'We are not far enough from Venice,' he said, when he spoke at last. 'I would give the world to have you safe in Florence!'
'My uncle will not even try to catch us,' Ortensia said calmly. 'You do not know him. When he finds out that we are gone together he will fear a scandal, and he fears ridicule still more. He will tell his friends that he has sent me to the country, or to a convent, and by and by he will tell them that I am dead. He dreads nothing in the world so much as being laughed at!'
She was so sure that she laughed herself as she thought of him, and almost wished that he might hear her, though he was certainly the very last person she wished to see just then. But Stradella thought otherwise.
'No one would laugh at him if he had you assassinated,' he said.
'I am not afraid of that!' Ortensia smiled at the mere idea of such a thing. 'Why are you standing? Come, bring that chair and sit down beside me, for we are alone at last!'
He was well used to women's ways, but the ways of grown women of the world are not those of innocent maidens of seventeen; her perfect simplicity and fearlessness were quite new to him, and had a wonderful charm of their own. He drew a chair to the window and sat down close to her, and afterwards he was glad that he had done as she wished.
It was all very strange, he thought even then. As yet, a love-affair had mostly meant for him a round of more or less dangerous adventures by night, such as climbing of balconies, unlocking of forbidden doors with stolen keys, imprisonment in dark closets and wardrobes, and sometimes flight in break-neck haste. That had usually been the material side, whereas now, reckoning up his risks, he had only climbed once to a loggia at night, and once he had been taken for a thief and chased, and that was all, excepting the actual escape from Venice, which had been without danger until now. On the other hand, there had stood to love's credit, as against those insignificant perils, only two kisses and no more, exchanged when he had been so drenched with rain that it had been quite out of the question to put a dripping arm round his lady's waist.
And now, for the first time in his life, he was suddenly alone with an innocent girl of seventeen who loved him, and whom he loved even to the point of having carried her off out of her house; he was alone with her, in her own room, when she had but just risen from sleep, and she was sitting beside him in the early sunshine, that wove a blaze of glory round her young beauty, and her soft white hand held his; and he was not satisfied as she was, but wished it were night instead of day, and wished the sun were the moon, and that there were sweet silence without instead of the thousand cries and echoes of a waking Italian city. For all he had ever known of joy on earth, or ever hoped for, he would not have wished that Ortensia's face could change into any that had once been dear to him under the summer moonlight of the south; yet he felt strangely constrained and awkward, like a schoolboy in love, not knowing what to do or say in the overwhelming daylight.
'You are not glad, as I am,' Ortensia said after the long silence.
At the sound of her voice he found himself again, and he lifted her hand and pressed it to his lips.
'I am afraid for you,' he answered. 'When a man has taken the most precious thing in the whole world, and carries it with him through an enemy's country, he may well be afraid lest some harm come to it on the way.'
'But this is not the enemy's country!' laughed Ortensia, too happy to be serious. 'Are we not a hundred miles from Venice and my uncle?'
'They say the Republic has long arms, love, and the Senator can count on every one of the Ten to help him. The law cannot touch us merely for having run away together, it is true, but what if he invents a crime? What if he swears that we have robbed him? The Pope's Government will not harbour thieves nor shelter criminals against the justice of Venice! We should be arrested and given up, that is all, and then sent back! This is what I fear much more than that he should have us tracked and murdered by assassins, as many Venetians would do in this civilised age!'
'But we have taken nothing,' Ortensia objected, quite unable to be afraid of anything while her hand was in his. 'How can he accuse us of robbing him? Pina and I have a comb and piece of soap between us! As for money, she may have a little small change, for all I know, but I have nothing.'
'I have a good deal,' Stradella answered; 'quite enough to justify such an accusation as that. But, after all, nothing can hinder such a thing, if it is going to be. I dare say you are right—it is my anxiety for you that makes me think of everything that might happen.'
'Nothing will happen,' Ortensia said softly, 'nothing will happen to part us!'
Still holding his hand, she gazed into his eyes with an expression of ecstatic happiness, and she could not have found another word, even if she had needed speech; then suddenly her bare arm circled his neck like a flash of white light, for he was very close to her, and she took him unawares and kissed him first.
She laid her head upon his breast a moment later, and he pressed her to him and buried his face in her sweet auburn hair. His heart overflowed in many soft and loving words.
The door opened while he was speaking, and both started and sat upright, expecting to see Pina, and ashamed to be surprised even by her. Then Ortensia uttered a sharp cry and Stradella sprang to his feet.
Two big men in rusty black and long boots had entered the room, and were advancing. They were broad-shouldered men, of a determined bearing, with sinister faces, and both wore swords and kept their slouch hats on their heads. Stradella was unarmed, and could only stand before Ortensia, awaiting their onset, for he had not a doubt but that they were Bravi sent by Pignaver to murder him. To his surprise they stopped before him, and one of them spoke.
'You had better come quietly with us,' the man said.
Stradella understood at once that the two intruders were sbirri, come to arrest him, and he was sure that Pignaver had pursued precisely the course he had explained to Ortensia, and that he was going to be accused of robbery.
'I am a Sicilian and a Spanish subject,' he said. 'By what right do you dare to arrest me?'
'We know very well that you are a Sicilian, Master Bartolo,' answered the man. 'And as for the rest, it is known to you, so come with us and make no trouble, or it will be the worse for you.'
'My name is not Bartolo!' cried the musician indignantly. 'I am Alessandro Stradella, the singer.'
'Any one can say that,' replied the man. 'Come along! No nonsense, now!'
'I tell you, I am Stradella——'
But the man glanced at his companion, and the two had him by his arms in an instant, though he struggled desperately. They were very strong fellows, and between them could have thrown a horse, and though Stradella was supple and quick, he was powerless between them.
During the short exchange of words Ortensia had leaned back against the window-sill in frightened surprise, but when she saw her lover suddenly pinioned and dragged towards the door, she flew at the sbirri like a tigress, and buried her fingers in the throat of the nearest, springing upon him from behind. The fellow shook her off as a bull-terrier would a rat, and, while keeping his hold on the prisoner with one hand, he tripped her roughly with his foot and the other, by a common professional trick, throwing her heavily upon the brick floor. Before she could rise, the men had got Stradella outside, and as she struggled to her feet she heard the key turned, and knew that she was locked in. In wild despair she beat upon the solid panels with her small fists, but no one answered her. Stradella's man was scouring the town for horses, and Pina was not within hearing.
Meanwhile the singer had submitted, as soon as he realised that he had no chance of escape, and that, unless the men were acting a part, he had been taken for a man called Bartolo, and would be able to explain the mistake as soon as he was brought before a responsible officer or magistrate. Indeed, when this view presented itself to him, he was only anxious to facilitate the course of events as much as possible, and spoke civilly to his captors, while walking quietly downstairs between them; but they did not let go of his arms for that reason.
Below, in the arched entrance, the innkeeper was waiting, in conversation with three other sbirri, dressed and armed much in the same manner as the two who had made the arrest.
'It is a mistake,' Stradella said to the host. 'I am taken for another man, and as soon as I have explained who I am, I shall return. I shall be obliged if you will attend to the wants of the lady and her serving-woman.'
'Guests who quit the house without paying their score generally leave their luggage as security,' answered the host with an insulting sneer, and pointing towards the entrance.
There, to his surprise, Stradella saw two sturdy porters, laden with his valises, his cloak, and his lute, and evidently waiting to accompany him.
'What are you doing, you scoundrels?' he cried. 'Put down my things!'
But they only grinned and began to move on, and as he was hurried out of the door into the square, they jogged across the square at a trot with their burdens. A few moments later he followed them across the drawbridge of the castle and in under the great gate where a papal soldier, armed with halberd and broadsword, was pacing up and down on guard.
Just as he disappeared, Pina emerged upon the square from a narrow street at its northern end, and hastened to the entrance of the inn. The host was standing there, his legs apart, his arms crossed, and his small black cap on one side of his head. He stopped Pina.
'Your master has changed his lodgings,' he said in a jocular tone, and pointing with his thumb towards the castle. 'His Excellency the Legate has just taken him in free.'
Pina understood instantly, and drew back a step in consternation.
'If you mean to stay here, you must pay in advance,' continued the host, 'for your master has taken all the luggage with him. Perhaps he expects to spend some time with the Legate.'
'But we have no money of our own!' Pina cried in great distress. 'What are we to do?'
'That is your affair,' answered the innkeeper. 'You have had your night's lodging from me, and that is all you will get for nothing; so, unless you can pay, take your mistress somewhere else.'
Pina bent her head, and went upstairs without more words. A quarter of an hour later she and Ortensia left the inn, with the hoods of their brown cloaks drawn over their heads. The young girl leaned on her nurse's arm, and walked unsteadily.
Their worldly possessions, besides the clothes they wore, consisted of a piece of Castile soap, a comb, and Pina's work-case.
The Nuncio departed amidst a tremendous clatter of hoofs and rumbling of wheels, after being accompanied to his coach by the Legate of Ferrara himself. The second coach was occupied by his chaplains, and a third by his body-servants; in his own he took only his secretary; each vehicle carried a part of his voluminous luggage. After the coaches rode the footmen, mounted on all sorts of beasts, such as could be had, but wearing good liveries and all well armed. A dozen papal troopers commanded by a sergeant brought up the rear.
