Anthony Hope.

The Chronicles of Count Antonio



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Yet they were not safe; for neither Duke Valentine nor Robert de Beauregard was a man who sat down under defeat. But few moments had passed before there issued from the gate a company of ten mounted and armed men, and Robert, riding in their front, saw, hard on a mile away, the cousins heading across the plain towards the spot where the spurs of Mount Agnino run down; for there was the way of safety. But it was yet ten miles away. And Robert and his company galloped furiously in pursuit, while Duke Valentine watched from the wall of the garden above the river.

Now Count Antonio was a big man and heavy, so that his horse was weighed down by the twofold burden on its back; and looking behind him, he perceived that Robert's company drew nearer and yet nearer. And Tommasino, looking also, said, "I doubt they are too many for us, for you have the lady in your arms. We shall not get clear of the hills."

Then Antonio drew in his horse a little and, letting the bridle fall, took the Lady Lucia in both his arms and kissed her, and having thus done, lifted her and set her on Tommasino's horse. "Thank God," said he, "that you are no heavier than a feather."

"Yet two feathers may be too much," said Tommasino.

"Ride on," said Antonio. "I will check them for a time, so that you shall come safe to the outset of the hill."

Tommasino obeyed him; and Antonio, riding more softly now, placed himself between Tommasino and the pursuers. Tommasino rode on with the swooning lady in his arms; but his face was grave and troubled, for, as he said, two feathers may be overmuch, and Robert's company rode well and swiftly.

"If Antonio can stop them, it is well," said he; "but if not, I shall not reach the hills;" and he looked with no great love on the unhappy lady, for it seemed like enough that Antonio would be slain for her sake, and Tommasino prized him above a thousand damsels. Yet he rode on, obedient.

But Antonio's scheme had not passed undetected by Robert de Beauregard; and Robert, being a man of guile and cunning, swore aloud an oath that, though he died himself, yet Tommasino should not carry off Lucia. Therefore he charged his men one and all to ride after Tommasino and bring back Lucia, leaving him alone to contend with Antonio; and they were not loth to obey, for it was little to their taste or wish to surround Antonio and kill him. Thus, when the company came within fifty yards of Antonio, the ranks suddenly parted; five diverged to the right, and four to the left, passing Antonio in sweeping curves, so far off that he could not reach them, while Robert alone rode straight at him. Antonio, perceiving the stratagem, would fain have ridden again after Tommasino; but Robert was hard upon him, and he was in peril of being thrust through the back as he fled. So he turned and faced his enemy. But although Robert had sworn so boldly before his men, his mind was not what he had declared to them, and he desired to meet Antonio alone, not that he might fight a fair fight with him, but in order treacherously to deceive him – a thing he was ashamed to do before his comrades.

Coming up then to Antonio, he reined in his horse, crying, "My lord, I bring peace from His Highness."

Antonio wondered to hear him; yet, when Robert, his sword lying untouched in its sheath, sprang from his horse and approached him, he dismounted also; and Robert said to him: "I have charged them to injure neither the Lady Lucia nor your cousin by so much as a hair; for the Duke bids me say that he will not constrain the lady."

"Is she then given to me?" cried Antonio, his face lighting up with a marvellous eagerness.

"Nay, not so fast," answered Robert with subtle cunning. "The Duke will not give her to you now. But he will exact from you and from me alike an oath not to molest, no, not to see her, for three months, and then she shall choose as she will between us."

While he spoke this fair speech, he had been drawing nearer to Antonio; and Antonio, not yet convinced of his honesty, drew back a pace. Then Robert let go hold of his horse, unbuckled his sword, flung it on the ground, and came to Antonio with outstretched hands. "Behold!" said he; "I am in your mercy, my lord. If you do not believe me, slay me."

Antonio looked at him with searching wistful eyes; he hated to war against the Duke, and his heart was aflame with the hope that dwelt for him in Robert's words; for he did not doubt but that neither three months, nor three years, nor three hundred years, could change his lady's love.

"You speak fair, sir," said he; "but what warrant have I?"

"And, save your honour, what warrant have I, who stand here unarmed before you?" asked Robert.

For a while Antonio pondered; then he said, "My lord, I must crave your pardon for my doubt; but the matter is so great that to your word I dare not trust; but if you will ride back with your men and pray the Duke to send me a promise under his own hand, to that I will trust. And meanwhile Tommasino, with the Lady Lucia, shall abide in a safe place, and I will stay here, awaiting your return; and, if you will, let two of your men stay with me."

