Anthony Hope.

The Chronicles of Count Antonio



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CHAPTER I
HOW COUNT ANTONIO TOOK TO THE HILLS

Countless are the stories told of the sayings that Count Antonio spoke and of the deeds that he did when he dwelt an outlaw in the hills. For tales and legends gather round his name thick as the berries hang on a bush, and with the passage of every succeeding year it grows harder to discern where truth lies and where the love of wonder, working together with the sway of a great man's memory, has wrought the embroidery of its fancy on the plain robe of fact. Yet, amid all that is of uncertain knowledge and so must rest, this much at least should be known and remembered for the honour of a noble family, how it fell out that Count Antonio, a man of high lineage, forsook the service of his Prince, disdained the obligation of his rank, set law at naught, and did what seemed indeed in his own eyes to be good but was held by many to be nothing other than the work of a rebel and a brigand. Yet, although it is by these names that men often speak of him, they love his memory; and I also, Ambrose the Franciscan, having gathered diligently all that I could come by in the archives of the city or from the lips of aged folk, have learned to love it in some sort. Thus I am minded to write, before the time that I must carry what I know with me to the grave, the full and whole truth concerning Antonio's flight from the city and the Court, seeking in my heart, as I write, excuse for him, and finding in the record, if little else, yet a tale that lovers must read in pride and sorrow, and, if this be not too high a hope, that princes may study for profit and for warning.

Now it was in the tenth year of the reign of Duke Valentine over the city of Firmola, its territories and dependent towns, that Count Antonio of Monte Velluto – having with him a youthful cousin of his, whom he loved greatly, and whom, by reason of his small stature and of a boyish gaiety he had, men called Tommasino – came from his own house on the hill that fronts the great gate of the city, to the palace of the Duke, with intent to ask His Highness's sanction for his marriage with the Lady Lucia. This lady, being then seventeen years of age, loved Antonio, and he her, and troth had been privily plighted between them for many months; and such was the strength and power of the love they bore the one to the other, that even to this day the old mock at young lovers who show themselves overfond, crying, "'Tis Lucia and Antonio!"

But since the Lady Lucia was an orphan, Antonio came now to the Duke, who enjoyed ward-ship over her, and setting out his passion and how that his estate was sufficient and his family such as the Duke knew, prayed leave of His Highness to wed her. But the Duke, a crafty and subtle prince, knowing Antonio's temper and the favour in which he was held by the people, counted not to augment his state and revenues by the gift of a bride so richly dowered, but chose rather to give her to a favourite of his, a man in whose devotion he could surely trust and whose disposition was to serve his master in all things fair and foul, open or secret.

Such an one the Duke found in the Lord Robert de Beauregard, a gentleman of Provence, who had quitted his own country, having been drawn into some tumult there, and, having taken service with the Duke, had risen to a great place in his esteem and confidence. Therefore, when Antonio preferred his request, the Duke, with many a courteous regretful phrase, made him aware that the lady stood promised to Robert by the irrevocable sanctity of his princely pledge.

"So forget, I pray you, my good cousin Antonio," said he, "forget, as young men lightly can, this desire of yours, and it shall be my charge to find you a bride full as fair as the Lady Lucia."

But Antonio's face went red from brow to chin, as he answered: "My gracious lord, I love the lady, and she me, and neither can wed another. As for my Lord Robert, your Highness knows well that she loves him not."

"A girl's love!" smiled the Duke. "A girl's love! It rains and shines, and shines and rains, Antonio."

"It has shone on me since she knew a man when she looked on him," said Antonio.

And Tommasino, who stood by, recking as little of the Duke as of the Duke's deerhound which he was patting the while, broke in, saying carelessly, "And this Robert, my lord, is not the man for a pretty girl to love. He is a sour fellow."

"I thank you for your counsel, my lord Tommasino," smiled the Duke. "Yet I love him." Whereat Tommasino lifted his brows and patted the hound again. "It is enough," added the Duke. "I have promised, Antonio. It is enough."

"Yes, it is enough," said Antonio; and he and Tommasino, having bowed low, withdrew from the presence of the Duke. But when he got clear outside of the Duke's cabinet, Antonio laid his hand on Tommasino's shoulder, saying, "It is not well that Robert have her."

"It is mighty ill," said Tommasino.

And then they walked in silence to the city gate, and, in silence still, climbed the rugged hill where Antonio's house stood.

But the Duke sent for Robert de Beauregard into his cabinet and said to him: "If you be wise, friend Robert, little grass shall grow under your feet this side your marriage. This Antonio says not much; but I have known him outrun his tongue with deeds."

"If the lady were as eager as I, the matter would not halt," said Robert with a laugh. "But she weeps and spits fire at me, and cries for Antonio."

