!"
The horse had disappeared into the stable, and as they turned from the window, Henry of Melrose said: "Well, my lad, you're in a place where your heart can be emptied again, quickly enough."
"How?" asked Tizzo.
"By a taste of meat or a sip of wine at any meal."
"Ah, you've heard the tales of the Borgia?"
"And believe them?"
"When you know the duke better," said Tizzo, "you'll forget the whisperings. He's a bold man, capable of anything, but nothing against the good of Italy. When I came here--think! I had wounded a parcel of his men, killed another in his own chapel, and then broke out into his own room, with a sword in my hand. He could have had me killed like mutton. But instead, he set me free, gave me Falcone, and called me a friend. When I talked, he opened his mind like a book. I could read where I pleased. And I found the truth at once. What he wants is the freedom of Italy, one Italy, one great Italy, like the one great England, the one France."
"There's a good deal of your mother in you, Tizzo."
"Enough to make me love the land I was born in."
"Enough to make you believe what every man says. Tizzo, listen to me! Sit here at the table again. Lean close--there are ears around us to hear whispers, even--"
"Stuff!" said Tizzo. "The Duke loves me, father. What I wish is what he wills. A man to die for, I tell you!"
"A good many have died for him. Let me say what's in my instinct. If I could have my way, I'd take horse and leave this tavern as far behind me as a day of galloping could take me, and yet the rest of my life I'd feel eyes looking at me from behind."
"Superstition," said Tizzo. "Nothing but superstition and gossip, I swear. You are as safe here--"
"As I would be in a battle, with horses trampling over me, with a knife at my throat. I tell you, I saw the poison gather in his eyes when he looked at me. He found an enemy and was wise enough to recognize the fact. Tizzo, in the name of God, get away from the man and take Beatrice with you!"
"So? So?" said Tizzo, smiling. He smoothed the green silk of his doublet sleeves and continued smiling.
"Don't treat me like a child!" exclaimed the father.
"I shall not," said Tizzo. "I only know that Beatrice is as safe here as though she were in heaven. So am I. So are you!"
The baron started to make an answer, but finally he frowned instead and shrugged his shoulders.
"I see how it is," he said. "You've been touched with the fire again, and nothing will put out the flames except your own blood- -but what--"
He started up from the table, raising a hand for attention, and whispered: "Did you hear anything?"
"No, nothing," smiled Tizzo.
The baron sprang to the door and wrenched it open. The hallway was empty.
"You see?" said Tizzo. "Dreams, my father; nervous dreams, and no reality. There's nothing in this place to fear."
The baron remained with the edge of the door in his grip, scowling up and down the corridor. At last he dropped to one knee and stared at the floor of the hall. His gesture waved Tizzo towards him and so, staring over the shoulder of Melrose, Tizzo saw a dim imprint of a man's foot, a small foot, the soft leather of the shoe apparently pointed towards the toe.
"Do you see now?" said the baron.
"I see a footprint on the floor of the hall--well, what if one of the servants wanted to clean up this room and paused here for a moment to listen, and make sure that there was no one inside?"
Melrose stood up again.
"I can show you the truth, but I can't write it on your brain," he said. "Tizzo, we are spied on. We are watched and overheard. And where the Borgia is, that is, to have one foot in the grave. Will you saddle now, and ride with me?"
"Give up my Romagnols? Give up my chance to fight for the united Italy? And all because of a footprint on the floor? I would not leave the Borgia for a handful of diamonds!"
"I see it and I know it," said the baron. "Very well--but tomorrow sees me gone, and gone forever from the neighborhood of that murderer. Faugh! I have gooseflesh; there are chills in my back; I smell rats!"
THE Borgia, sitting at his window, looked at the stars and spoke softly. The slender shadow that leaned at his shoulder said nothing.
"Go to the Romagnols of Tizzo's company," said Cesare Borgia. "Let a suggestion run among them--a suggestion that some of them come to the window of their captain and ask him out to drink wine with his men. It's the sort of a thing that the stupid peasants would never think of, but would be happy about it if their brains could reach the idea. And Tizzo could never refuse them. In that way he'll be drawn out of the room where he sleeps with his father. And when he is gone--when he is gone, Alessandro."
Bonfadini drew in his breath. "I am prepared," he said. "But if Tizzo lives, will he doubt that we have done the thing to his father?"