The wizened little Legate bowed to the ground as the noisy procession started, for though he wore a clerical dress he was only a layman, and the Nuncio was Archbishop of Kerasund, 'in partibus infidelium,' and returned the Governor's salutations with a magnificent benediction from the window of his coach. The papal halberdiers of the castle, all drawn up in line outside the moat, saluted by laying their long halberds to the left at a sharp angle.
The Legate put on his three-cornered hat as the escort trotted away after the coaches, and he stood rubbing his hands and watching the fast-disappearing procession of travellers, while the guard formed in double file and awaited his pleasure, ready to follow him in.
He had scarcely reached middle age, but he looked like a dried-up little old man, with his wrinkled face, his small red eyes, and his withered hands. No one who did not know him would have taken him to be the tremendous personage he really was in Ferrara, invested with full powers to represent his sovereign master, Pope Clement the Tenth; or rather the Pope's adopted 'nephew,' who was not his nephew at all, Cardinal Paluzzo Altieri, the real and visible power in Rome. The truth was that the aged Pontiff was almost bedridden and was scarcely ever seen, and he was only too glad to be relieved of all care and responsibility.
Monsignor Pelagatti, for that was the Legate's name, was a man of no distinguished extraction; indeed, it would be more true to say that he had extracted himself from his original surroundings. For it was by dint of laudable hard work as well as by virtue of certain useful gifts of mind and character that he had raised himself above his family to a really important position. It was commonly said in Rome that his father had been a highway robber and his mother a washerwoman, and that his brother was even now a footman in service; but it is quite possible that the Roman gossips knew more of his people than he did, seeing that he had declined to have anything to do with his family ever since he had got his first place as assistant steward in the Paluzzo household, before that family had been adopted and had received the name of Altieri from the Pope; and this is all that need be said about his beginnings for the present.
In due time he went upstairs again, installed himself behind the long oak table in his office, and took up the business of the day. A brown wooden crucifix stood before him, and at the foot of it was placed his large leaden inkstand, well provided with pens, ink, and red sand for blotting. At each end of the table sat a clerk; of these two, one was an untidy old man with a weary face and snuff-stained fingers, the other was a particularly spruce young fellow, with smug pink cheeks and carefully trimmed nails. The room had one high window to the north, from which a cold and dreary light fell upon the table and the three men.
The Legate proceeded to transact current business, receiving in turn a number of officials and citizens who came of their own accord, or were summoned, for various reasons, mostly connected with the revenue. When he had dismissed them all, more or less satisfied or dissatisfied, as the papal interests required, he ordered the officer at the door to send for the prisoner who had been taken at the inn that morning.
'Let us see this famous Sicilian coiner,' he said, rubbing his hands and screwing up his little red eyes. 'Bring up his effects, too, and send for a goldsmith with his touchstone and acids.'
He leaned back in his high chair to wait, and mentally ran over the questions he meant to ask. The shabby old clerk took snuff, and sprinkled a liberal quantity of it on his spotted black clothes and on the edge of the paper before him. His colleague at the other end occupied himself in improving the point of his quill pen. In the silence, a huge spotted cat sprang upon the table and calmly seated itself upright beside the crucifix, facing the Legate, who paid no attention whatever to it. From time to time it blinked and slowly moved the yellow tip of its tail.
Presently Stradella was led in by the gaoler and his assistant. On his wrists there were manacles, joined with each other by a strong chain which was highly polished by constant use. He was bare-headed, of course, and he seemed perfectly cool and self-possessed. Immediately after him, two men entered bringing his luggage, which was set down on the floor before the table. The cat did not even turn to look at the people who had entered.
'What is your name?' asked the Legate, eyeing him sharply.
Instead of writing down the answer the two clerks looked at their superior for instructions.
'His name is Bartolo,' the Legate said, in a decided tone.
'By your worship's leave, my name is Stradella,' protested the musician.
'You may note that this fellow Bartolo persists in calling himself Stradella,' said the Legate, looking first at one clerk and then at the other.
'I am not Bartolo!' cried the musician indignantly. 'I am Alessandro Stradella, the singer, well known to hundreds of people in Rome.'
'You see how he persists,' answered the Legate with an ironical smile. 'Write down what he says as correctly as you can.'
Stradella saw that it was useless to protest, and that vehemence might be dangerous.
'By your leave,' he said more quietly, 'if you will loosen my hands and let me have my lute there, I will prove what I say, by singing and playing to you.'
'Anybody can sing,' retorted Monsignor Pelagatti with profound contempt, and without even looking at him. 'Write down that he has insulted this tribunal by offering to sing to the Legate and his clerks—which low jesting is contempt of court, and nothing else. The man is either drunk or insane.'
Stradella was speechless with anger and disgust, and his face grew very pale.
'Open his effects,' the Legate said, when the clerks' pens stopped moving.
Two of the sbirri at once unstrapped the valises, and laid out the contents on the long table on each side of the Legate, neatly and in order. One of the bags contained clothes and personal effects, but the other was almost entirely filled with manuscript compositions and a supply of paper ruled for writing music. It also contained a leathern pouch stuffed full of gold ducats.
'There we have it!' exclaimed Monsignor Pelagatti. 'Is the goldsmith come?'
'He is waiting, your worship,' answered the officer at the door.
The goldsmith was ushered in, a grey-haired man, who still stooped when he had finished his bow to the Legate. The latter ordered him to sit at the table and test the gold coins one by one.
'This fellow,' said Monsignor Pelagatti, by way of explanation, 'is the famous Sicilian coiner of counterfeit money, Bartolo. Push the good ducats towards me, if you find any, and the false coin towards the clerk at your elbow.'
The goldsmith glanced curiously at Stradella, and then took his small block of basalt and a stoneware bottle of nitric acid from a leathern bag he carried, slung on his arm. The spotted cat seemed interested in these objects, and after having gazed at them placidly for half a minute, rose with deliberation, walked along the edge of the table, and sniffed at the stone and the goldsmith's fingers. It then crossed to the Legate and sat down on his left, surveying the prisoner with apparent satisfaction.
The Legate's eyes followed with keen interest the operations of the expert, who took one coin after another from the pouch, rubbed it on the basalt, poured a drop of acid on the yellow mark made by the gold, and then examined the wet spot closely to see how the colour changed; and he shook his head each time and pushed ducat after ducat towards Monsignor Pelagatti, but not a single one towards the clerk. The Legate's crooked fingers played absently with the coins as they came to his side, arranging them in little piles, and the piles in patterns, almost without glancing at them. The goldsmith worked quickly, but the ducats were many, for Stradella had supplied himself plentifully with money before leaving Venice, and had drawn the whole balance of the letter of credit he had brought with him from the banking-house of Chigi in Rome.
The sbirri and the two clerks eyed the gold longingly. Stradella stood motionless between his keepers, wondering what would happen next, and never doubting but that the whole proceeding had been inspired by Pignaver.
But what had really happened can be explained in a dozen words, and will show that the sharp little Legate was acting in perfectly good faith. The truth was that a notorious Sicilian counterfeiter who was described as a pale young man with black hair, and who went by the name of Bartolo, was really travelling in the north of Italy, and had been heard of at Vicenza, whence it was reported that he had set out in haste for Padua. The spies who were in pursuit of him learned in the latter city that a dark young man with a pale complexion had hired an extra post for Rovigo, in a very great hurry, and was spending money liberally, and after that it had been easy to trace Stradella to the inn at Ferrara. One of the spies had ridden in before daybreak and had warned the innkeeper not to let the musician have horses at any price, and had then given information at the castle, which the Legate had received before sunrise, for he was an early riser. For the rest, he always followed the time-honoured custom of considering every prisoner guilty till he was proved innocent. In his opinion any criminal could call himself a singer, and could very likely sing, too, if his life depended upon it. Moreover, a hundred gold Apostolic florins had been offered for the capture of Bartolo, and the Legate meant to have a share of the prize money.
By the time the goldsmith had tested all the coins and found these good, Monsignor Pelagatti had also counted them over several times.
'Three hundred and ninety-one ducats,' he said, dictating to the clerks, 'were found amongst the criminal's possessions, and were confiscated to the Papal Treasury.'
'But they are all good,' objected Stradella.
'Precisely,' answered the Legate. 'If anything was wanting to prove you guilty, it was this fact. Could any one but an expert counterfeiter have in his possession three hundred and ninety-one ducats without a single false one, in these dishonest days? But a coiner, whose nefarious business it is to exchange counterfeit coin for genuine, is not to be deceived like an ordinary person.'
'But I drew the money from an honest bank in Venice——'
'Silence!' cried the Legate in a squeaky voice.
'Silence!' roared the gaolers and the sbirri with one accord, all looking at the musician together.
The spotted cat rose sleepily at the noise, arched its back and clawed the oak table, by way of stretching itself.
'The counterfeiter Bartolo is duly committed for trial and will be sent to Rome in chains with the next convoy of prisoners,' said the Legate, dictating. 'Till then,' he added, speaking to the officer, 'put him into one of the cells at the foot of the Lion Tower. He is a criminal of some note.'
