Anthony Hope.

The Chronicles of Count Antonio

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Now the name of Count Antonio, when spoken to him, moved the Duke more than all the ministrations of his physician; he roused himself once again, crying, "Antonio! I had forgotten Antonio. Does he still live?"

"Your Highness has not given the signal for his death."

"Have I not? Then here – "

He moved his hand, but with a great cry the Lady Lucia sprang forward and seized his hand before he could raise it, kneeling to him and crying, "No, no, my lord, no, no, no!" And the Duke had no strength to fling her off, but he gasped, "Free me from her!" And the Master of the Household, terrified lest in her passion she should do violence to His Highness, roughly tore her hands from the Duke's hand, and the Duke, released, sat up on his couch, and he said, in a strange hard voice that was heard of all, even to the scaffold, and yet seemed not the voice that they knew as his, "Let Antonio – " But then he stopped; he choked in his throat, and, catching at his shirt, tore it loose from him. "Let Antonio!" – he cried again. "Let Antonio!" – And he sat there for an instant; and his eyes grew dim, the intelligence departing from them; once again he opened his lips, but nothing came from them save a gasp; and with a thud he fell back on his pillows, and, having rolled once on his side, turned again on his back and lay still. And a great hush fell on every man in the square, and they looked in one another's faces, but found no answer.

For Valentine, Duke and Lord of Firmola, was dead of his sickness at the moment when he had sought to send Antonio to death. Thus marvellously did Heaven in its high purposes deal with him.

"His Highness is dead," said the physician. And the Master of the Household, as his duty was, came to the front of the Duke's couch, and, standing there before all the people, broke the wand of his office, and let the broken fragments fall upon the marble steps; and he cried aloud, "Hear all of you! It hath pleased Almighty God to take unto Himself the soul of the noble and illustrious Prince, Valentine, Duke and Lord of Firmola. May his soul find peace!"

But there came from the people no answering cry of "Amen," as, according to the custom of the Duchy, should have come. For they were amazed at the manner of this death; and many crossed themselves in fear, and women sobbed. And Lorenzo, standing on the scaffold by Antonio, was struck with wonder and fear, and clutched Antonio's arm, crying, "Can it be that the Duke is dead?" And Antonio bowed his head, answering, "May Christ receive his soul!"

Then the Master of the Household came forward again and cried, "Hear all of you! According to the high pleasure and appointment of Almighty God, the noble and illustrious Prince, Valentine, Second of that Name, is from this hour Duke and Lord of Firmola; whom obey, serve, and honour, all of you. May his rule be prosperous!"

And this time there came a low murmur of "Amen" from the people. But before more could pass, there was a sudden commotion in the square before the scaffold.

For Bena, seeing what was done, and knowing that the Duke was dead, had glanced at the pikemen who stood near; and when he saw that they looked not at him but towards where the Master of the Household stood, he sprang forward and ran like a deer to the scaffold; and he leapt up to the scaffold before any could hinder him, and he cried in a mighty loud voice, saying, "By what warrant do you hold my lord a prisoner?"

Then the apprentices raised a great cheer and with one accord pressed upon the pikemen, who, amazed by all that had passed, gave way before them; and the apprentices broke their bounds and surged like a billow of the sea up to the foot of the scaffold, shouting Antonio's name; and the young lords who held Tommasino came with him and broke through and reached the scaffold; for they feared for Lorenzo, and yet would not let Tommasino go: and Lorenzo was sore at a loss, but he drew his sword and cried that he would slay any man that touched Antonio, until the right of the matter should be known.

"Indeed, if you will give me a sword, I will slay him myself," said Antonio. "For I stand here by my own will, and according to the promise I gave to the Duke; and if there be lawful authority to hang me, hang me; but if not, dispose of me as the laws of the Duchy bid."

"I have no authority," said Lorenzo, "save what the Duke gave; and now he is dead."