"She will be cured after the wedding," said the Duke. "But see that she be well guarded, Robert; let a company of your men watch her. I have known the bride to be missing on a marriage day ere now."

"If he can touch her, he may wed her," cried Robert. "The pikemen are close about her house, and she can neither go in nor come forth without their knowledge."

"It is well," said the Duke. "Yet delay not. They are stubborn men, these Counts of Monte Velluto."

Now had the Lady Lucia been of a spirit as haughty as her lover's, it may be that she would have refused to wed Robert de Beauregard. But she was afraid. When Antonio was with her, she had clung to him, and he loved her the more for her timidity. With him gone and forbidden to come near her, she dared not resist the Duke's will nor brave his displeasure; so that a week before the day which the Duke had appointed for the wedding, she sent to Antonio, bidding him abandon a hope that was vain and set himself to forget a most unhappy lady.

"Robert shall not have her," said Antonio, putting the letter in his belt.

"Then the time is short," said Tommasino.

They were walking together on the terrace before Antonio's house, whence they looked on the city across the river. Antonio cast his eye on the river and on the wall of the Duke's garden that ran along it; fair trees, shrubs, and flowers lined the top of the wall, and the water gleamed in the sunshine.

"It is strange," said Antonio, musing, "that one maiden can darken for a man all the world that God lights with his sun. Yet since so it is, Tommasino, a man can be but a man; and being a man, he is a poor man, if he stand by while another takes his love."

"And that other a stranger, and, as I swear, a cut-throat," added Tommasino.

When they had dined and evening began to come on, Antonio made his servants saddle the best horses in his stable – though, indeed, the choice was small, for Antonio was not rich as a man of his rank counts riches – and the two rode down the hill towards the city. But, as they went, Antonio turned once and again in his saddle and gazed long at the old gray house, the round tower, and the narrow gate.

"Why look behind, and not forward?" asked Tommasino.

"Because there is a foreboding in me," answered Antonio, "that it will be long before that gate again I pass through. Were there a hope of persuading you, Tommasino, I would bid you turn back, and leave me to go alone on this errand."

"Keep your breath against when you have to run," laughed Tommasino, pricking his horse and tossing his hair, dark as Antonio's was fair, back from his neck.

Across the bridge they rode and through the gates, and having traversed the great square, came to the door of Lucia's house, where it rose fronting the Duke's palace. Here Antonio dismounted, giving his bridle into Tommasino's hand, and bade the servants carry his name to the Lady Lucia. A stir arose among them and much whispering, till an old man, head of the servingmen, came forward, saying: "Pardon, my lord, but we are commanded not to admit you to the Lady Lucia;" and he waved his hand towards the inner part of the porch, where Antonio saw a dozen or more pikemen of the Duke's Guard drawn across the passage to the house; and their pikes flashed in the rays of the setting sun as they levelled them in front of their rank.

Some of the townsmen and apprentice lads, stout fellows, each with a staff, had gathered now around Antonio, whom they loved for his feats of strength and his liberal gifts to the poor, and, understanding what was afoot, one came to him, saying: "There are some, my lord, who would enter with you if you are set on entering," and the fellow's eyes sparkled; for there was a great enmity in the town against the pikemen, and a lusty youth with a stick in his hand is never loth to find a use for it.

For a moment Count Antonio hesitated; for they flocked closer to him, and Tommasino threw him a glance of appeal and touched the hilt of his sword. But he would not that the blood of men who were themselves loved by mothers, wives, and maids, should be shed in his quarrel, and he raised his hand, bidding them be still.

"I have no quarrel with the pikeman," said he, "and we must not fight against His Highness's servants."

The faces of the townsmen grew long in disappointment. Tommasino alone laughed low, recognising in Antonio's gentleness the lull that heralds a storm. The Count was never more dangerous than when he praised submission.

"But," continued Antonio, "I would fain see the Lady Lucia." And with this he stepped inside the porch, signing to Tommasino to stay where he was; but the lad would not, and, leaping down, ran to his kinsman and stood shoulder to shoulder with him.

Thus they stood facing the line of pikemen, when suddenly the opposing rank opened and Robert de Beauregard himself came through. Starting slightly on sight of Antonio, he yet bowed courteously, baring his head, and Antonio, with Tommasino, did the like.

"What is your desire, my lord?" asked Robert.

"I have naught to ask of you," answered Antonio, and he took a step forward. Robert's hand flew to his sword, and in a moment they would have fought. But now another figure came forward with uplifted hand. It was the Duke himself, and he looked on Antonio with his dark smile, and Antonio flushed red.

"You seek me, Antonio?" asked the Duke.