It was worse than useless to attempt any further protest; the gaolers seized the singer by his arms again, one on each side, and in ten minutes he was left to his own reflections, locked up in a pitch-dark cell that smelt like a wet grave. They had brought a lantern with them, and had shown him a stone seat, long enough to lie down upon, and at one end of it there was a loose block of sandstone for a pillow, a luxury which had been provided for a political prisoner who had passed some months in the cell under the last of the Este marquises, some eighty years earlier, and which had doubtless been forgotten.
After he had been some time in the dark, Stradella saw that a very feeble glimmer was visible through a square grated opening which he had noticed in the door when the gaoler was unlocking it before entering. Even that would be some comfort, but the unlucky musician was too utterly overcome to think of anything but Ortensia's danger, and his own fate sank to insignificance when compared with hers; for he was sure that Pignaver's agents must have seized her as soon as he himself had been taken away, and he dared not think of what would happen when they brought her back to Venice and delivered her up to her uncle. That they would murder the defenceless girl he did not believe, and besides, it was much more likely that Pignaver would prefer to torment her to death at his leisure, after assassinating her lover. Stradella guessed as much as that from what he knew of the Senator's character.
As for himself, when he was able to reflect soberly after being several hours alone in the dark, the singer came to the conclusion that he was in no immediate danger of his life, though he owed his present imprisonment to his enemy. It looked as if he stood a good chance of being sent to Rome, as Bartolo the counterfeiter, to be tried; but once there, he would have no difficulty in obtaining his liberation, for he was well known to many distinguished persons, including Cardinal Altieri himself. Pignaver had cleverly cut short his flight in order to take Ortensia from him, but to accomplish this the Senator had been obliged to put off the murder he doubtless contemplated. Stradella's life would probably be attempted in Rome, as soon as he was free, but meanwhile he could not but admit that the Senator had succeeded in making him exceedingly uncomfortable, merely from a material point of view. It was not likely that prisoners were sent to Rome more than once a month, and the last convoy had perhaps left yesterday. He might have to spend thirty days in the cell.
As the hours passed he forgot himself again, and thought only of Ortensia. In his imagination he fancied her already far on her way to Rovigo in the jolting coach with her captors; in the very coach, perhaps, in which he had brought her to Ferrara only last night. He called up her face, and saw it as pale as death; her eyes were half closed and her lips sharp-drawn with pain. He could hardly bear to think of her suffering, but not to think of her he could not bear at all.
He did not know how long he had been locked up, when he noticed that the faint glimmer at the grated hole was almost gone, and suddenly he felt horribly hungry, in spite of his misery, for it was nearly twenty-four hours since he had tasted food. The gaolers had brought a little bread and a jug of water, and had set them down on the ground at one end of the bench. He felt about till he found them, and he gnawed the tough crust voraciously, though it tasted of the damp earth on which it had lain since morning.
After a long time he fell asleep with the stone pillow under his head.
Cucurullo came back to the inn in less than an hour after Pina and Ortensia had left it. In spite of the asseverations of the innkeeper, he had found that there were horses to be had in plenty in the city, and that it was merely a question of choice and of paying well for the accommodation. He was hastening upstairs to tell this to Stradella when he was stopped by the host himself, who informed him that Stradella was imprisoned in the castle, and that the lady and her serving-woman had just gone away on foot.
'You had better melt away yourself,' the innkeeper concluded in a confidential tone, 'unless you wish to be clapped into prison too.'
Cucurullo had betrayed no surprise at what the host told him, and he did not seem inclined to pay any immediate attention to the latter's advice, though it was distinctly friendly. He was used to that, for few Italians would care to incur the hatred of a hunch-backed man, who is supposed to bring good luck to those who treat him well, and to dispose of the mysterious curses of the Evil Eye for wreaking vengeance on those who injure him. Cucurullo stood still on the stairs, in deep thought, after the innkeeper had ceased speaking.
'What is the name of the Legate?' he inquired, looking up at last.
'Pelagatti,' answered the other. 'He is from the South, they say; though, between you and me, he looks more like a rat than a Christian. Monsignor Luigi Pelagatti, that is his name.'
Again Cucurullo was silent, apparently more absorbed in his thoughts than ever.
'Come, come!' cried the innkeeper in an encouraging tone. 'You need not be so down-hearted! I will have a good meal cooked for you, and if you need a little ready money for your journey, it is at your disposal. A clever fellow like you will soon find another place.'
By way of laying in a stock of luck for the day, he patted the deformed man's hump as he spoke, but he awaited the answer with evident concern, for it was fortunate to have a hunch-backed man eat and drink in one's house; a hunch-backed woman, on the contrary, always brought evil with her, and should be driven from the door.
Cucurullo's reply was not only of favourable omen, but announced a piece of unexpected good-fortune.
'You are very obliging,' he said, 'and I shall be glad of a mouthful at noon. As for your kind offer to lend me money, I thank you heartily, but I am well provided, and wish to pay my master's bill here before accepting your friendly offer of a dinner. My master always trusts me with a few ducats to pay his small expenses.'
The innkeeper congratulated himself on having patted the man's hump, for it was clear that the good luck which at once befell him could be traced to no other source. He now inwardly cursed his haste in turning Ortensia and Pina out of the house, since Cucurullo was perhaps in a position to have paid their score for some time. Of this, however, the host could not be quite sure, for the serving-man did not show his purse, but only produced some loose silver from the pocket of his wide brown breeches.
'I shall charge nothing for the lady's use of the room,' said the innkeeper magnanimously. 'You came with three horses from Rovigo, I believe; there is their feed, and the supper of the postillion, who left in an hour. That is all. Three pauls will pay for everything.'
'You are very obliging,' Cucurullo said again, as he paid the money. 'Your charges are very moderate. Since you act in such a friendly manner, I will tell you something.'
Thereupon Cucurullo laid one of his large hands gently on the innkeeper's sleeve, and looked up earnestly into the latter's face; and when he was very much in earnest, his large blue eyes had a peculiar expression, which lent great weight to what he said.
'A friendly act deserves a friendly return,' he said, 'for, as we say in the South, "one hand washes the other and both wash the face." My master has been arrested by mistake. He is really and truly the famous Maestro Stradella, and is a great favourite with the Roman Court, for he has sung to His Holiness himself and often to His Eminence Cardinal Altieri. Therefore, if any harm comes to him in Ferrara through the ignorance of Monsignor Pelagatti, there will be trouble for you, since the Legate will be severely reprimanded, and will make those persons who gave him wrong information pay for his scolding. As you have shown me kindness, I tell you these things beforehand, because I know them for certain. Do you understand?'
The innkeeper not only understood, but began to feel uncomfortable at the thought of being called to account even for his small share in Stradella's arrest. As for the spy who had made the mistake, his lot would not be enviable if he was within the Legate's reach when the error was discovered.
'Pardon the question, my dear friend,' said the host in an extremely gentle tone, 'but are you quite sure of these things?'
'Altogether sure,' was the answer. 'I have been in the Maestro's service since he first began to be famous. He saved my life at the risk of his own, and I have served him five years come the Feast of Saint John. I therefore know that he is not a Sicilian counterfeiter! If you have any means of reaching the Legate, therefore, it would be well to set him right at once in this matter. He will be the more grateful, or, at least, the less angry, if my master is detained in prison for a few hours only.'
The innkeeper saw the wisdom of this, on the supposition that Cucurullo was speaking the truth, but of that he was not quite sure. It was a bad world, he reflected, and the counterfeiter might have a clever hunchback for a servant, with a knack of fixing his eyes as Cucurullo did, and of putting great earnestness into his tone. So far, the innkeeper had only done what the law had required of him, except in the matter of turning out two women who could not pay for their lodging, and in doing this the law would support him. Monsignor Pelagatti was a tremendous personage, who ruled the whole Marquisate of Ferrara in the name of the Pope; he knew his business, or believed he did, and it was absurd to think that a humble innkeeper and posting-master could influence him to act upon the mere word of a serving-man.
On the other hand, it was unsafe to doubt a hunchback openly, and it would be fatal to quarrel with him, because he could cast the spell of the Evil Eye.
'I shall do my best,' the innkeeper replied, 'and far more readily for your sake, my dear friend, than for my own, I assure you.'
Cucurullo smiled quietly, and seemed quite satisfied with this answer. He now went on to ask questions about Ortensia and Pina, but the host knew nothing, except that they had left the house together, immediately after the arrest of Stradella. For obvious reasons he said nothing of his interview with Pina. He declared that they had simply left the inn, and that he had not hindered them. He had not seen them go out, and could not tell whether they had turned to the north or the south. He suggested that since they had gone away at once and without the least hesitation, they probably had friends in Ferrara to whom they could turn for protection and help in their difficulty. He was ready, he said, to help Cucurullo to find them out; he would be only too happy to be of use.
What he suggested was not unlikely. During the flight from Venice, Cucurullo had observed Pina closely, and had come to the conclusion that she was a woman of resources, who had travelled much at some time or other, and who could hold her tongue. She would certainly think of some expedient, and would succeed in placing her mistress under some sort of protection. His own mind always instinctively ran in the direction of an ecclesiastical solution of any difficulty in life; if he himself were starving and friendless in a strange city he would knock at the door of a Franciscan monastery and beg for shelter and work. He therefore concluded that Pina would naturally have taken Ortensia directly to a convent, where they would both be cared for; the serving-woman would take care to be informed of what happened to Stradella, and as soon as he was let out she would communicate with him.