"I will swear on a stack of crosses that I had no hand in it," said the Borgia, "and the fellow is so simple, in spite of his good wits, that he won't be able to doubt me. Do as I say, and let me take the consequences with Tizzo. What of the girl?"
"She spent half an hour standing in the hall, saying good- night to Tizzo, she laughing, he singing snatches of songs to her. Finally she went to bed, tired from the day."
"She has metal in her, though," commented the Borgia. "If she were cut into thin strips, every strip would make a sword."
He waved his hand. "Now go, Alessandro. It is time to reach the soldiers. Whisper the idea, here and there."
"I am gone," said Bonfadini, and slipped from the room.
Bonfadini wore a battered gray cloak with a hood, almost like that of a monk, except that he kept a flap of the cloak flung over one shoulder. The hood cast a deep shadow under which the pallor of his face was partially lost, and so he was able to glide about among the campfires of Tizzo's little company of peasants. Even though it was night, even though they had done much on this day, they were still talking of war and marches. Here was a pair disputing loudly; there was another working furiously with wooden swords, trying certain strokes and parries which that uncanny ghost of a swordsman, Tizzo, had taught them. And Alessandro, from the rearmost of a group, let his voice be heard, not overloudly: "We should ask the captain to be with us. We should ask him to drink a little wine with us. Let us see if he loves us as he seems to do. Let us see if he would come out to carouse with common men!"
He was gone before men had a chance to turn their heads, but the thought was planted, and it worked in the minds of the peasants. A huge man with a long and heavy face said: "Why should he come with us? He would rather eat with an ox at a manger. He is a gentleman and the son of a great baron."
"He slipped out of his saddle and put Roberto into it," said a bystander. "He took the standard of the company out of your hand when you were staggering like a great hulk, and he carried it all the rest of the way. Was that like the son of a great baron?"
"I did not stagger. I stumbled in a rut. That was all."
"You lie! Sweat ran down your face like water."
"I'll make you eat those words and like them!"
"Will you? I'll rip your great guts across and let them roll down around your feet."
"Come, brothers. We'll try the captain. Half a dozen of us go and call under his window, and then see what you will see!"
The word went swiftly through the company; the determination was quickly made; the rumor of it passed into the adjoining tents of the Swiss who had contested in the march and three or four of those hulking fellows, the pikemen par excellence of all Europe, came striding to ask that the festival be one that would include them. And so ten men went hurrying towards the inn through the moonlight and stood in the stable yard under the windows of Tizzo's room.
"Captain! Noble captain! Captain Tizzo!" one of them whispered.
"Louder," growled someone. "Not even a cat would hear such whispers."
"He has more ears than a cat. You'll see," said the man who had called.
And presently, sure enough, a figure leaned out the window.
"Who goes?" asked the guarded voice of Tizzo.
"Friends, friends, my captain. The fires are burning high; we have a cask of wine five years old and sausages and good bread. Will you come and break the bread and broach the cask with us?"
"Will I not?" said Tizzo. "I'll drink you under the table and onto the ground, you hulking scoundrels! I'll show you that a small bag can hold much wine. Wait for me! I come like a thought. Wait for me, hearties!"
They stood waiting, nudging one another, laughing softly for dread lest noise should reach the ears of the terrible duke. And they said to one another, chortling, rejoicing: "We'll get him to show us a few of his sword tricks."
"Aye, but when he strikes, he leaves a welt."
"So the lesson won't be forgotten."
"Drink us onto the ground? I drink him into a stupor, or damn me."
"How could he come to know us so soon and love us so well?"
"Because he is a man. And men know men quickly. Hush! It is he! Alberigo--Tomasso--take him from that side and we from this... master him quickly, because he is a jumping jackanapes... get him up on our shoulders, and we'll carry him back, no matter how he wriggles. Show him the strength of Romagnol hands!"
THE Baron of Melrose, sleeping heartily in the first strong, deep sleep of the night, filled with a happy dream more than with good wine, was roused in spite of his fumes of slumber by a faint meow. He was a man who hated cats, as it is said that all true men, rough men, bold men are apt to do. So he roused suddenly and sat up, and then he saw, on the inside ledge of his casement, clearly defined in the moonlight, a big round-headed tomcat.
The baron was a man well into middle age, as his gray head showed, but he had some of the workings of youth in his blood and would have until death turned him cold.