"I seek not your Highness, but my plighted wife," said Antonio.

Duke Valentine smiled still. Coming to Antonio, he passed his arm through his, and said in most friendly fashion: "Come with me to my house, and we will talk of this;" and Antonio, caught fast in the choice between obedience and open revolt, went frowning across the square, the Duke's arm through his, Robert on the Duke's other side, and, behind, Tommasino with the horses. But as they went, a sudden cry came from the house they left, and a girl's face showed for an instant, tear-stained and pallid, at an open window. A shiver ran through Antonio; but the Duke pressing his arm, he went still in silence.

At the door of the palace, a lackey took the horses from Tommasino, and the four passed through the great hall and through the Duke's cabinet beyond and into the garden; there the Duke sat down under the wall of the garden, near by the fish-pond, and turning suddenly on Antonio, spoke to him fiercely; "Men have died at my hands for less," said he.

"Then for each of such shall you answer to God," retorted Antonio, not less hotly.

"You scout my commands in the face of all the city," said the Duke in low stern tones. "Now, by Heaven, if you seek to see the girl again, I will hang you from the tower of the gate. So be warned – now – once: there shall be no second warning."

He ceased, and sat with angry eyes on Antonio; and Robert, who stood by his master, glared as fierce. But Antonio was silent for a while, and rested his arm on Tommasino's shoulder.

"My fathers have served and fought for your fathers," said he at last. "What has this gentleman done for the Duchy?"

Then Robert spoke suddenly and scornfully: "This he is ready to do, to punish an insolent knave that braves His Highness's will."

Antonio seemed not to hear him, for he did not move but stood with eyes bent on the Duke's face, looking whether his appeal should reach its mark. But Tommasino heard; yet never a word spoke Tommasino either, but he drew off the heavy riding-glove from his left hand, and it hung dangling in the fingers of his right, and he looked at the glove and at Robert and at the glove again.

"I would his Highness were not here," said Tommasino to Robert with a smile.

"Hold your peace, boy," said Robert, "or the Duke will have you whipped."

Youth loves not to be taunted with its blessed state. "I have no more to say," cried Tommasino; and without more, caring naught now for the presence of the Duke, he flung his heavy glove full in Robert's face, and, starting back a pace, drew his sword. Then Antonio knew that the die was cast, for Tommasino would gain no mercy, having insulted the Duke's favourite and drawn his sword in the Duke's palace; and he also drew out his sword, and the pair stood facing the Duke and Robert de Beauregard. It was but for an instant that they stood thus; then Robert, who did not lack courage to resent a blow, unsheathed and rushed at the boy. Antonio left his cousin to defend himself, and, bowing low to the Duke, set his sword at the Duke's breast, before the Duke could so much as rise from his seat.

"I would not touch your Highness," said he, "but these gentlemen must not be interrupted."

"You take me at a disadvantage," cried the Duke.

"If you will swear not to summon your guard, I will sheath my sword, my lord; or, if you will honour me by crossing yours on mine, you shall draw yours."

The place where they sat was hidden from the palace windows, yet the Duke trusted that the sound of the clashing steel would bring aid; therefore, not desiring to fight with Antonio (for Duke Valentine loved to scheme rather than to strike), he sat still, answering nothing. And now Tommasino and Robert were engaged, Robert attacking furiously and Tommasino parrying him as coolly as though they fenced for pastime in the school. It was Tommasino's fault to think of naught but the moment and he did not remember that every second might bring the guard upon them. And Antonio would not call it to his mind, but he said to the Duke: "The boy will kill him, sir. He is a finer swordsman than I, and marvellously active."

Then the Duke, having been pondering on his course, and knowing Antonio – sitting there with the Count's sword against his breast – did by calculation what many a man braver in fight had not dared to do. There was in truth a courage in it, for all that it was born of shrewdness. For, thus with the sword on his heart, fixing a calm glance on Antonio, he cried as loudly as he could, "Help, help, treason!"