Moreover, as compared with the fate of the musician, Cucurullo cared little what became of Ortensia; for his devotion to his master filled his whole life, whereas the young girl's only claim to his attachment was that Stradella was in love with her. On the other hand, the pious serving-man saw in the present separation of the two a special intervention of Providence for the purpose of keeping the lovers apart till they could be duly and properly married. From this point of view to putting Ortensia out of his thoughts altogether was only a step, and he devoted every energy to the liberation of his master.
Having come to this conclusion in a much shorter time than it has taken to explain his reasons, he again thanked his new friend, promising to come back for dinner at noon, and adding that he would go over to the castle gate and gather such information as he could. He was hindered from doing so at once, however, by the preparations for the Nuncio's departure, which has been already described. He mixed with the crowd that had gathered to see the sight, and waited till some time had elapsed after the Legate and the guard had gone in before he approached the drawbridge.
The single sentinel had now returned to his beat, but half-a-dozen of the halberdiers were loitering about the door of the guard-room within the deep archway, at some distance from the gate. The sentry stopped Cucurullo and asked his business.
'I am the servant of the gentleman who has been arrested by mistake at the inn,' the hunchback answered humbly. 'My master had sent me out on an errand, and when I came in I learnt the news. So I have come to wait for him.'
'I am afraid you may wait long,' answered the sentry, with a friendly glance at Cucurullo's hump; 'but you are welcome to sit in the guard-room, if you like.'
'Thank you,' Cucurullo answered, and as he passed he felt the soldier's light touch on his crooked back.
The other halberdiers received him with equal kindness, and there was not one of them who did not believe that he would have a stroke of luck before night, if he could by any means touch the magic hump without offending its possessor. Cucurullo took off his hat civilly as he stopped before them.
'Good-morning, gentlemen,' he said. 'The sentinel was kind enough to say that I might wait here for my master, who has been arrested by mistake and will soon come out.'
'And welcome!' cried the sergeant on duty, who had lost money at play on the previous evening.
'At your service! Pray sit down! Bring out a chair!'
The men all spoke together, and gathered closely round Cucurullo to touch his hump, so that he almost disappeared amongst them. Then they got a chair from the guard-room and made him sit down at his ease, and some remained standing beside him while others sat on the end of the stone seat that ran along the wall. He thanked them warmly, and at once entered into conversation, asking for news of Stradella, and explaining the strange mistake that had led to his arrest. In a few minutes he had learned that his master was in all likelihood at that very moment before the Legate.
'And what sort of person is his worship, the Governor?' asked Cucurullo, anxious for information, and lowering his voice.
The sergeant was a jolly, red-faced, merry-eyed man from the March of Ancona, and he laughed before he answered.
'We used to call him Pontius Pilate, because he does not know what truth is,' he said, 'but we gave that up because he never washes his hands!'
Cucurullo smiled at the rough jest, but he looked curiously at the speaker.
'I see that you are familiar with the Scriptures, sir,' observed the hunchback.
'I come by the knowledge honestly,' answered the soldier. 'I did not steal it! My father, bless his soul, was killed in battle, and so my mother tried to make a priest of me. Eh? You see me as I am! This is the kind of priest my mother made! Neither more nor less than a poor sergeant of halberdiers. But a little of the Latin stuck to me, for indeed it is sticky stuff enough, and the priests laid it on with a stick!'
The men roared with delight at their superior's elegant wit, and Cucurullo laughed a little too, more out of politeness than because he was amused.
'You may yet die a saint, sir,' he said with a grave smile when the general mirth had subsided. 'Many of the saints were soldiers, you know. There was the blessed Saint Eustace, and there was Saint Martin, and Saint Sebastian, and Saint George——'
'But there never was a Saint Hector, and that is my name, at your service.'
At this retort the men again showed their delight, laughing in chorus.
'Do you think you have no chance of being the first Saint Hector in the calendar?' asked Cucurullo pleasantly. 'Why not? You have a good heart, sir. I see it in your face, if you will pardon me for saying so. Gentlemen'—he smilingly appealed to the other men—'has not Sergeant Hector a good heart?'
'A heart of gold!' cried one of the soldiers.
'A heart as big as a pumpkin!' another chimed in.
'A lion's heart!'
'There is not another like him in all the Pope's army!'
'And God bless him!'
The sergeant stood back, pretending to put on a terrible frown, and cutting the air in carte and tierce with his handsome tasselled stick.
'You ruffians!' he roared. 'You know well enough that I would beat you all black and blue if you did not praise me seventeen times a day, four times for each watch and once more for good luck! Eh?' He glared ferociously about him, and his stick flew round in his hand like lightning, through a whole series of cuts, feints, and round parries. 'Have I trained my men well or not?' he asked, desisting at last, and turning to Cucurullo.
'You have trained them to tell the truth about you, sir, I have no doubt,' answered the hunchback.
'And we will make a bad day of it for any man who says a word against him,' said the biggest of the halberdiers with a grin.
The rest confirmed his statement with a variety of asseverations, according to their several tastes, calling to witness indifferently both heathen deities and Christian saints.
'Very well,' said Cucurullo. 'It is proved that you have a very good heart, sir, and that is the chief thing needed to make a saint. For to say that a man is kind-hearted is only another way of saying that he is charitable, and Charity is the greatest of the three Theological Virtues, as you must have learned at the seminary.'
'Good friend,' answered the sergeant, 'if you are going to open the "Process" concerning my Beatification this morning, the Devil's Advocate must be appointed to argue against you and try to prove me the worst of sinners, for that is the rule in Rome.'
'Very well, sir,' laughed the hunchback. 'Appoint him yourself, sir!'
'He is upstairs just now,' retorted the other, 'sitting in judgment on your master! But I will promise that if you argue with him about me, he will prove that my soul is rotting in original and acquired sin, and that nothing can save me but cutting my pay!'
Again the gloomy archway rang with the soldiers' hoarse laughter, which was by no means the expression of obsequious flattery. The sergeant was more than popular with the whole company of halberdiers that garrisoned the castle; he was beloved for his inexhaustible good-nature and respected for his undoubted courage. Cucurullo had guessed this in a few moments, and in view of possible complications he was resolved to make an ally of the sergeant and friends of the men.
He felt amongst the loose silver in his pocket and jingled it in a manner agreeable for poor soldiers to hear.
'It is still early,' he said, 'but talking always makes me thirsty. If you would allow some one to fetch some drink, sir, I should be grateful.'
The sergeant assented to the proposal with alacrity, and at his nod a young soldier stepped briskly forward to take the piece of silver Cucurullo was holding up.
'How much shall I fetch?' asked the man, grinning.
Cucurullo counted the company quickly before he answered.
'We are nine,' he said. 'I think you had better get nine pints in a stoup.' A little murmur of approval and anticipatory satisfaction ran round. 'I do not know whether that is right,' he added, in a tone of hesitating interrogation.
'You speak the wisdom of all ages,' answered the sergeant. 'Solomon never said anything better. "Take a little wine for the good of the stomach," says Saint Paul.'
So the time passed pleasantly for the soldiers down there under the great gate, while Monsignor Pelagatti was conducting his singular judicial proceedings upstairs. A couple of horn cups were produced from the guard-room, and the men drank to Cucurullo's health in turn, while he himself swallowed a little; for he was tired, and he was terribly anxious, in spite of his cheerful manner and jesting tone.
They were all laughing and talking together when the old goldsmith appeared from within, on his way home. The sergeant hailed him and asked what news of the counterfeiter there was from the Legate's court.
'Three hundred and ninety-one good gold ducats confiscated to the Treasury,' answered the grey-haired crafts-man, 'and the prisoner to be lodged under the Lion Tower till he is sent to Rome for trial.'
The sergeant looked at Cucurullo, and saw that he grew paler, and dead white all round the lips; but the hunchback showed no other sign of emotion, and the goldsmith nodded gravely and went out.
'This is bad news, gentlemen,' said Cucurullo. 'Is there any way by which I could send a message to my master?' he asked in a low voice.
'Either of the turnkeys would sell his soul for a dodkin, and blow up the castle for a ducat, Legate and all,' answered the sergeant in the same tone.
'I would willingly give a ducat if I might see my master.'
'I will bargain with him for half that, but it will have to be after dark. We go off duty at Ave Maria this evening, but to-morrow we have the night watch. Come about the first hour of the night, and you will find the little postern ajar in the left half of the gate. Push it open and come in.'
With this friendly promise Cucurullo had to be satisfied; and, indeed, he had good reason to congratulate himself, for if he had chanced upon one of the other sergeants he might have had a very different reception, though the whole garrison hated the Legate heartily. The guard for the month at the main gate was divided into three watches that took turns, being on duty there for twelve hours and off for twenty-four; this did not mean, however, that they were at liberty during all that time, for there was other sentry duty to be done about the castle.
Having taken leave of his new friends, the hunchback went back to the inn, debating with himself whether he should remain there until the following night, or seek a lodging in a more remote and quiet part of the town. But, on the whole, he resolved to trust the innkeeper—or it would be nearer the truth to say that he trusted to the power his deformity exercised over a man in whom he would not otherwise have placed much confidence. If he took a room elsewhere, he would be forced to make acquaintance with the owners of the house, and he was convinced that such a Governor as Monsignor Pelagatti must have his spies everywhere; it was safer to stay where he was already known, and was looked upon as a bringer of luck, than to go where he might find less superstitious people.