"Many a man, my lord," returned Robert, "would take your caution in bad part. But let it be so. Come, we will ride after my company." And he rose and caught Antonio's horse by the bridle and brought it to him; "Mount, my lord," said he, standing by.

Antonio, believing either that the man was true or that his treachery – if treachery there were in him – was foiled, and seeing him to all seeming unarmed, save for a little dagger in his belt which would hardly suffice to kill a man and was more a thing of ornament than use, set his foot in the stirrup and prepared to mount. And in so doing he turned his back on Robert de Beauregard. The moment for which that wicked man had schemed and lied was come. Still holding Antonio's stirrup with one hand, he drew, swift as lightning, from under his cloak, a dagger different far from the toy in his belt – short, strong, broad, and keen. And that moment had been Antonio's last, had it not chanced that, on the instant Robert drew the dagger, the horse started a pace aside, and Antonio, taken unawares, stumbled forward and came near falling on the ground. His salvation lay in that stumble, for Robert, having put all his strength into the blow, and then striking not Antonio but empty air, in his turn staggered forward, and could not recover himself before Antonio turned round, a smile at his own unwariness on his lips.

Then he saw the broad keen knife in the hand of Robert. Robert breathed quickly, and glared at him, but did not rush on him. He stood glaring, the knife in his hands, his parted lips displaying grinning teeth. Not a word spoke Antonio, but he drew his sword, and pointed where Robert's sword lay on the grass. The traitor, recognising the grace that allowed him to take his sword, shamed, it may be, by such return for his own treachery, in silence lifted and drew it; and, withdrawing to a distance from the horses, which quietly cropped the grass, the two faced one another.

Calm and easy were the bearing and the air of Count Antonio, if the pictures of him that live drawn in the words of those who knew him be truthful; calm and easy ever was he, save when he fought; but then it seemed as though there came upon him a sort of fury akin to madness, or (as the ancients would have fabled) to some inspiration from the God of War, which transformed him utterly, imbuing him with a rage and rushing impetuosity. Here lay his danger when matched with such a swordsman as was little Tommasino; but for all that, few cared to meet him, some saying that, though they called themselves as brave as others, yet they seemed half appalled when Count Antonio set upon them; for he fought as though he must surely win and as though God were with him. Thus now he darted upon Robert de Beauregard, in seeming recklessness of receiving thrusts himself, yet ever escaping them by his sudden resource and dexterity and ever himself attacking, leaving no space to take breath, and bewildering the other's practised skill by the dash and brilliance of his assault. And it may be also that the darkness, which was now falling fast, hindered Robert the more, for Antonio was famed for the keenness of his eyes by night. Be these things as they may, in the very moment when Robert pricked Antonio in the left arm and cried out in triumph on his stroke, Antonio leapt on him and drove his sword through his heart; and Robert, with the sword yet in him, fell to the ground, groaning. And when Antonio drew forth the sword, the man at his feet died. Thus, if it be God's will, may all traitors perish.

Antonio looked round the plain; but it grew darker still, and even his sight did not avail for more than some threescore yards. Yet he saw a dark mass on his right, distant, as he judged, that space or more. Rapidly it moved: surely it was a group of men galloping, and Antonio stood motionless regarding them. But they swept on, not turning whither he stood; and he, unable to tell what they did, whether they sought him or whither they went, watched them till they faded away in the darkness; and then, leaving Robert where he lay, he mounted his horse and made speed towards the hills, praying that there he should find his cousin and the Lady Lucia, escaped from the pursuit of the Duke's men. Yet had he known what those dimly discerned riders bore with them, he would have been greatly moved at all costs and at every hazard to follow after them and seek to overtake them before they came to the city.

On he rode towards the hills, quickly, yet not so hastily but that he scanned the ground as he went so well as the night allowed him. The moon was risen now and to see was easier. When he had covered a distance of some two miles, he perceived something lying across his path. Bending to look, he found it to be the corpse of a horse: he leapt down and bent over it. It was the horse Tommasino had ridden; it was hamstrung, and its throat had been cut. Antonio, seeing it, in sudden apprehension of calamity, cried aloud; and to his wonder his cry was answered by a voice which came from a clump of bushes fifty yards on the right. He ran hastily to the spot, thinking nothing of his own safety nor of anything else than what had befallen his friends; and under the shelter of the bushes two men of the Duke's Guard, their horses tethered near them, squatted on the ground, and, between, Tommasino lay full length on the ground. His face was white, his eyes closed, and a bloody bandage was about his head. One of the two by him had forced his lips open and was giving him to drink from a bottle. The other sprang up on sight of Antonio and laid a hand to his sword-hilt.

