The Chronicles of Count Antonio
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Now Count Antonio feared his companions and did not dare to tell them of what he had done, lest their obedience should fail under a strain so great, and they should by force prevent his going to the city. Therefore he told them to rest quiet in their camp, while he, with Bena, went about certain necessary business; and he bade them farewell, enjoining them most strictly to do nothing against the Duke.
"For," said he, "although I may not tell you fully what the business is on which I go, yet I have good hope that His Highness is favourably inclined to you, and that in a short space you will receive from him pardon for all your offences. And that pardon I charge you to accept with gratitude, and, having accepted it, be thenceforward loyal servants to His Highness."
"But will the Duke pardon you also, my lord, and the Lord Tommasino?" asked Martolo.
"He will pardon Tommasino also," answered Antonio. "And be assured that I shall suffer nothing." And having said this, he shook every man by the hand, thanking them for the love and service they had shown him; and he and Bena were accompanied by all of them to the foot of Mount Agnino; and there, in the early morning of the appointed day, Antonio mounted his horse and rode with Bena into the plain. And as they rode, Bena said to him, "My lord, why does the Duke grant this pardon?"
"Because I give him what he asks as the price of it, Bena," answered Antonio; and they rode on for a while. But when Bena saw that Antonio turned his horse not towards Rilano, but directly across the plain towards Firmola, he said, "My lord, whither are we riding?"
"We are riding to the city, Bena," answered Antonio. "There is no cause for fear; we go by leave and on the invitation of His Highness."
"But will he let us go again?" asked Bena.
"You will be free to go when you will," answered Antonio, "and me the Duke will himself send forth from the city when I am ready to go." For Lorenzo had promised in the Duke's name that Antonio's body, after it had hung three days on the gibbet, should be carried from the city to the church of St. Prisian at Rilano, and there interred with fitting ceremony.
"Yet I do not like this ride of ours," grumbled Bena.
"Nay, I like it not myself," said Antonio, smiling. "But for the good of my cousin and of all our company, we must go forward." And he stopped for a moment and added, "Swear to me, Bena, by St. Prisian, to obey in all I bid you in the city to-day, and not to draw your sword unless I draw mine."
"Do I not always obey you, my lord?" asked Bena.
"But swear to me."
"Well, then, I swear," said Bena, "though in truth, my lord, your word is full as strong to me as any oath, whether by Prisian or another." For this man whom they called Bena was a godless man, and one that held holy things in light esteem. But he was a fine fighter and a loyal servant, and God's mercy is infinite. It may be his heart was turned at last; though indeed I have found no record of it.
"My lord, will you see my Lady Lucia in the city?" asked Bena.
"I trust at the least to see her face at her window," answered Antonio.
"Will you have speech with her, my lord?"
"If His Highness will grant me that favour, Bena."
"Ah, I know now why you smiled, my lord, as you rode, just now.It will be a bright day for you." And Bena laughed.
"Indeed," said Antonio, "I trust that the day may be bright for me. Yes, bright as the light of heaven."
"There is no light brighter than the eyes of the girl a man loves," said Bena.
"Yes, there is one," said Antonio. But Bena did not understand his meaning.
Thus they rode till it wanted only two hours of noon; and then they were within five miles of the city, and Bena, looking, beheld the great gibbet rising above the walls of the city and standing forth grim and black in front of the marble face of the Cathedral.
"What is that, my lord," he cried, "which towers above the walls of the city?"
"Is it not enough to know when we come there?" answered Antonio.
Then Bena sighed, and said to Antonio, "I find it in my heart, my lord, to be half sorry that the Duke pardons us; for we lived a fine merry life in the hills. Yet it will be pleasant to live at ease: and we have adventures enough to tell our sweethearts, aye, and our children too, when we grow old, and they come round us and ask us for stories of our youth. I hope my boys will be good at a fight, my lord, and serve your sons as I have served you."
"It may be God's will that I leave no sons to bear my name, Bena."
"I do not think that," said Bena with a laugh.
They were now passing the hill on which stood the blackened walls of Antonio's house, which Duke Valentine had burnt.
Bena cried out at the sight. "You will need to spend much in rebuilding it," said he.
"Perhaps His Highness has provided another dwelling for me," said Antonio.
"To-night he will surely lodge you, my lord, in his own palace, or, may be, with my Lord Lorenzo."
"Wherever it may be, I shall sleep soundly," said Antonio.