He therefore took the cheapest room in the inn, announced his intention of waiting till his master was set free, and by way of inspiring confidence he paid for three days' lodging in advance. His object in seeing Stradella was to get definite instructions in the first place, and, secondly, to take him a dish of meat and a supply of such food as would keep some time without spoiling. Stradella would probably bid him ride post to Rome and bring back an order from Cardinal Altieri which would set everything right; but it would scarcely be possible to cover the distance and return in less than ten days, at the very least, during which time it was only too probable that the musician would fall ill from lack of food and from the possible dampness and closeness of his prison.
The hours passed slowly enough in the solitude of the little upper room in which Cucurullo spent most of that day and the next, and the intervening night; for he thought it wiser not to be seen much in the town, being what he was, a mark for men's eyes wherever he went. He would have read if he could have found a book, for he was a good reader and writer, and often copied music for his master, for he could engross handsomely; but there were no books in the inn, not even the works of that 'poor Signor Torquato Tasso,' who had been so long shut up as a lunatic in Ferrara in the days of the Marquis Alfonso Second. The only book Cucurullo had been able to find was a small volume with a very strange name, for its title was Eikon Basilike; but Cucurullo did not understand a word of it, and the innkeeper said he thought the book must have been forgotten by two rich English gentlemen who had lately spent some days in his house.
At the appointed hour Cucurullo crossed the drawbridge of the castle, pushed the small postern, and went in. A hanging iron lamp, fed with mingled olive-oil and tallow, dimly lighted the great archway, where the sentry was pacing up and down. Sergeant Hector came forward as soon as the hunchback appeared, and closed and bolted the postern after him before speaking. The other men of the watch were presumably dozing in the guard-room, from the open door of which no light appeared.
'This way, my dear friend,' whispered the sergeant. 'The man is waiting.'
He hurried Cucurullo along the dark way towards the inner court, laying a hand on his crooked back by way of guiding him; but the truth was that since he had met Cucurullo his luck at play had been surprisingly good, and he would not miss the chance of refreshing it again at the magic source of fortune.
They passed the foot of the main staircase, went on a few steps farther, and then turned into a narrow passage. The glare of a lantern flashed in Cucurullo's eyes.
'Here is the gentleman,' the sergeant said in a low voice. 'This is our head gaoler,' he added, turning to Cucurullo. 'I have agreed that you should pay three silver florins in advance for the visit.'
'Cash,' said a voice that was unnaturally hoarse, possibly from the dampness of the underground labyrinth to which the man's business often took him.
Cucurullo was wrapped in his wide cloak, under which he had slung on himself the bottles and provisions he was bringing. He had prepared some loose money in his breeches pocket, and immediately produced the three coins. The turnkey was holding the lantern in such a position that it was impossible to see his face, but a grimy hand shot out into the yellow glare to take the money.
'Come,' said the hoarse voice; and as the speaker turned to lead the way, Cucurullo heard the jingling of his keys.
The sergeant was already gone, and the hunchback followed his guide along the passage, which descended by a distinctly perceptible grade. It was clear from this that the prisons must be below the level of the water in the moat, and already the moving light showed that the walls were dripping with moisture. Presently the passage emerged into a sort of crypt, in which huge masses of masonry supported low arches that in turn carried the cross vaulting. The floor, if it was anything but beaten earth, was slippery with a thin film of greasy mud.
At last the turnkey stopped before one of half-a-dozen doors, all studded alike with rusty iron nails, and each having a lock, a bolt, and a square aperture at the height of a man's head, strongly barred. Cucurullo now saw the gaoler's ugly features for the first time.
The door opened, creaking loudly on its hinges; and as the turnkey held up his lantern to see into the cell, Cucurullo, peering past him, caught sight of his master's face. It was ghastly pale, his sunken eyes had dark half-circles under them, and his unshaven chin and cheeks looked grimy in the yellow light.
'Is it morning?' he asked, in a dull voice.
Cucurullo slipped past the gaoler and spoke to him, and instantly the light flashed in his eyes and he smiled, for the first time since he had been arrested in Ortensia's room. Cucurullo took his hand and kissed it with devotion, as Italian servants often do in great moments.
Neither had yet spoken when the heavy door creaked and was slammed, and they were suddenly in the dark. The key turned noisily in the lock, twice in quick succession, and the additional bolt rattled as it was pushed into its socket.
'Good-night, gentlemen,' said the preternaturally hoarse voice of the turnkey through the square hole in the door. 'I will bring you your dinner at noon!'
Cucurullo sprang to the grated aperture, only to see the ruffian stalking off into the gloom with his lantern.
'Hi! Listen!' he cried. 'Come back, Sir Gaoler! You shall have a ducat——'
The man stood still, and turned his face towards the door of the cell with a sardonic grin.
'Now that I have you and your ducats under lock and key I shall take them at my leisure, Sir Fool!' he answered. 'I only agreed to let you in; I did not promise to let you out.'
Thereupon he turned again and stalked away, much to Cucurullo's consternation; and in this manner the fourth and last of the runaway party that had arrived at the inn from Rovigo disappeared in Ferrara, somewhat to the surprise of the innkeeper, but not to his loss, since Cucurullo had paid for his lodging in advance.
Stradella and Ortensia had fled from Venice on Thursday evening and had reached Ferrara at midnight on Friday. It was therefore on a Saturday morning that the musician was imprisoned, and on Sunday night Cucurullo was caught in the trap and locked up with him. It was late on that same afternoon that the Bravi took leave of Pignaver in the church of the Frari, and they did not leave Venice till the next day; for since they were to be paid for their time they could really not see any reason for being in a hurry. Moreover, they travelled like gentlemen, and though the proceeds of the emerald ring had already amply furnished them with the means of replacing many useful articles which adversity had forced them to sell or pawn, yet some further preparation seemed necessary, if they were to make their journey in a manner becoming to their rank.
As for travelling night and day, that was quite out of the question, for they would have thought it very foolish to trust implicitly to the information about the runaways which Pignaver had got from the Venetian police. Where such grave responsibility was laid upon them, it was right that they should rely only on what they themselves could learn with certainty. The consequence was that they did not reach Ferrara till Wednesday afternoon, having spent a night in Padua and another in Rovigo; and they were of course persuaded that Stradella and Ortensia were by that time already in Florence, if they had taken that direction.
So far, the Bravi had only spoken of their business when it was necessary to compare notes about the information they gathered. Having undertaken to murder both the lovers on the one hand, but also to deliver both of them safe and unhurt, Ortensia to the Senator and Stradella to the enamoured lady, the subject presented certain complications which were too tiresome to discuss until a final decision became necessary; and for that matter, Trombin and Gambardella fully intended to obtain the full five hundred ducats from each side.
'You and I were certainly meant to be lawyers or bankers,' Trombin had observed at Rovigo over a bottle of very old Burgundy; 'for whichever of two cards turns up, we must win half the stakes.'
'Both must turn up at the end of the deal,' Gambardella had answered with decision, 'and we must win everything.'
'Under Providence,' Trombin had replied, 'we will.'
Having said this much they had dismissed the subject, and their conversation during the rest of the evening had been of artistic matters, politics, literature, women's beauty, and whatsoever else two tolerably cultivated gentlemen might discuss with propriety in the presence and hearing of a landlord and his servants. As soon as they had arrived, they had learned without difficulty that the runaway party had passed through the place and had safely reached Ferrara, whence the carriage they had hired in Padua had duly returned.
The Bravi preferred to ride post, sending their luggage on with their servant, six or seven hours in advance of them. The serving-man they had hired in Venice had been a highway robber for several years, as they were well aware, and in an ordinary situation he might have made away with his masters' valuables, if entrusted with them; but he knew who Trombin and Gambardella were, and what they had done, and his admiration for such very superior cut-throats was boundless. Anything of theirs was safe in his hands, and therefore safe from robbers on the road, for he had not long retired from the profession, and had the thieves' pass-words by heart from Milan to Naples, and farther. As a servant, he had parted his hair in the middle and resumed his modest and unobtrusive baptismal name of Tommaso; but he had always been known to the gang as Grattacacio, that is, 'Cheese-grater,' because it was told of him that he had once done good execution with that simple kitchen instrument on the nose of a sbirro who had tried to catch him, but was himself caught instead.
The worthy courier arrived at the inn in Ferrara on Wednesday before noon and took the best room in the house for his masters, who, he said, would arrive at their convenience during the afternoon; as in fact they did, looking very magnificent in fashionable long-skirted riding-coats buttoned tight across the chest and under the broad linen collar, high-crowned felt hats with magnificent feathers, boots of the new fashion, cut off below the knee, and handsome silver chains instead of shoulder-belts for their rapiers.
Grattacacio had announced them as two Venetian gentlemen travelling for their pleasure, and when the innkeeper asked their names, the man answered that they had received titles of nobility from the King of France, and were called respectively Count Tromblon de la Trombine and Count Gambardella. When in Venice, he said, they dropped these appellations and took their seats in the Grand Council as nobles of the Republic. For the rest, Grattacacio continued, they were gentlemen of exquisite taste and most fastidious in their eating and drinking. Burgundy was their favourite wine, and they could not drink French claret if it was more than twelve or less than eight years old. They abhorred the sweet Malmsey which the Tuscans were so fond of, but if there was any old Oporto in the cellar they were connoisseurs and could appreciate it.