He reached over the side of his bed and settled his hand on a heavy riding-boot which he raised, poised, and then squinted his eyes to take good aim.
It was because his glance was so firmly settled that he saw the thing at all. It was no more, say, than a single puff of steam from a boiling kettle; it was a translucence, a sparkling in the moonlight that slipped in a cold flood through the open casement. The cat turned its head and then leaped to the floor.
No, it had not leaped to the floor. A cat is light as a feather--down, and this was the loose fall of a helpless body. Staring, the big baron saw that the slender shape of the cat did not appear. Straining his eyes, he could make out that it lay stretched on one side on the floor, moveless.
Something got the baron out of his bed and into his boots. Being a soldier, he had merely to pull on his doublet and he was dressed.
The evanescent mist was gone from the moonlit casement. He made two long strides across the floor; he was leaning toward the cat when a slight fragrance, a strangeness of perfume entered his nostrils.
That instant his brain reeled, his knees weakened so that he fell into a stagger that took him halfway across the room. His hand touched the wall; he dropped to his knees.
His head was swaying from side to side. He found his whispering voice saying: "Merciful God! Merciful God!"
And, dimly, he was remembering the big tomcat, the little puff as of steam that had floated across the casement. The next moment he could recall that he was in a house with the Borgia!
He shut off his breathing. Terror and rage sharpened his wits and drove the fumes out of his brain. Still with his lungs closed, half stifling, he rose, fumbled, found his sword and belt, and so got to the door.
When he was in the hall, with the door closed behind him, he had to sink to his knees again.
"I am dead," he kept saying. "Every breath I am drawing is death!"
In fact, he could not draw breath to the bottom of his lungs. And his brain would not function clearly. It was as though he had drunk too much. Ideas came to him, but they came mistily, from far off.
At last he could stand, wavering, supporting himself against the wall with one hand.
He had to leave the Giglio Rosso at once. He had to leave it and at once. That was as far as he could see ahead of him.
But Tizzo--in that room?
He jerked the door open, still holding his breath, and saw that the bed of Tizzo was empty, some of the covering spilling off onto the floor.
He closed the door. It seemed to him that he was shutting away the cold fingers of invisible, deadly hands that reached out toward him.
Now that he had shut them away, he paused for a moment to wonder how his son could have disappeared from the room.
But that thought faded from his mind again. He must get away.
HE went down the stairs to the stable yard, keeping his hand on the hilt of his sword, now that it was buckled to his side. The familiar touch of the roughened hilt restored his wits somewhat, but he was still far at sea. In the stable yard he had not taken a step before a pair of great halberds were crossed at his breast and rough voices demanded his name.
One of the guards, however, instantly struck down the weapon of his companion, muttering: "It is the father of Tizzo. It is the father of the captain! My lord, what will you have? Pardon us, my lord. In God's name, don't mention to your son that we have offered steel at your breast. Your face was unseen by us, highness!"
"My horse!" said the baron. "Let me have my horse."
His tongue was thick. There was a singing in the back of his brain. Only vaguely he heard one of the guards mutter: "Drunk as an Englishman! He is an Englishman. Quick--run and have his horse saddled!"
It was a big, powerful brute that they led out, saddled, but the stunned brain of Melrose still was recuperating, and as he looked back at the massive, high, square shoulders of the tavern, he recalled other things. His son was somewhere, and there was Beatrice, also. They were both still within the coil of the dragon.
"Two more horses--the best--and one of them Falcone," he directed.
"Falcone. The horse of your son?" asked the sleepy groom who had been wakened for this service.
"Do as I say," said the baron. "I am going back into the tavern."
And he turned and made long, resolute strides toward the inn.
HE was not half himself. In the great engine of the mind remained some stoppage that could not be swept away. Physical strength was returning; there was only a slight blur across the eyes, a slight dimness of the brain. If he had been drinking steadily for many hours, his condition would have been somewhat the same. Perhaps the fierceness of one great effort would clarify his wits again. He felt the fierceness in him, but he could not find an object for it.
There was Beatrice, first of all. He tapped at her door. Almost instantly he heard her come, the sweep of her gown like a softly passing wind.
"Who is there?"
"Speak quietly. It is I. Open the door."
The bolt slipped through well-oiled wards; the door opened and let out to him a delicate breath of fragrance. Moonlight sweeping through one tall southern window, and the girl between, with a cloak held loosely about her. The touch of perfume sickened him almost to nausea. He would never be able to endure sweet odors again, he was sure, for it was with sweetness that the poison had slipped into his brain.