Now they were come near to the city, and they saw a body of pikemen coming out to meet them, the Lieutenant of the Guard at the head. And when they met, the Lieutenant bowed to Antonio, who greeted him most courteously; and the pikemen spread themselves in front and behind and on both sides of Antonio and Bena, and thus they went on towards the bridge and the city gate. But Bena eyed the pikemen with no love, and moved restlessly in his saddle. "These fellows," said he to Antonio, "hem us in, my lord. Shall I make my horse threaten their toes a little, so that they may give us more room?"
"Let them be," said Antonio. "It is not for long, Bena."
At the entrance of the gate stood Lorenzo, awaiting the Count, and there they dismounted, and Antonio passed through the gate with Lorenzo, Bena being close to him on the other side. And when Bena saw the great force of pikemen, and, behind their ranks, a mighty throng of people, and when he saw the tall gibbet and understood what it was, suddenly his face went red and his hand flew to his sword.
But Antonio caught his arm, saying, "My sword is not drawn, Bena."
"My lord, what does it mean?" cried Bena in a loud voice, so that Lorenzo heard and stayed his steps and looked at Bena. "Does he not know?" he asked of Antonio.
"He does not know yet," said Antonio. And to Bena he said, "I have need of your sword, Bena. Give it me."
"My sword, my lord?"
"Yes, your sword."
Bena looked at him with wondering frightened eyes; but slowly he unbuckled his sword from his belt and gave it to Antonio. And Antonio unbuckled his own sword also and gave them both to the Lieutenant of the Guard, saying, "Sir, I pray you to restore Bena's to him in the evening, and mine to me when I go forth to Rilano."
But Bena clutched at Antonio's arm, crying again, "What does it mean, my lord?"
Then Antonio took him by the hand and said, "Are we to be afraid now of what we have often faced together with light hearts, Bena?"
"Are we to die?" asked Bena.
"You are to live and beget those brave boys, Bena. But it is otherwise with me," said Antonio.
Then the Lord Lorenzo, who had looked in Bena's eyes, signed to four pikemen to come near, and they came and stood near Bena; for Lorenzo feared that he would not suffer Antonio to die without seeking to save him or to die with him.
"Nay, let him alone," said Antonio. "You will obey me of your free-will, Bena?"
"Yes, my lord," said Bena; and he looked up at the gibbet; and then he caught Antonio's hand and kissed it a score of times; and he began to sob as a child sobs. And the Guard, among whom were some that had felt his arm, marvelled to see him thus moved.
"Let us go on," said Antonio. "It is hard on noon, and I must keep my tryst with His Highness."
"His Highness awaits my lord by the fish-pond in the garden," said Lorenzo; and he led Antonio to the palace and brought him through the great hall and so to the fish-pond; and by it the Duke lay propped on pillows, yet very richly arrayed; and his little son sat by him. Now Lorenzo stood aloof, but Antonio came, and, kneeling, kissed the Duke's hand, and then rose and stood before the Duke. But the boy cried, "Why, it is my Lord Antonio! Have you come back to live in the city, my Lord Antonio? Ah, I am glad of it!"
"Nay, I have not come to live in the city, my little lord," said Antonio.
"Whither do you go then?" asked the boy.
"His Highness sends me on a journey," said Antonio.
"Is it far?"
"Yes, it is far," said Antonio with a smile.
"I wish he would send another and let you stay; then we could play at robbers again in the great hall," said the little Duke. "Father, can you find no other lord to go in Antonio's place?"
The Duke turned his face, pale and wasted with sickness, and his eyes, that seemed larger and deeper than they had been before, upon his son. "I can send none but Antonio," said he. And calling to Lorenzo, he bade him take the boy. But the boy went reluctantly, telling Antonio that he must return speedily. "For you promised," said he, "to teach me how to use my sword." And the Duke signed with his hand to Lorenzo, who lifted the boy and carried him away, leaving Antonio alone with the Duke.
"I have set my seal to the pardons as I swore," said the Duke; "and Tommasino shall be free this evening; and all that he and the rest have done against me shall be forgotten from this hour. Have you any cause of complaint against me?"
"None, my lord," said Count Antonio.
"Is there anything that you ask of me?"
"Nothing, my lord. Yet if it be Your Highness's pleasure that I should have speech with the Lady Lucia and with my cousin, I should be well pleased."
"You will see them yonder in the square," said the Duke. "But otherwise you shall not see them."
Then Lorenzo returned, and he led Antonio to a chamber and gave him meat and wine; and while Antonio ate, the Lord Archbishop, having heard that he was come, came in great haste; and the venerable man was very urgent with Antonio that he should make his peace with Heaven, so that, having confessed his sins and sought absolution, he might be relieved of the sentence of excommunication under which he lay, and be comforted with the rites of the Church before he died.
"For there are many wild and wicked deeds on your conscience," said the Archbishop, "and above all, the things that you did touching the Abbot of St. Prisian, and yet more impiously touching the Sacred Bones."