The landlord received them with all the respect due to such a noble pair of epicures, and long before they arrived preparations were making in the kitchen to cook them a dinner worthy of their refined taste and portentous appetites.
So far as their other pretensions went, they had really seen some service in the French Army, but their highest title to distinction was that they had narrowly escaped being hanged for selling information to the Dutch, and as soon as they had fled it was discovered that they had taken with them all the loose gold in the regimental chest, and the two fleetest horses in the Field-Marshal's stable.
The landlord, who did not know this, bowed to the ground as they dismounted under the archway, and at once led them to the best rooms, with which they expressed themselves well satisfied. For whatever their real names might be, they had been originally brought up as gentlemen, and they did not abuse everything that was offered them in order to make innkeepers believe that they lived magnificently at home. When they saw that they were given the best there was to be had, no matter how poor that might be, they accepted it quietly and said 'Thank you' without more ado; but if they perceived that the best was being withheld for some one else, they were a particularly troublesome pair of gentlemen to deal with; for nothing abashed them, and nothing seemed to frighten them, and they were always as ready to beat an innkeeper as to skewer a marquis according to the most rigidly honourable rules of duelling. As for the law, it might as well not have existed, so far as they were concerned. They never needed it, and when it wanted them they were never to be found—unless they were under the powerful protection of a prince or an ambassador, of whom the law itself was very much afraid, and who promptly demanded for them a written pardon for their last offence. For those were the only conditions under which Bravi could have exercised their profession as they did throughout Italy in the seventeenth century.
Trombin detained the innkeeper a moment when he was about to leave the two to their toilet, after the day's ride.
'Some acquaintances of ours must have spent a night here last week,' Trombin began. 'Do you remember them? They were the celebrated Maestro Alessandro Stradella and his young Venetian wife. They have with them a middle-aged serving-woman. Can you recollect when they left here?'
The landlord scratched his head and pretended to be racking his memory; for it would have been quite easy to say that the party had left on Saturday, on their way to Bologna. That was the answer the gentleman expected, and the innkeeper generally found that it served best to tell people what they expected to hear. But, on the other hand, there was the question of truth, if not of truthfulness. Who could tell but that such fine gentlemen might have with them an introduction to the Legate, who might tell them the story. If this happened, the two travellers would be angry at having been deceived, since, if the imprisoned man was really Stradella, they would naturally wish to help him to regain his liberty.
This reflection carried the day; the innkeeper therefore decided in favour of truth, and he told the tale of Stradella's arrest, and of the mysterious disappearance of the other three members of the party. The two Bravi listened in silent surprise, glancing at each other from time to time, as if to note some point of importance.
'Something must be done at once!' cried Trombin, when the landlord had told all. 'This is an egregious miscarriage of the law! Something must be done at once!'
'Something must be done at once!' echoed Gambardella very emphatically, though in a much lower tone. 'Are you quite sure that you do not know where the lady went, Master Landlord? Or have you only forgotten?'
He had fixed his evil black eyes on the innkeeper's face, and there was something in his look and tone that suddenly scared the stout Romagnole, who was no great hero after all; he backed against the door as if he expected Gambardella to spring at him.
'Indeed, Signor Count,' he cried in a rather shaky voice, 'if it were my last word, I know nothing more of the lady and her woman! They left the house immediately, but I do not know whether they turned to the right or the left from my door, for I did not see them go out.'
'Have you made any inquiries in the town?' asked Gambardella in the same tone as before. 'No? Then you had better set about it at once. Do you understand? That young lady is the niece of a friend of ours, who is a Venetian Senator, and if any harm comes to her through your having allowed her to leave your house unprotected, you may be held responsible. I fancy that the Legate here must be anxious to oblige the Republic in such matters!'
This was no doubt arrant nonsense, but nothing seemed laughable when Gambardella assumed that tone.
'Something must be done at once!' cried Trombin, and turning suddenly to the landlord he opened his round blue eyes as wide as possible, and drew his breath sharply in through his pursed lips with a soft sound of whistling.
He looked like a colossal angry cat, and was at least as terrifying as Gambardella. The landlord faltered as he replied to both the Bravi at once.
'Certainly, my lords, certainly—I will have inquiries made—I will do my best—it was really not my fault——'
'It may not have been your intention, but it was, in a measure, your fault,' answered Trombin, allowing his expression to relax, 'though it may have been only a fault of omission, and therefore venial, which is to say, pardonable, Master Landlord, in proportion to the gravity of the consequences that may attend it. And now we will make ourselves ready for the succulent dinner which, I have no doubt, your wise care is about to set before us, for your house has an excellent name, but we would have you know that our appetites are at least as good, and our understanding of the noble art of cookery much better. It is not becoming to speak of any actions we may have to our past credit in war, but we can at least boast without reproach that we have eaten some of the best dinners cooked since Lucullus supped with himself!'
This tirade, delivered with the utmost rapidity and punctuated with several smiles that showed the speaker's sharp and gleaming teeth, partially reassured the innkeeper, who took himself off at once; and as he had been frightened he proceeded at once to restore his self-respect by frightening the cook, cuffing the scullions, and threatening the drawer with an awful end if he should shake the bottles and disturb the ancient sediment when he brought the Burgundy to the gentlemen's table.
When he was gone, the Bravi did not at once talk over the unexpected news, for Grattacacio was with them, coming and going, bringing hot water, shaving them as well as any barber, unpacking their linen and clothes, and waiting on them with such a constant prescience of their needs as only a highly trained body-servant can possess. For the truth was that he had begun life as a bishop's footman, and had risen to be valet to a cardinal, before he had taken to the road after robbing his master of some valuable jewels; but his hair was now growing grey at the temples, and his nerve was not so good as it had been, and as he had escaped hanging till now, he gave up risking it any longer. Accordingly he had parted his hair and called himself Tommaso once more, and he was now looking out for a good place with a not too decrepit prelate; for he had been used to boast that no valet in all the Roman Curia could put on a bishop's sandals at High Mass with such combined skill and unction as he, nor carry a cardinal's scarlet train at a consistory with such mingled devoutness and grace. As for serving Mass, it had been a second nature to him, and even now he could rattle off the responses without a mistake, from the first 'sicut erat in principio' to the last 'Deo gratias' after the Second Gospel.
Trombin and Gambardella did not discuss the situation until this highly accomplished servant of theirs had accompanied them to the dining-room, to push their chairs under them as they sat down, and to assure himself that the table-cloth was spotless and the glasses not only clean but polished. Then he left them to their dinner, which, as he well knew, would last at least two hours.
The dining-room was spacious and airy, having two large grated windows that overlooked the square, and there were several small tables besides the long one at which the 'ordinary' was served every day at noon. The Bravi were now the only guests, and were installed near one of the windows, for the day was warm. From the middle of the vaulted ceiling a huge bunch of fresh green ferns was hung, not as a substitute for flowers, but to attract and stupefy the stray flies that found their way in from the kitchen, even at that early season of the year.
Trombin was the first to speak, after the preliminary appetisers had been placed on the table and the glasses had been filled.
'The situation strikes me as amusing,' he said. 'I have always felt that destiny possesses a sense of humour which makes the wittiest French comedy lugubrious by comparison.'
'You are easily amused, my friend,' answered Gambardella gloomily, and picking out a very thin slice of Bologna sausage for his next mouthful. 'We were looking forward to a pleasant journey to Florence or Rome, our expenses being liberally paid; instead, we find that all the people we wish to meet are here, barely two days from Venice, and as if that were not enough, they must needs melt away like snow in the street and disappear underground, so that we must turn sbirri to find them. I see no sense of humour in the destiny that brings about such silly circumstances.'
'You were always a melancholic soul,' Trombin observed. 'As for me, I cannot but laugh when I think that we shall have to rescue our man from the danger of being hanged as a counterfeiter, in order that we may conveniently cut his throat.'
Having expressed his view of the case Trombin swallowed half a glass of wine at a draught, while his companion sipped a few drops from his.
'I do not call it melancholy to like good things and to wish that they may last as long as possible,' Gambardella said, rather sourly. 'What could have been more delightful than to ride all the way to Rome or Naples in this way, travelling only on fine days, and stopping where one can get a bottle of old Burgundy and a slice of a decently cooked capon? Talk of sending people to a better world, my friend—it would give me infinite satisfaction to skewer this fool of a Legate for having interfered with our plans! A pretty job it is going to be, to get a man out of a dungeon under the Lion Tower.'
'Which one is that?' asked Trombin, looking through the grated window at the gloomy castle on the other side of the square.
'It is at the northeast corner at the head of the street they call Giovecca. You cannot see it from here. When we have dined we will stroll over and look at it, if you like, but you might as well try to rescue a prisoner from the Bastille!'
Gambardella sniffed his wine discontentedly and then sipped it. He was a grave man and business-like; he could drive as hard a bargain for a life as any Bravo in Italy, and do his work as neatly and expeditiously, when it was plainly laid out before him; but he had no imagination, and his idea of rescuing Stradella was evidently to get him out of the castle by some simple trick such as poor Cucurullo had tried in order to see his master.