"Yes? What is it?" she whispered. "Is Tizzo--"
"Say nothing. Dress. Go down to the stable yard. There are three horses there."
He turned away.
Her hand had touched him but it fell away again instantly from the hard rock of his shoulder. It was not for nothing that she had lived through the midnight murders of the Great Betrayal and the re-winning of Perugia. She would be steady as a man, and as quick.
He could forget her, now. But there was Tizzo--no, Tizzo was away and that meant--in fact, he could not tell what it meant. The important thing, now, was the Borgia--or so it seemed to Henry of Melrose.
The moment his mind closed on that point, he was oblivious to all other things in the world. Cesare Borgia must die. This night must be made famous in the history of the world by the slaughter of that damned deviser of death.
The baron gripped his sword hard and strode straight up the stairs and then down the corridor to the room of the Duke of the Romagna and Valentinois. There was a single soldier on guard. He brought his halberd to the ready and put the point of it at the breast of the Englishman.
"What will you have in this part of the building, my lord?" asked the soldier.
"A word with the Duke," said Melrose.
"The Duke is employed," said the soldier.
"Employed with what, rascal?" asked the baron.
"With sleep, my lord," said the guard casually.
With his left hand, Melrose put the spear-head of the halberd to one side. With his right he drew a dagger and struck not with the point but with the pommel, twice, right against the forehead of the sentry. The first blow stunned him; the second dropped him in a heap before the door.
Melrose tried it. It was locked.
He tried to think. Some voice in his soul was striving to draw him back from his virtuous labor of destroying the Borgia. Perhaps the argument within him had something to do with Tizzo, but he still was not able to focus his brain on the two subjects at once. There was the Borgia to be rid of first--the damned Borgia who poisoned by night, killing with a sweet breath of perfume!
He looked down at the guard. The fellow's face was visible in the shaken light from a hanging lamp. There was a sort of bewildered grin on the looseness of the mouth; the blood ran in radiating, thin lines from the battered wound on the forehead.
The baron picked up the halberd, set the edge of it into the crack of the door, and bore down. The steel blade snapped with a light, singing, bell-like sound. It was echoed--very faintly from within the room--by a slight groan. Melrose jammed the broken axe-blade into the crevice which had opened a little wider. The steel was far thicker and stronger, now. It stood the strain. The wood began to tear, ripping out like cloth, and the door lurched open with a staggering sway.
Melrose passed with a long stride over the threshold; he pushed the door shut with one hand. Before him he could see only a step from the window by the moonlight but there was also a hooded lantern which sent out a few yellow rays. These showed the bed, and the great form which was rising from it. "Bernardo?" said the Borgia. "Let me give you more light, my lord," said Melrose. "I want you to see well enough to die!"
He jerked the hood from the lantern; the sword was already in his hand and as he turned, he saw the Borgia leaping at him like some agile, vast, four-footed beast with a long, drawn blade in his grasp. Melrose met the attack with a high parry that caused the stroke to slip harmlessly aside. His own point drove for the throat. He wanted to get the steel through that dense beard into the soft of the flesh, but he missed his aim a little, and the point, instead, drove home hard against the breast of the Borgia.
The force of the lunge drove the Duke gasping back but the sharp steel had not entered his body; it had been stopped by a double weave of the finest Spanish mail.
The Borgia, catching up a bed covering around his left arm, to act as a shield, rushed in again; and again his attack slid vainly away from the wise sword of Melrose.
From the counter-attack, Cesare Borgia saved himself partly with the muffled folds of the cloak that was wrapped around his arm, and far more by the activity which enabled him to leap far back from the assault. But he would not have space in those quarters to evade many more of these murderously cunning attacks. He opened his throat and thundered a call for help; and by the lantern light he saw Melrose laughing like a devil, and coming swiftly in to finish the business.
For Tizzo that night visit to his men was as pleasant a thing as he could remember. It was high time for the tired fellows to be asleep, but they were all out in a crowd around a single huge campfire. At the edges of this blaze, some of them were toasting the sausages; others were broaching the cask of wine; and some of the tall Switzers strode about among the rest making a great, foreign, roaring noise. And that whole crowd cheered itself hoarse when it saw the captain coming among them, borne high on the shoulders of some of their comrades. They bore Tizzo twice around the camp, yelling like savages, and finally put him down. The big cups were out and filled to slopping over with the strong, coarse red wine.