Then the Count Antonio fastened his shirt again about his neck and put on his doublet; and he signed to Bena to stand on one side of him, and he bade the young lords loose Tommasino. And he said to Lorenzo, "Let us go together to the palace." And now he was smiling. Then they came down from the scaffold and passed across the square, a great multitude following them. And when they came to the steps of the palace, the Duke's body was covered with a rich brocaded cloth that some hand had brought from his cabinet; and the little Duke stood there with his hand in the Master of the Household's hand; and the child was weeping bitterly, for he was very frightened; and over against him stood the Lady Lucia, motionless as though she had been turned to stone; for the strange thing that had come about through her approaching of the Duke had bewildered her brain. But when the boy saw Antonio he let go the hand he held and ran to Antonio and leapt into his arms. Then Antonio lifted him and showed him to the people, who hailed him for Duke; and Antonio set him down and knelt before him and kissed his hand. And the child cried, "Now that my father is dead, Antonio, you must not go on your journey, but you must stay with me. For if I am Duke, I must learn to use my sword without delay, and no man but you shall teach me."

"Shall I not go on my journey, my lord?" asked Antonio.

"No, you shall not go," said the little Duke.

Then Antonio turned to the lords who stood round and said, "Behold, my lords, His Highness pardons me."

But the lords doubted; and they said to Antonio, "Nay, but he does not know what he does in pardoning you."

"He understands as well, I think," said Antonio, "as his father understood when he sent me to death. Indeed, my lords, it is not children only who know not what they do." And at this speech Tommasino smiled and Bena laughed gruffly. But the lords, bidding Antonio rest where he was till they returned, retired with the little Duke into the palace, and sent word hastily to the Archbishop that he should join them there and deliberate with them as to what it might be best to do. And when they were thus gone in, Antonio said, "I may not move, but the Lady Lucia is free to move."

Then Tommasino went to the lady and spoke to her softly, telling her that Antonio desired to speak with her; and she gave Tommasino her hand, and he led her to Antonio, who stood within the portico, screened from the sight of the people. And there they were left alone.

But meanwhile the whole body of the townsmen and the apprentices had gathered before the palace, and their one cry was for Antonio. For the fear of the Duke being no longer upon them, and the pikemen not knowing whom to obey and being therefore disordered, the people became very bold, and they had stormed the palace, had not one come to Antonio and implored him so show himself, that the people might know that he was safe. Therefore he came forward with the Lady Lucia, who was now no more bewildered, nor petrified with fear or astonishment, but was weeping with her eyes and smiling with her lips and clinging to Antonio's arm. And when the people saw them thus, they set up a great shout, that was heard far beyond the city walls; and the apprenticed lads turned and ran in a body across the square, and swarmed on to the scaffold. And then and there they plucked down the gibbet and worked so fiercely that in the space of half an hour there was none of it left.

And now the Archbishop with the lords came forth from the council chamber, and the little Duke with them. And they caused the servants to remove the body of the dead Duke, and they set his son on a high seat, and put a sceptre in his hand. And the Archbishop offered up a prayer before the people; and, having done this, he turned to Antonio and said, "My Lord Antonio, most anxiously have His Highness and we of his Council considered of this matter; and it has seemed to us all – my own in truth was the sole reluctant voice, and now I also am brought to the same mind – that whereas the virtuous purposes of princes are meet to be remembered and made perpetual by faithful fulfilment after their death, yet the errors of which they, being mortal, are guilty should not overlive them nor be suffered to endure when they have passed away. And though we are not blind to your offences, yet we judge that in the beginning the fault was not yours. Therefore His Highness decrees your pardon for all offences against his civil state and power. And I myself, who hold authority higher than any earthly might, seeing in what this day has witnessed the finger of God Himself, do not fight against it, but will pray you, so soon as you may fit yourself thereunto by prayer and meditation, to come in a humble mind and seek again the blessing of the Church. For in what you did right and in what you outstepped right, God Himself must one day judge, and I will seek to judge of it no more."