"Indeed I have many sins to confess," said Antonio; "but, my Lord Archbishop, concerning the Abbot and concerning the Sacred Bones I have nothing to confess. For even now, when I stand on the threshold of death, I can perceive nothing that I did save what I could not leave undone."
Then the Archbishop besought him very earnestly, and even with tears; but Antonio would own no sin in these matters, and therefore the Archbishop could not relieve him from his sentence nor give him the holy comforts, but left him and returned to his own house in great distress of spirit.
The Lord Lorenzo now came again to Antonio and said to him, "My lord, it wants but a few moments of noon." Therefore Antonio rose and went with him; and they came through the great hall, and, a strong escort being about them, took their stand at the foot of the palace steps. Then the Duke was borne out on his couch, high on the shoulders of his lackeys, and was set down on the topmost step: and silence having been proclaimed, the Duke spoke to Antonio; but so weak was his voice that none heard save those who were very near. "Antonio of Monte Velluto," said he, "it may be that in God's purposes I myself have not long to live. Yet it is long enough for me to uphold and vindicate that princely power which the same God has committed to my hands. That power you have outraged; many of my faithful friends you have slain; against both me and the Church you have lifted your hand. Go then to your death, that men may know the fate of traitors and of rebels."
Antonio bowed low to His Highness; but, not being invited by the Duke to speak, he said naught, but suffered Lorenzo to lead him across the square; and as he went, he passed where four pikemen stood by Bena, ready to lay hold on him if he moved; and Bena fell on his knees and again kissed Antonio's hand. And Antonio, passing on, saw two young lords, followers of Lorenzo. And between them stood Tommasino; their arms were through Tommasino's arms and they held him, though lovingly, yet firmly; and he had no sword.
"May I speak with Tommasino?" asked Antonio.
"His Highness has forbidden it," said Lorenzo; but Antonio paused for a moment before Tommasino; and Tommasino, greatly moved, cried piteously to him that he might die with him. And Antonio kissed him, and, with a shake of his head, passed on. Thus then he came to the gibbet, and mounted with Lorenzo on to the scaffold that was underneath the gibbet. And when he was seen there, a great groan went up from the people, and the apprenticed lads, who were all gathered together on the left side of the gibbet, murmured so fiercely and stirred so restlessly that the pikemen faced round, turning their backs towards the scaffold, and laid their pikes in rest.
Then the hour of noon struck from the clock in the tower of the Cathedral; and the Master of the Duke's Household, who stood by the couch of his master, turned his eyes to the Duke's face, seeking the signal for Antonio's death; which when he received, he would sign to the executioner to set the rope round the Count's neck; for the man stood by Antonio with the rope in his hand, and Antonio was already in his shirt. But when the Master of the Household looked at the Duke, the Duke made him no signal; yet the Duke had not fainted from his sickness, for he was propped on his elbow, his face was eager, and his gaze was set intently across the square; and his physician, who was near, spoke to him softly, saying, "My lord, they await the signal."
But the Duke waved him aside impatiently, and gazed still across the square. And, seeing His Highness thus gazing intently, the Master of the Household and the physician and all the rest who were about the Duke's person looked also; and they saw the Lady Lucia coming forth from her house, clad all in white. Antonio also saw her from where he stood on the scaffold, for the people made a way for her, and the pikemen let her pass through their ranks; so that she walked alone across the middle of the great square; and the eyes of all, leaving Antonio, were fixed upon her. Her face was very pale, and her hair fell on her shoulders; but she walked firmly and swiftly, and she turned neither to right nor left, but made straight for the spot where the Duke lay. And he, seeing her coming, moaned once, and passed his hand thrice across his eyes, and raised himself yet higher on his arm, leaning towards her over the side of the couch. Again he passed his hand across his brow; and the physician regarded him very intently, yet dared not again seek to rouse his attention, and imposed silence on the Master of the Household, who had asked in low tones, "What ails His Highness?" Then the Lady Lucia, having reached the foot of the steps, stood still there, her eyes on the Duke. Very fair was she, and sad, and she seemed rather some beautiful unsubstantial vision than a living maiden; and though she strove to form words with her lips, yet no words came; therefore it was by her muteness that she besought pity for herself and pardon for her lover. But the Duke, leaning yet further towards her, had fallen, but that the physician, kneeling, passed his arm round his body and held him up; and he said in low hoarse tones and like a man that is amazed and full of awe, and yet moved with a gladness so great that he cannot believe in it, "Who is it? Who is it?"
And the Lady Lucia still could not answer him. And he, craning towards her, spoke to her in entreaty, "Margherita, Margherita!"