Tizzo, with cup in one hand and a hot sausage in the other, ate, drank and laughed and chatted with the huge peasants. Among them, his shorter inches and his slenderness made him appear like a child.
But the little festival had hardly started when some of the soldiers had to be at their rough games again. Here was one who swore that he, at last, knew how to break down the guard of the commander with a good, full, two-handed halberd stroke, for instance. So he had to take his chance, letting drive full with the big weapon at the head of Tizzo, only to see the ponderous stroke baffled and delicately turned aside by the slender blade of the captain's sword. And, in return, though he struggled desperately to leap away to a safe distance, the flashing, unavoidable counter followed--a sweeping stroke that rapped both shins of the peasant, though but with the flat of the blade. Even so, he howled and hopped, but laughed with all the rest at the result of his attack.
BUT the sword tricks of Tizzo were not enough. These fellows had heard strange tales of axe-work of which their master was capable--of the blue-bladed axe with which a man could shear through even the guarded and trebled thickness of a jousting helmet. That is, the blade would cut through if the hand that wielded it were clever enough. Could they, therefore, see Tizzo swing the axe? Could they have the blue flash of it once in their eyes, to remember?
Well, it was not far back to the tavern, and Tizzo was willing enough. A dozen of them poured at his heels as he returned to the tavern to get the weapon.
And all the way back to the Giglio Rosso, he was flexing his hands, preparing them once more for the familiar weight of the ax, and calling into the tips of them all that craft which he had learned from the woodsmen on the estate of his foster father. He might need it all, now, because he could surmise that one of the Swiss would bring out such an Austrian helmet as their own vast two-handed swords, with a five or six-foot blade, could not cut through or crush. The stunning weight of those sword-strokes might beat down both horse and man, but the ponderous helmet of the Austrians usually kept the sword edge from cleaving to the brain.
Would his lighter ax bite into such thick steel as that, or would his stroke glance harmlessly away?
He was full of a nervous tension, thinking of this. So far, he had been to his men an invincible figure. He never had failed them. And he would give a quart of blood rather than fail them now.
Perhaps it was the wine that warmed him, but he thought that he never had seen such a perfect night, stars so showering the sky with golden points, the moon so brilliant, the world so fair. And yonder, inside the Giglio Rosso, was Beatrice and the very happiness of his soul.
At the entrance to the tavern he left his followers. He would be only a moment, he told them, as he ran up the stairs. And behind him, following dimly even after he had shut the door of the inn, he could hear the old Italian love song which every Romagnol knows.
She came from the mountains.
Carrying blue heaven
The river ran by her.
The sea has the river
And I have the maiden
The wind has our laughter.
This softened music came to him very faintly as he hurried up the stairs inside the tavern, and it was then that he heard the deep and sudden resonance of the voice of Cesare Borgia himself, calling for help.
LONG before he reached the doorway, Tizzo heard the clashing of the swords; and above him the sound of the rousing house, the slamming of doors, the calling of muffled voices, then the noisy beat of armored footfalls.
On the floor of the hall--moveless, dead it seemed--lay a halberdier with his broken weapon beside him. The door was slightly ajar, and through it Tizzo sprang with his sword.
The unhooded lantern threw an indifferent light, like a dull yellow mist, compared with the silver pools of moonlight that lay beneath the windows; and through the dimness he saw the lofty figure of Cesare Borgia fighting for his life, striking great strokes with a heavy sword, and at this moment warding off a dangerous blow delivered by a man nearly as tall, more heavily made, his face obscured by the flaring folds of a cloak which had been caught up around his left arm.
Tizzo, with a groan of anxiety, ran into the fight.
The Borgia had warded the last blow, but crowded as he was into a corner, his feet slipped from under him as he made a vain effort to retreat farther. He was sprawling on the floor with the sword of the enemy sweeping down over his head when Tizzo stepped into the path of that great stroke and caused death to glide harmlessly down his own slender weapon.
He heard a muffled curse from that obscure assailant; then he sprang in with his attack.
It never failed him in battle--the first thrust high, the lunge low, and then that singular, hanging, double-stroke which was his masterpiece. In the broad, unarmored breast of the other swordsman, he knew that his blade would go home to the hilt--but his knowledge was wrong!