'This seems to be a good inn,' observed Trombin thoughtfully, after a pause. 'I had as soon spend a ducat a day here as in a worse house. Now this Burgundy is of the vintage of the year fifty-one.'
'Undoubtedly,' assented Gambardella, sipping again as he did about once a minute. 'It has the "rose" bouquet like that of forty-six, but is a little younger. To think that if we could only get that fellow out of prison we could have him to dinner, and he would sing for us this evening! It is maddening to think that he may lose his voice in a damp hole through the idiocy of that thrice-confounded Legate!'
'It is indeed,' agreed Trombin. 'I wonder what has become of the lady.'
'I thought you were thinking of the girl,' said the other discontentedly. 'It would complete the situation if you should find her and fall in love with her yourself!'
'That is possible. It has pleased Providence to make me susceptible, whereas you are designed by nature for a monastic life. Our friend's description of his niece calls up an enchanting picture! The "Bella" of the late Titian, but younger and slimmer! Heaven send such a sweet creature to cheer my declining years! I do not wonder that the Maestro lost his heart and carried her off. And at this very moment she must be hiding somewhere in Ferrara, perhaps not a quarter of a mile from here! In a convent, no doubt, in some gloomy old house full of yellow-faced Carmelite or Franciscan nuns, with her glorious hair and her matchless complexion! I can see her in my imagination, a gilded rose amongst cabbages, a luscious peach in a heap of turnips.'
'For goodness' sake stop raving!' interrupted Gambardella. 'Why should she be in a convent, I should like to know?'
'Where else could two respectable women without money go? They could not possibly travel, and no one in the town would take them in without baggage or cash. I tell you they went from here to a convent and asked for shelter and protection. It is the most natural thing in the world. It is what the girl's middle-aged serving-woman would certainly think of first.'
'You may be right,' answered the other, his tone changing. 'Drink more wine, for it always stimulates your imagination, and you may imagine a way of getting Stradella out of the Lion Tower. I think you are right about the girl. We will make inquiries at the convents after dinner.'
Trombin filled his glass, which was quite empty, drank half the contents and set it down.
'In the first place,' he said, 'we had better try simple persuasion with the Legate. If you agree, I will go and see him late in the afternoon. He may make some little difficulty about receiving me, but that will only be in order to impress me with his greatness. Besides, you will give me a letter of introduction which I shall ask to present in person.'
'I?' Gambardella looked at his friend across his glass with an expression of inquiry.
'Certainly,' answered Trombin. 'I could not ask such a favour of any one who knows me better, could I? If any one can vouch for me, you can.'
Gambardella condescended to smile faintly, and suggested an outline of the letter.
'"I have the honour to introduce to your lordship's good graces the very noble Count Tromblon de la Trombine, who is here at great personal inconvenience for the express purpose of cutting Alessandro Stradella's throat, and will be much obliged if your worship will at once order the Maestro to be let out for that purpose." Would that do? I could sign Pignaver's name to it!'
'You have no imagination. I will make a rough draft, which you will then write out much better than I could. You shall see. While I am at the castle, you may make inquiries at the different convents.'
As their servant Tommaso had foreseen, they sat at table two hours, and on the whole, though they were highly experienced epicures, they were not dissatisfied with the dinner. Gambardella even admitted that one more day in Ferrara would not be intolerable, but that was as much as his second bottle of Burgundy could bring him to say. At dessert, Trombin called for writing materials and quickly drafted the letter of introduction he wished his friend to write out for him. The latter watched him, and from time to time picked out a fat red cherry from a quantity that floated in a large bowl of water, and ate it thoughtfully.
An hour and a half later the Legate returned from his daily airing, which he generally took on a handsome brown mule, accompanied by his private secretary or by the captain of the halberdiers of the garrison. He came home early, though the weather was warm, for he was beginning to be a little rheumatic, and he established himself in the sunny room which he used as his study. He had not been seated ten minutes in his high-backed chair, with a red cotton quilt spread over his knees and tucked in round his legs, dictating letters to his secretary, when word was brought him that a Venetian gentleman desired to be received, in order to present a letter of introduction from a high personage.
Monsignor Pelagatti had an almost exaggerated respect for high personages, though he was now considered to be one of them himself. Even kings may be snobs, when they are not very big kings, and much more, therefore, the lay governor of a papal province who had climbed to distinction from a steward's office in a Roman patrician's household. The Legate sent his secretary downstairs to bring up the visitor with all the ceremony due to the bearer of an important letter.
In a few minutes Trombin entered the sunny room, and the Governor, who had dropped his red cotton quilt and kicked it out of sight under the table, rose to receive him. Trombin's round cheeks were rounder and pinker than ever, his long yellow hair was as smooth as butter, his bow was precisely suited to the dignity of the Legate, and his manner inspired confidence by its quiet self-possession. His right hand held out the letter he brought, which Monsignor Pelagatti received with a gracious smile after returning his visitor's bow, at the same time inviting the latter to be seated on his right, where the secretary had already placed a comfortable chair.
'With your permission,' said the Governor politely, before proceeding to read the letter.
Trombin bowed his acquiescence from his chair and smiled again. The succulent dinner and rich Burgundy seemed to have made him sleeker and pinker than ever, and he watched the Legate's face with a pleasantly benevolent expression.
But Monsignor Pelagatti's jaw dropped as he read the missive, and his shrivelled lids seemed to shrink back from all round his little red eyes till they looked as if they were starting from his head, while Trombin watched him with quiet satisfaction.
The letter purported to be from the acting Chief of the Council of Ten in Venice, and was really a miracle of official style in its way.
The writer took the liberty of introducing a gentleman to whom he entrusted a delicate business, the noble Signor Trombin del Todescan. His high regard for the Legate, and his desire to avert all unpleasant consequences from so friendly and distinguished an official, had led him to treat directly and privately of a matter which would otherwise have to go through the hands of the Venetian Ambassador in Rome. The Legate had accidentally imprisoned a distinguished musician who had lately been the guest of the Republic, a matter which, in itself, might not be thought to have great importance. But the Maestro Stradella was on his wedding journey, and his young bride was no less a person than the noble lady Ortensia Grimani, the writer's niece. As for Bartolo, the counterfeiter, he had just been caught at Treviso, and, at the time of writing, was safely lodged in the Pozzi, either to be tried in Venice or sent to Rome, as might hereafter be agreed between the respective governments. Under the circumstances the Legate would see the propriety of setting the Maestro at liberty without delay, and of extending every courtesy to him and his young wife, who must be in despair at his arrest. The letter concluded by saying that if the Legate 'did not feel justified' in complying with these requests, the noble Signor Trombin del Todescan had instructions to proceed to Rome with the utmost haste and to place the matter in the hands of the Venetian Ambassador there, on behalf of the noble lady Ortensia Grimani, unjustly deprived of her husband, a Spanish subject, within the States of the Church.
The letter left nothing to be desired in the way of clearness, and the Legate's consternation was considerable. He had actually made a mistake which could not be glossed over by the simple process of condemning an innocent person to fine or imprisonment without appeal. He had never done such a thing in his life, and it was not pleasant to feel the coming humiliation of being forced to revoke an order given in court and to restore property he had summarily confiscated to the Treasury.
He felt himself shrinking in his chair, while the noble Signor Trombin del Todescan, the secret envoy of the Venetian Republic, seemed to grow bigger and more imposing every moment.
'I need not say that I am delighted to be set right, after making such a grave mistake,' said Monsignor Pelagatti humbly. 'The circumstances were very suspicious, as I hope your lordship will explain to the most illustrious Chief. Our information seemed very exact, and as I was in correspondence with the police of Venice in regard to the capture of Bartolo, I could not doubt but that the Republic would be pleased with the news that I had taken him, as I believed I had.'
'The Chief is persuaded of your worship's good intentions,' Trombin answered blandly. 'I can promise your worship, in his name, that the matter shall not be mentioned again. Will you be so good as to order Signor Stradella to be set at liberty? I will conduct him to the inn myself and see to his requirements. I am informed, however, that the Lady Ortensia and her serving-woman left the house immediately after the arrest on Saturday morning, and have not been seen since. Your worship doubtless knows where I can find them.'
'Certainly,' answered the Legate, proud to show that nothing escaped his vigilance. 'They went directly to the Ursuline nuns and asked to be taken in. The Mother Superior very properly sent to ask my permission before agreeing to let them stay, and I granted it. The most illustrious Chief will be glad to know that her ladyship, his niece, has enjoyed the protection of a religious order throughout this lamentable misunderstanding.'
Monsignor Pelagatti dictated and signed the order for Stradella's liberation, and then bade his secretary accompany the noble Signor and see that there was no delay, and that his property was duly returned. Trombin expressed the thanks of the most illustrious Chief of the Ten in appropriately flowery language, bowed, as before, with precisely the right show of mixed regard and condescension, and left the Legate to meditate on his ill-luck in having chanced to make a mistake in such a foolish manner that he could be forced to set it right.
He had no intention of changing his method of dispensing justice, however, for it was a simple one and had hitherto done him credit. It consisted in never admitting that he could be wrong, and in punishing the prisoner whom he had picked out as guilty from the first, regardless of anything that might turn up afterwards. One swallow, he now observed with truth, did not make a spring, nor could one mistake prove a system wrong. The exception proved the rule, he argued to himself, and as he considered that all his mistakes were exceptions, his rule must be practically infallible.