"Peace, peace!" said Antonio. "Is the lad dead?"

"He is not dead, my lord, but he is sore hurt."

"And what do you here with him? And how did you take him?"

"We came up with him here, and surrounded him; and while some of us held him in front, one cut the hamstrings of his horse from behind; and the horse fell, and with the horse the lady and the young lord. He was up in an instant; but as he rose, the lieutenant struck him on the head and dealt him the wound you see. Then he could fight no more; and the lieutenant took the lady, and with the rest rode back towards the city, leaving us charged with the duty of bringing the young lord in so soon as he was in a state to come with us."

"They took the lady?"

"Even so, my lord."

"And why did they not seek for me?"

The fellow – Martolo was his name – smiled grimly; and his comrade, looking up, answered: "Maybe they did not wish to find you, my lord. They had been eight to one, and could not have failed to take you in the end."

"Aye, in the end," said Martolo, laughing now. "Nor," added he, "had the lieutenant such great love for Robert de Beauregard that he would rejoice to deliver you to death for his sake, seeing that you are a Monte Velluto and he a rascally – "

"Peace! He is dead," said Count Antonio.

"You have killed him?" they cried with one voice.

"He attacked me in treachery, and I have killed him," answered Antonio.

For a while there was silence. Then Antonio asked, "The lady – did she go willingly?"

"She was frightened and dazed by her fall, my lord; she knew not what she did nor what they did to her. And the lieutenant took her in front of him, and, holding her with all gentleness, so rode towards the city."

"God keep her," said Antonio.

"Amen, poor lady!" said Martolo, doffing his cap.

Then Antonio whistled to his horse, which came to his side; with a gesture he bade the men stand aside, and they obeyed him; and he gathered Tommasino in his arms. "Hold my stirrup, that I may mount," said he; and still they obeyed. But when they saw him mounted, with Tommasino seated in front of him, Martolo cried, "But, my lord, we are charged to take him back and deliver him to the Duke."

"And if you do?" asked Antonio.

Martolo made a movement as of one tying a noose.

"And if you do not?" asked Antonio.

"Then we had best not show ourselves alive to the Duke."

Antonio looked down on them. "To whom bear you allegiance?" said he.

"To His Highness the Duke," they answered, uncovering as they spoke.

"And to whom besides?" asked Antonio.

"To none besides," they answered, wondering.

"Aye, but you do," said he. "To One who wills not that you should deliver to death a lad who has done but what his honour bade him."

"God's counsel God knows," said Martolo. "We are dead men if we return alone to the city. You had best slay us yourself, my lord, if we may not carry the young lord with us."

"You are honest lads, are you not?" he asked. "By your faces, you are men of the city."

"So are we, my lord; but we serve the Duke in his Guard for reward."

"I love the men of the city as they love me," said Antonio. "And a few pence a day should not buy a man's soul as well as his body."

The two men looked at one another in perplexity. The fear and deference in which they held Antonio forbade them to fall on him; yet they dared not let him take Tommasino. Then, as they stood doubting, he spoke low and softly to them: "When he that should give law and uphold right deals wrong, and makes white black and black white, it is for gentlemen and honest men to be a law unto themselves. Mount your horses, then, and follow me. And so long as I am safe, you shall be safe; and so long as I live, you shall live; and while I eat and drink, you shall have to drink and eat; and you shall be my servants. And when the time of God's will – whereof God forbid that I should doubt – is come, I will go back to her I love, and you shall go back to them that love you; and men shall say that you have proved yourselves true men and good."

Thus it was that two men of the Duke's Guard – Martolo and he whom they called Bena (for of his true name there is no record) – went together with Count Antonio and his cousin Tommasino to a secret fastness in the hills; and there in the course of many days Tommasino was healed of the wound which the Lieutenant of the Guard had given him, and rode his horse again, and held next place to Antonio himself in the band that gathered round them. For there came to them every man that was wrongfully oppressed; and some came for love of adventure and because they hoped to strike good blows; and some came whom Antonio would not receive, inasmuch as they were greater rogues than were those whose wrath they fled from.