He could not believe the thing. His craft was met and mastered by an instant resistance. No skill of his hand saved his life the next moment, but only the instinctive speed of foot and swaying body that enabled him to swerve from the steel glint of danger at his throat, at his side, or sweeping past his head.
The Borgia was rising, catching up his fallen sword. But even the Borgia's help might come too late. For never had Tizzo faced such a fencer, with the snaky cunning of a devil in his hand and the strength of a blacksmith in his arm. Through a glittering shower of death, Tizzo warded his way to get in close and use the lightning speed of his own lighter point. But for every move he made, there was always a quick answer, a terrible counterstroke.
Of one thing he could be sure; the parry that had beat aside his master-blow must have been the sheerest accident. And now he saw his chance to use it again.
Men of the household were arriving at last, rushing in through the doorway, and yet even the brief seconds of the encounter had brought Tizzo a dozen times to the verge of death. Even the width of the room that separated the fighters from that rush of armed men to the rescue was like an ocean of danger that might be consummated before they arrived.
Right in at his enemy leaped Tizzo, savage to end the battle with his single hand before the staggered Borgia could strike him, before the shouting men-at-arms could end the struggle with an avalanche of strokes. This time there was to be no mistake. This time the master-stroke must go home. Like lightning the hand of Tizzo carried out the double effort--and found it checked with the one perfect parry.
Astonishment seized him. And then he knew. No hand in the world could have parried that attack twice except the very brain which had devised the thing and taught it to him. It was the Baron of Melrose himself. Only blind eyes could have failed to be sure of it long before. Those were the broad, heavy shoulders, the narrow hips of the old swordsman, that was the dauntless, head-high bearing--
"Father!" cried Tizzo. "Let me stand with you--"
In a flash he was at the side of the baron, who panted: "Ha! Tizzo! You have robbed the devil, tonight, of his dues! Ah ha! At them!"
For the rush of the men-at-arms had reached them across the big room, and Cesare Borgia himself was leaping in to join the attack when he saw Tizzo and held back his hand a moment.
"The old one!" he shouted. "Only the big one--spare Tizzo-- "
But that shouting went for nothing. Here were keen soldiers who saw their chance to save their open-handed lord, and every man of them wanted to shed blood and assure himself of riches and a deathless gratitude.
The stroke of a halberd Tizzo turned aside with difficulty, and darted the wasp sting of his sword through the leg of the striker. He half turned and dipped down like a shrinking cat to let the long gleam of a deadly thrust pass over his shoulder. He, stabbing upward, spitted the fellow through the forearm and brought a howl of agony from him.
The Baron of Melrose had been striking and thrusting with the fury of a madman; the whole wave of the attack bore back for a moment, and allowed Tizzo to gasp: "Behind you--through the door- -follow me!"
He reached the door at a leap. The lock which he had broken out had been replaced in the intervening days. One motion snatched out the key and jerked the door open.
The baron lunged through the opening as Tizzo turned and parried a stroke aimed at the head of his father. Then, slamming the heavy door, he turned the key.
They had perhaps ten seconds' leisure; it might be that their lives were in that slight interval.
Right down the narrow, slanting passage, Tizzo rushed to the little semicircular room in which so many prayers in old days had been heard. The gap in the stone network which he had made was still unrepaired; through that gap he slipped, hung by his arms and hands, and cautioned his father: "The drop is ten feet; make your knees loose and your feet light or you'll break a leg!"
It was a well of the thickest blackness, there below. And into it Tizzo dropped. The floor came up and spanked his feet sharply. He fell, and rolled over to get out of the way of his father.
Above him, he could hear the older man still climbing through the gap in the stone grill. And the whole house had filled with sound. Out on the street, long shrilling echoes were running. Thundering feet beat through the halls and rooms of the inn. There was a constant and jabbering outcry.
Above him, he could hear Melrose growling: "To the stable yard, Tizzo! Horses are waiting there now--and Beatrice--"
"Beatrice? At the stable yard?"
A groan filled the throat of Tizzo with an ache. In the stable yard--Beatrice--and his father involved in the horrible confusion of this danger--
He ran forward, his hands stretched far forward ahead of him, his brain striving to print the plan of the chapel floor. Quick thinking as well as luck brought him straight to the chapel door- -and as he reached it, he heard his father fall heavily behind him.