Meanwhile Trombin waited under the great archway while the gaoler fetched Stradella and his man, and two porters soon brought their valises and other belongings. The secretary disappeared for a short time and returned with the leathern purse containing the confiscated money, which, as he informed Trombin, must be counted out to the full satisfaction of the Maestro. The Bravo continued to smile blandly, and while waiting he walked up and down the covered way to the admiration of the halberdiers of the watch. They recognised in him the fighting man, the compact and well-proportioned frame, the easy stride, the assured bearing, and the quick eye; and, moreover, they had already understood what was happening, though they were not Sergeant Hector's men, who would only relieve them at nightfall. But all the soldiers hated the Legate alike, and rejoiced that for once he should be driven to acknowledge a mistake and give up a prisoner.
Stradella and Cucurullo came up from the dungeon in a miserable state, unwashed, unshaven, their clothes stained with the slimy ooze of their prison; their hair was damp and matted, their eyes blinked painfully in the light, and their grimy cheeks were of a ghastly colour. But they were not otherwise much the worse for having spent several days and nights underground, for the supply of provisions brought by the hunchback had sufficed to keep up their strength, and Stradella's constitution, in spite of his pale and intellectual face, overflowed with vitality, like that of all really great singers. As for Cucurullo, he had been inured to hardship and misery in his childhood.
They came forward together, and before Trombin could meet them the turnkey had disappeared again. Trombin took off his hat and bowed to Stradella, and the secretary thought it wise to make an obsequious obeisance.
'Signor Maestro,' the latter said, 'his worship the Legate charges me to offer you his best apologies for the painful mistake which has occurred, and to restore to you your property, confiscated through an error which his worship deplores and trusts that you will condone.'
In spite of his wretched plight there was much dignity in Stradella's bearing as he answered this speech.
'Present my compliments to Monsignor Pelagatti, sir,' he said, 'and pray assure him that I accept the excuses which you make with so much politeness.'
'I thank you, illustrious Maestro,' said the secretary, bowing again. 'Allow me to add only that the mistake has been rectified by this gentleman of Venice, the illustrious and noble Signor Trombin del Todescan.'
Trombin and Stradella once more bowed to each other with great ceremony.
'It has been my privilege to render the slightest of services to the greatest of musicians,' Trombin said. 'If you will allow me, Maestro, I shall have the further honour of conducting you to the inn, where your property and money can be restored to you with more privacy than in this place.'
'Three hundred and ninety-one gold ducats, Signor Maestro,' said the secretary. 'I have them here, and the porters are already gone on with your luggage.'
The halberdiers stood up, and the sentinel on duty saluted as the little party passed through the gate. The porters were halfway across the square, Stradella walked between Trombin and the secretary, who had placed himself deferentially on the left, and Cucurullo brought up the rear, sorrowfully surveying the stains and mud on the back of his master's clothes, only too clearly visible in the bright afternoon light. No more words were exchanged till they all reached the door of the inn, where the host was awaiting them, for he had seen from a side window the porters bringing back Stradella's luggage, which he instantly recognised, and the rest was plain enough. The Count Tromblon de la Trombine was evidently a great personage, and it had been enough that he should demand the instant release of the musician to produce the present result. The innkeeper was proportionately impressed.
He accordingly bowed to the ground, presented his condolences to Stradella on the unhappy accident, and led the way to a spacious and well-furnished room on the first floor, to which he had already sent the luggage.
It was not till he was gone and Cucurullo was unpacking his master's things that Trombin, who desired an opportunity of exchanging a few words alone with Stradella, led him to his own room. He carefully closed the door before speaking.
'A word of explanation, Maestro,' he said, 'for all this must seem a little incomprehensible to you. First, let me tell you that the Lady Ortensia has spent the time of your imprisonment in the convent of the Ursuline nuns with her serving-woman. That is the first piece of news you wish to hear, I am sure.'
The young musician drew a deep breath of relief, for his gnawing anxiety on Ortensia's account had been far harder to bear during his confinement than any bodily hardship, and he had not at first thought it safe to ask any questions of his liberator. The mere fact that the latter had been introduced by the secretary as a Venetian gentleman had filled him with apprehension, and even now he believed that Trombin had probably been sent by Pignaver.
As if understanding what passed in Stradella's mind, the Bravo volunteered an explanation.
'A friend of mine and I are travelling southwards on important business,' he said. 'Before we left Venice the town was ringing with your exploit, as it has echoed with your praises these three months past. My friend Count Gambardella and I are amongst your most ardent admirers, Signor Maestro, and I may say in confidence that we have a private grudge against the Senator Pignaver. You may imagine our delight on hearing that you had carried off his niece! Quite naturally we have asked after you at each posting station on the road. You understand the rest. My friend and I venture to hope that you and your bride will honour us with your company at supper.'
'I cannot find words for my thanks, sir,' answered Stradella, wondering whether he were not in a dream, still sleeping on the stone seat in his cell. 'I can only hope to show you some day how grateful I am. You have saved my life!'
Trombin smiled pleasantly, but said nothing.
Gambardella knocked at the door of San Domenico twice in quick succession, and then again once after a short interval. For reasons known to himself he had not hesitated to begin his inquiries for Ortensia at the old Dominican convent then occupied by the nuns of Saint Ursula, and it was at once apparent that his knock inspired confidence. Instead of drawing back the small sliding panel in the weather-beaten door to see who was outside and to ask his errand, the portress opened the postern on one side almost immediately, without showing herself, and Gambardella slipped in unchallenged and shut it after him.
He found himself in a high and vaulted vestibule which received light from the cloistered garden round which the convent was built, and he was at once confronted by the portress, who seemed much surprised when she saw that she had admitted a fine gentleman.
Gambardella bowed respectfully before he spoke.
'Reverend sister,' said he, 'I have the honour to be a friend of your Order, and if I am not mistaken I am known to your Mother Superior, of whom I come to ask audience, if she will receive me.'
The lay sister hesitated. She was an elderly woman with flaccid yellow cheeks, watery eyes, and a more than incipient grey beard.
'I think the Mother Superior is resting,' she said, after a moment.
'So late in the afternoon, sister? I trust that her Reverence is not indisposed?'
'Besides,' continued the portress, without heeding him, 'you only said that you thought you were known to her. Pray can you tell me her Reverence's name?'
Gambardella smiled gently. Probably it was not the first time he had been obliged to argue with a convent door-keeper, that is, with the most incredulous and obstinate kind of human being in the world.
'Unless I am mistaken,' Gambardella answered, 'her Reverence's name, in religion, is Mother Agatha, and she was formerly Sub-Prioress of your house in Ravenna.'
'I see that you are well-informed,' the portress answered, somewhat reluctantly. 'I will find out whether she is resting.'
She turned from him to go into her dark little lodge, through which she had communication with the interior of the convent; but Gambardella called her back.
'One moment, sister! You need make but one errand of it. Pray let her Reverence know that a Venetian gentleman of the name of Lorenzo Marcello sends her this token and begs the honour of a few words with her.'
Therewith Gambardella drew from his finger the brass ring he always wore and placed it in the portress's hand. After repeating the name he had given, she nodded and went within. While he waited, Gambardella looked through the iron gate that separated the vestibule from the pleasant cloistered garden, and his melancholy face was even more sad than usual, and his singular eyes more shadowy.
'The Mother Superior will receive you in the parlour, sir,' said the portress, coming back, and her tone showed that she now accorded the visitor high consideration.
He followed her through the lodge, which only received light from its doors when they were open. Across one corner a dark brown curtain was hung, which presumably hid the portress's pallet-bed. She led him through a whitewashed corridor, lighted from above, into a wide hall from which a broad staircase led upwards, and which had several doors, besides two open entrances. The portress opened one of the doors and shut it as soon as Gambardella had entered.
He walked up and down the long gloomy room while he waited; the two grated windows were far above reach and opened upon a blank wall opposite. The bare stone pavement was damp, and the furniture consisted of a dark walnut table, once polished, a long straight-backed settle placed at one end, and twelve rush-bottomed chairs arranged round the sides of the room with great regularity. Above the settle hung a painfully realistic crucifix; on the wall at the opposite end a large barocco picture represented Saint Ursula in glory with the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne. Opposite the windows there was a bad copy of a portrait of Paul III., the Pope who first established the order. Judging from the parlour, it could not be said that the Ursulines of Ferrara were living in reprehensible luxury.
In three or four minutes the door opened again and the Mother Superior entered. She was taller than most women, and very lean; her black gown and the black veil that almost reached the ground hung in straight folds, and her wimple and gorget framed a dark face, thin and expressive, with noticeably symmetrical features and ardent black eyes. It was impossible to guess at her age, but she might have been thirty.
She bent her head slightly, in acknowledgment of Gambardella's respectful bow, and looked at him during several seconds, as if she were recalling his appearance to her memory. Then she slowly walked away to the settle, seated herself in the middle of it, and pointed to a chair at a little distance. He sat down and waited for her to speak.
'Why have you come?' she asked, in a low tone that sounded resentful.
'Is it a crime to see you after ten years?' asked Gambardella with a good deal of sadness, and watching her face intently.
'Unless you have changed greatly, it is at least a sin,' she answered deliberately, and she met his eyes with eyes suddenly fierce.