Antonio drew back his arm for the stroke; and the Duke sat still; then, swift as thought, Antonio laughed, bowed to Duke Valentine and, turning, rushed between the fighters, striking up their swords. In amazement they stood for a moment: Antonio drove his sword into its sheath, and, while Robert was yet astounded, he rushed on him, caught him by the waist, and, putting forth his strength, flung him clear and far into the fish-pond. Then seizing Tommasino by the arm he started with him at a run for the great hall. The Duke rose, crying loudly, "Treason, treason!" But Antonio cried "Treason, treason," yet louder than the Duke; and presently Tommasino, who had frowned at his pastime being interrupted, fell a-laughing, and between the laughs cried "Treason, treason!" with Antonio. And at the entrance of the hall they met a dozen pikemen running; and Antonio, pointing over his shoulder, called in tones of horror, "Treason, treason!" And Tommasino cried, "The Duke! Help the Duke!" So that they passed untouched through the pikemen, who hesitated an instant in bewilderment but then swept on; for they heard the Duke's own voice crying still "Treason, treason!" And through the hall and out to the portico passed the cousins, echoing their cries of "Treason!" And every man they met went whither they pointed; and when they leapt on their horses, the very lackey that had held them dropped the bridles with hasty speed and ran into the palace, crying "Treason!" Then Antonio, Tommasino ever following, and both yet crying "Treason!" dashed across the square; and on the way they met the pikemen who guarded the Lady Lucia, and the townsmen who were mocking and snarling at the pikemen; and to pikemen and townsmen alike they cried (though Tommasino hardly could speak now for laughter and lack of breath), "Treason, treason!" And all to whom they cried flocked to the palace, crying in their turn, "Treason, treason!" so that people ran out of every house in the neighbourhood and hurried to the palace, crying "Treason!" and every one asking his neighbour what the treason was. And thus, by the time in which a man might count a hundred, a crowd was pushing and pressing and striving round the gate of the palace, and the cousins were alone on the other side of the great square.

"Now thanks be to God for that idea!" gasped Tommasino.

But Antonio gave not thanks till his meal was ended. Raising his voice as he halted his horse before the Lady Lucia's house, he called loudly, no longer "Treason!" but "Lucia!" And she, knowing his voice, looked out again from the window; but some hand plucked her away as soon as she had but looked. Then Antonio leapt from his horse with an oath and ran to the door, and finding it unguarded, he rushed in, leaving Tommasino seated on one horse and holding the other, with one eye on Lucia's house and the other on the palace, praying that, by the favour of Heaven, Antonio might come out again before the crowd round the Duke's gates discovered why it was, to a man, crying "Treason!"

But in the palace of the Duke there was great confusion. For the pikemen, finding Robert de Beauregard scrambling out of the fish-pond with a drawn sword in his hand, and His Highness crying "Treason!" with the best of them, must have it that the traitor was none other than Robert himself, and in their dutiful zeal they came nigh to making an end of him then and there, before the Duke could gain silence enough to render his account of the affair audible. And when the first pikemen were informed, there came others; and these others, finding the first thronging round the Duke and Robert, cried out on them for the traitors, and were on the point of engaging them; and when they also had been with difficulty convinced, and the two parties, with His Highness and Robert, turned to the pursuit of the cousins, they found the whole of the great hall utterly blocked by a concourse of the townsmen, delighted beyond measure at the chance of an affray with the hated pikemen, who, they conceived, must beyond doubt be the wicked traitors that had risen in arms against the Duke's life and throne. Narrowly indeed was a great battle in the hall averted by the Duke himself, who leapt upon a high seat and spoke long and earnestly to the people, persuading them that not the pikemen, but Antonio and Tommasino, were the traitors; which the townsmen found hard to believe, in part because they wished not to believe ill of Antonio, and more inasmuch as every man there knew – and the women and children also – that Antonio and Tommasino, and none else of all the city had raised the alarm. But some hearkened at last; and with these and a solid wedge of the pikemen, the Duke and Robert, with much ado, thrust their way through the crowd and won access to the door of the palace.

In what time a thousand men may be convinced, you may hope to turn one woman's mind, and at the instant that the Duke gained the square with his friends and his guards, Count Antonio had prevailed on the Lady Lucia to brave His Highness's wrath. It is true that he had met with some resistance from the steward, who was in Robert's pay, and had tarried to buffet the fellow into obedience; and with more from an old governess, who, since she could not be buffeted, had perforce to be locked in a cupboard; yet the better part of the time had to be spent in imploring Lucia herself. At last, with many fears and some tears, she had yielded, and it was with glad eyes that Tommasino saw the Count come forth from the door carrying Lucia on his arm; and others saw him also; for a great shout came from the Duke's party across the square, and the pikemen set out at a run with Robert himself at their head. Yet so soon as they were started, Antonio also, bearing Lucia in his arms, had reached where Tommasino was with the horses, and an instant later he was mounted and cried, "To the gate!" and he struck in his spurs, and his horse bounded forward, Tommasino following. No more than a hundred yards lay between them and the gate of the city, and before the pikemen could bar their path they had reached the gate. The gate-wardens were in the act of shutting it, having perceived the tumult; but Tommasino struck at them with the flat of his sword, and they gave way before the rushing horses; and before the great gate was shut, Antonio and he were on their way through, and the hoofs of their horses clattered over the bridge. Thus Antonio was clear of the city with his lady in his arms and Tommasino his cousin safe by his side.



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