Such is the tale of how Count Antonio was outlawed from the Duke's peace and took to the hills. Faithfully have I set it down, and whoso will may blame the Count, and whoso will may praise him. For myself, I thank Heaven that I am well rid of this same troublesome passion of love that likens one man to a lion and another to a fox.

But the Lady Lucia, being brought back to the city by the Lieutenant of the Guard, was lodged in her own house, and the charge of her was commended by the Duke into the hands of a discreet lady; and for a while His Highness, for very shame, forbore to trouble her with suitors. For he said, in his bitter humour, as he looked down on the dead body of Robert de Beauregard: "I have lost two good servants and four strong arms through her; and mayhap, if I find her another suitor, she will rob me of yet another stalwart gentleman."

So she abode, in peace indeed, but in sore desolation and sorrow, longing for the day when Count Antonio should come back to seek her. And again was she closely guarded by the Duke.

CHAPTER II
COUNT ANTONIO AND THE TRAITOR PRINCE

Of all the deeds that Count Antonio of Monte Velluto did during the time that he was an outlaw in the hills (for a price had been set on his head by Duke Valentine), there was none that made greater stir or struck more home to the hearts of men, howsoever they chose to look upon it, than that which he performed on the high hill that faces the wicket gate on the west side of the city and is called now the Hill of Duke Paul. Indeed it was the act of a man whose own conscience was his sole guide, and who made the law which his own hand was to carry out. That it had been a crime in most men, who can doubt? That it was a crime in him, all governments must hold; and the same, I take it, must be the teaching of the Church. Yet not all men held it a crime, although they had not ventured it themselves, both from the greatness of the person whom the deed concerned, and also for the burden that it put on the conscience of him that did it. Here, then, is the story of it, as it is still told both in the houses of the noble and in peasants' cottages.

While Count Antonio still dwelt at the Court, and had not yet fled from the wrath aroused in the Duke by the Count's attempt to carry off the Lady Lucia, the Duke's ward, the nuptials of His Highness had been celebrated with great magnificence and universal rejoicing; and the feasting and exultation had been most happily renewed on the birth of an infant Prince, a year later. Yet heavy was the price paid for this gift of Heaven, for Her Highness the Duchess, a lady of rare grace and kindliness, survived the birth of her son only three months, and then died, amidst the passionate mourning of the people, leaving the Duke a prey to bitter sorrow. Many say that she had turned his heart to good had she but lived, and that it was the loss of her that soured him and twisted his nature. If it be so, I pray that he has received pardon for all his sins; for his grief was great, and hardly to be assuaged even by the love he had for the little Prince, from whom he would never be parted for an hour, if he could contrive to have the boy with him, and in whom he saw, with pride, the heir of his throne.

Both in the joy of the wedding and the grief at the Duchess's death, none had made more ostentatious sign of sharing than His Highness's brother, Duke Paul. Yet hollow alike were his joy and his grief, save that he found true cause for sorrow in that the Duchess left to her husband a dear memorial of their brief union. Paul rivalled the Duke in his caresses and his affected love for the boy, but he had lived long in the hope that His Highness would not marry, and that he himself should succeed him in his place, and this hope he could not put out of his heart. Nay, as time passed and the baby grew to a healthy boy, Paul's thoughts took a still deeper hue of guilt. It was no longer enough for him to hope for his nephew's death, or even to meditate how he should bring it about. One wicked imagining led on, as it is wont in our sinful nature, to another, and Satan whispered in Paul's ear that the Duke himself was short of forty by a year, that to wait for power till youth were gone was not a bold man's part, and that to contrive the child's death, leaving his father alive, was but to double the risk without halving the guilt. Thus was Paul induced to dwell on the death of both father and son, and to say to himself that if the father went first the son would easily follow, and that with one cunning and courageous stroke the path to the throne might be cleared.

While Paul pondered on these designs, there came about the events which drove Count Antonio from the Court; and no sooner was he gone and declared in open disobedience and contumacy against the Duke, than Paul, seeking a handle for his plans, seemed to find one in Antonio. Here was a man driven from his house (which the Duke had burnt), despoiled of his revenues, bereft of his love, proclaimed a free mark for whosoever would serve the Duke by slaying him. Where could be a better man for the purposes of a malcontent prince? And the more was Paul inclined to use Antonio from the fact that he had shown favour to Antonio, and been wont to seek his society; so that Antonio, failing to pierce the dark depths of his heart, was loyally devoted to him, and had returned an answer full of gratitude and friendship to the secret messages in which Paul had sent him condolence on the mishap that had befallen him.



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