"My lord," said Antonio, "I have done much wrong. Yet I will own no wrong in the matter of the Abbot nor in that of the Sacred Bones."

But the lord Archbishop smiled at Antonio, and Antonio bent and kissed the ring that was on his finger; and the old man laid his hand for a moment on Antonio's head, saying, "It may be that God works sometimes in ways that I may not see."

Thus then it was that the Count Antonio was restored to his place, and came again to Firmola; and, having been relieved of the sentence of excommunication that had been laid upon him, he was wedded in the Cathedral to the Lady Lucia as soon as the days of mourning for the Duke had passed. And great was the joy in the city at their wedding; for every maid and every man saw in the triumph of Antonio's love a sign of the favour of Heaven to those who love with a pure and abiding passion. So they made great feasts, and were marvellously merry; and Bena let not the day go by without plighting his troth to a comely damsel, saying with a twinkle in his eye that the Count Antonio would have need of his sons, whose services he had promised to him as they rode together across the plain on the morning when Antonio had supposed that he was to die. Nor would Bena give any other reason whatsoever for the marriage. Nevertheless it is likely that there were others. But whether Bena fulfilled his promise I know not; for, as I have said, so little is known concerning him that his true name does not survive, and it has proved an impossible thing to discover whether any of his descendants yet live in Firmola. If it chance that they do, I trust that they fight as well, and serve as loyally, and pray better than he. But Martolo has left those that bear his name, and a great-grandson of his is at this very time huntsman to the Monastery of St. Prisian, where I have seen and talked with him many times.

The task which I laid upon myself thus finds its end. For there is no need for me to tell of the after-deeds of Count Antonio of Monte Velluto, nor how, in the space of a few months, he was chosen by all the lords to be Ruler and Protector of the State during the infancy of the Duke; in which high office he did many notable deeds, both of war and peace, and raised the Duchy to a great height of power, and conferred many favours on the townsmen of Firmola, whom he loved and cherished because they had not forsaken him nor ceased to love him during all the years that he dwelt an outlaw in the hills. And he built again his house on the hill which Duke Valentine had burnt, and dwelt there with Lucia, and with Tommasino also, until Tommasino took to wife that same lady for whose sake he had lingered and thus fallen into the hands of the lord Lorenzo, and went and dwelt at Rilano, where those of his house still dwell. But when the young Duke came of an age to reign, the Count Antonio delivered his charge into his hand, yet continued to counsel him, and was very high in authority. And neighbouring princes also sought his aid and his counsel, and he was greatly honoured of all men. Thus if there were aught in his youth that merits censure, it may be held that he blotted out the shame of it by his after-life, for his later days were filled with honourable service to his Prince and to his country.

Yet the heart of man is a vain thing; for when I, who am known to have learnt all that can be recovered from the mists of past times concerning Count Antonio, am asked – and whether it be by men or women, by boys or girls, aye, or by toddling infants – to tell them a tale of the great Count Antonio, it is not of the prudent ruler, nor of the wise counsellor, nay, nor even of the leader of the Duke's army, that they would hear, but always of Antonio when he was an outlaw, banned by his Prince and by the Church, living by the light of his own heart and by the strength of his own hand, secured only by the love and duty of the lawless men who followed him, and risking his life every day and every hour for the sake of the bright eyes of that lady who waited for him in the city. And when I, thinking to check this perversity, bid them look rather on his more worthy and sober days, they answer with a laugh, "But why, father, do you not write the story of those more worthy and sober days?" Nor will they believe when I say that it is but because the deeds of those days are elsewhere recorded. In good truth, I believe that in our hearts we love a lawless man! Here, then, ye perverse children, are the stories; they are all that you shall have from me. Read them; may they teach you to be true comrades, faithful lovers of one maid, and, since strife must needs come until God's pleasure bring peace to reign on earth, able, when occasion calls, to give and take good blows. Aye, never laugh. I have said it. A Churchman is a man.

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