The door, by the grace of happy fortune, was not locked; only the clumsy, unbalanced weight of it pulled heavily back to resist his strength, and, as it swayed gradually open, an uneven twilight from a distant lamp entered the place of prayer.
In that light, Tizzo turned and saw the baron lurching towards him, the sword gleaming in his hand.
"Down the hall!" panted Tizzo. "The first turn to the right, and then straight on."
"Straight on!" grunted the baron.
On his feet there was the weight of a far huger frame and twenty years or so more than Tizzo carried, and yet the oldster ran like a boy.
HIS brain was clear enough, now, and he knew exactly what had happened. He had played the part of a madman. He had thrown the two beings he loved most in the world into mortal danger. He himself, even if he had killed the duke, would have been lost, surely, without the skillful guidance of Tizzo through the house.
And it seemed to Melrose, suddenly, that he had dreamed the rest of that night's events, from the moment when, wakening, he had seen the round-faced tomcat in the casement, and the shimmering little mist of fragrance blowing in behind it.
That lower hall was empty, by miracle, though footfalls were pouring and roaring above and below it. And the yelling voices were dominated from far above by the thunder of the furious cry of Cesare Borgia himself, now roused and like a lion.
Hearing that voice, even the people in the street began to shout: "Duca! Duca! Duca!"
Tizzo, racing in the lead, turned right into the narrower passageway that led on towards the stable yard. Before him appeared in a sudden clutter three men-at-arms, with enough light barely to show that they were clad in complete mail.
Fencing tricks would not quickly end men who were completely clad in armor. Tizzo hurled himself suddenly feet first along the floor the instant after he had made his sword flicker in the air towards the heads of those armored forms. The driving weight of his body smashed through the legs. A hard rim of steel caught him fairly under the chin and knocked his brain into a daze, a thickness of dark out of which he staggered slowly to his feet.
The powerful arms of his father caught him beneath the shoulder. Wild yelling and cursing screeched behind him.
But Melrose, with Tizzo at the end of the passage, jerked the door open, and Tizzo saw the stars spinning vaguely before him, each trailing out a little arc of brightness. The fresh air cleared his head like a dash of cold water in the face.
"Beatrice--this way!" he heard the voice of his father calling.
And then Tizzo made out a sight that quite blew the mists from his brain: the gleam of the white stallion coming at a gallop beside the horse of Beatrice and another.
He was in the saddle in a moment, and he saw the big torso of Melrose loom above the next horse, as the door to the tavern opened and the three men-at-arms rushed out.
They were only in time to see the heels of the three horses as they went off at a gallop. Half a dozen more men stood in the gateway of the stable yard, but though the warning cry told them who were coming, they scattered, for men on foot were not trained to stand the shock of cavalry unless they stood in a compact order with pikes levelled.
So the three rushed through.
A sea of outcry surged up behind them. It seemed to Tizzo that he could hear the thundering tones of the Borgia above all the rest. But that was gone behind him.
And also gone was the sudden dream which had flamed before his eyes of a great, new Italy, and a glorious master to serve, worthy of being a king.
Behind him, he heard hoofs sounding as horsemen started off in headlong pursuit. But they were riding away through the tangles of the orchards and vineyards; they had crossed the first low hill; they were in a labyrinth of moonlight and silence where they would never be found.
And from all the adventure there remained to Tizzo one thing only--the glory of the horse on which he rode, the white, satin sheen of it.
He halted. After the heavy burst of running through cultivated, deep ground, the other two horses were panting hard, but the stallion was as much at ease as though he had covered that ground on the wing.
Tizzo reached out a hand to the girl, a hand to his father.
"How can it be?" he asked. "How have we managed to escape from them?"
"By miracle!" said the baron, though he was not a religious or a very superstitious man.
"By miracle, of course," said the girl. "When two such men as you stand together, miracles are as daily as bread. Come on! Let the Romagna go hang. We have Perugia to be happy in. It's a long road, but we have good luck beside us. Ah-hah, Tizzo! when I looked from my window and saw the moonlight tonight, I knew, somehow, that you and I would be out in it before the morning. Horses and moonlight, and Italy, and all the world!"
But the baron turned and looked thoughtfully back in the direction of the Giglio Rosso. He was remembering that he had had history under the edge of his sword, and the blade of his own son had turned the stroke aside.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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