Then indeed all marvelled; for the name that the Duke spoke was the name by which that Princess who had been his wife and was dead had been called; and they perceived that His Highness, overcome by his sickness, had lost discernment, and conceived the Lady Lucia to be not herself but the spirit of his dead love come to him from heaven, to which delusion her white robes and her death-like pallor might well incline him. And now the wonder and fear left his face, and there came in place of them a great joy and rapture, so that his sunk eyes gleamed, his lips quivered, and he beckoned with his hand, murmuring, "I am ready, I am ready, Margherita!" And while this passed, all who were too distant to hear the Duke's words wondered that the signal came not, but supposed that the Lady Lucia had interceded for Count Antonio, and that His Highness was now answering her prayer: and they hoped that he would grant it. And Antonio stood on the scaffold between the Lord Lorenzo and the executioner; and his eyes were set on Lucia.
Then the Duke spoke again to the Lady Lucia, saying, "I have been lonely, very lonely. How pale your face is, my sweet! Come to me. I cannot come to you, for I am very sick." And he held out his hand towards her again.
But she was now sore bewildered, for she could not understand the words which His Highness used to her, and she looked round, seeking some one who might tell her what they meant, but none moved from his place or came near to her; and at last she found voice enough to say in soft tones, "Antonio, my lord, the Count Antonio!"
"Aye, I know that you loved him," said the Duke. "But since then he has done great crimes, and he must die. Yet speak not of him now, but come here to me, Margherita."
Then, with wavering tread, she came towards him, mounting the first of the steps, and she said, "I know not what you would, my lord, nor why you call me by the name of Margherita. I am Lucia, and I come to ask Antonio's life."
"Lucia, Lucia?" said he, and his face grew doubtful. "Nay, but you are my Margherita," he said.
"No, my lord," she answered, as with trembling uncertain feet she mounted, till she stood but one step below where his couch was placed; and then she fell on her knees on the highest step and clasped her hands, crying, "Have mercy, my lord, have mercy! Think, my dear lord, how I love him; for if he dies, I must die also, my lord. Ah, my lord, you have known love. You loved our sweet Lady Margherita; was not her name now on your lips? So I love Antonio, so he loves me. Ah, my lord, Christ Jesus teaches pity!" And she buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
Then the Duke, his physician and now the Master of the Household also supporting him, stretched himself over the edge of his couch, and, putting out his hand with feverish strength, plucked the Lady Lucia's hands away from her face and gazed at her face. And when he had gazed a moment, he gave a great cry, "Ah, God!" and flung his arms up above his head and fell back into the arms of his physician, who laid him down on his couch, where he lay motionless, his eyes shut and his chin resting on his breast. And all looked at the physician, but he answered, "Nay, he is not dead yet."
"Why tarries the signal?" asked Antonio of Lorenzo on the scaffold.
"It must be that the Lady Lucia beseeches him for your life, my lord," answered Lorenzo. "Indeed heartily do I wish the Duke would hearken to her prayer."
"He will not turn for her," said Antonio.
But presently the report of what had passed spread from those round the Duke to the pikemen, and they, loving a marvel as most men do, must needs tell it to the people, and a murmur of wonder arose, and the report reached the guards at the scaffold, who came and told Lorenzo, in the hearing of Antonio, of the strange delusion that had come upon the Duke.
"He must be sick to death," said Lorenzo.
"I pray not," said Count Antonio. "For though he is a stern man, yet he is an able and just prince, and this fancy of his is very pitiful."
"Do you spare pity for him?" asked Lorenzo.
"Shall I not pity all who have lost their loves?" answered Antonio with a smile, and his eye rested on the form of the Lady Lucia kneeling by the Duke's couch.
For hard on half an hour the Duke lay as he had fallen, but at last, his physician having used all his skill to rouse him, he opened his eyes; and he clutched his physician's hand and pointed to Lucia, asking, "Who is she?"
"It is the Lady Lucia, my lord," answered the physician.
"And there was none else?" asked the Duke in a low tremulous whisper.
"I saw no other, my lord."
"But I saw her," said the Duke. "I saw her even as I saw her last, when she lay on her bed and they took the child out of her dead arms."
"It was the weakness of your malady, my lord, that made the vision before your eyes."
"Alas, was it no more?" moaned the Duke. "Indeed, I am very weak; there is a blur before my eyes. I cannot see who this lady is that kneels before me. Who is she, and what ails her?" And having said this in fretful weary tones, he lay back on his pillow gasping.
Then the Master of the Household came forward and said to him, "My lord, this is the Lady Lucia, and she kneels before your Highness praying for the life of Count Antonio, because she loves him."
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