Anthony Hope.

The Chronicles of Count Antonio

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And, having thus said, Antonio, with his men, turned and went back at a run along the road by which they had come; but to the village of Rilano they did not go, but turned aside before they came to it, and, coming to the farm of one who knew Antonio, they bought of him, paying him in good coin of the Duchy, three horses, which Antonio, Tommasino, and Bena mounted; and they three rode hard for the hills, the rest following as quickly as they might; so that by nightfall they were all safely assembled in their hiding-place, and with them the bones of the blessed St. Prisian. But they told not yet to the rest of the band what it was that Antonio carried under his cloak; nor did Martolo, when he returned from Rilano, ask what had befallen, but he crossed himself many times and wore a fearful look.

But Tommasino came to Antonio and said to him, "Why did you not ask also pardon for all of us, and for yourself the hand of Lucia?"

"A great thing, and a thing that troubles me, I have done already," answered Antonio. "Therefore I will ask nothing for myself, and nothing may I ask for you or for my friends. But if I ask nothing save that right and justice be done, it may be that my sin in laying hands on the sacred bones will be the less."

Now after Antonio and his men were gone, the Archbishop's train stayed long by the stream on the road, lamenting and fearing to go forward. Yet at last they went forward, and being come to the next village found all the people awaiting them at the bounds. And when the people saw the disorder of the procession, and that the pikemen had no pikes, they ran forward, eagerly asking what had befallen; and learning of the calamity, they were greatly afraid and cursed Antonio; and many of them accompanied the Archbishop on his way to the city, whence he came towards evening. A great concourse of people awaited his coming there, and the Duke himself sat on a lofty seat in the great square, prepared to receive the sacred bones, and go with them to the Cathedral, where they were to be exposed to the gaze of the people at High Mass. And they set the Archbishop's chair down before the Duke's seat, and the Archbishop came and stood before the Duke, and his priests and the pikemen with him. And the Duke started up from his seat, crying, "What ails you?" and sank back again, and sat waiting to hear what the Archbishop should say.

Then the Archbishop, his robes still damp and greatly disordered, his limbs trembling in anger and in fear, raised his voice; and all the multitude in the square was silent while he declared to His Highness what things Count Antonio had done, and rehearsed the message that he had sent. But when the Archbishop told how Antonio had sworn that as God lived he would scatter the ashes of the sacred bones to the winds, the men caught their breath with a gasp, while the women murmured affrightedly, "Christ save us;" and Duke Valentine dug the nails of his hand, whereon his head rested, into the flesh of his cheek.

For all the city held that, according to the words St. Prisian himself had uttered before he suffered, the power and prosperity of the Duchy and the favour of Heaven to it rested on the presence among them and the faithful preservation and veneration of those most holy relics. And the Archbishop, having ended the message, cried, "God pardon my lips that repeat such words," and fell on his knees before Duke Valentine, crying, "Justice on him, my lord, justice!" And many in the throng echoed his cry; but others, and among them a great part of the apprenticed lads who loved Antonio, muttered low one to another, "But the Duke has taken his sweetheart from him," and they looked on the Duke with no favourable eye.

Then Duke Valentine rose from his seat and stood on the topmost step that led to it, and he called sundry of his lords and officers round him, and then he beckoned for silence, and he said, "Before the sun sets to-morrow, the Lady Lucia shall take the vows;" and he, with his train, took their way to the palace, the pikemen clearing a path for them. And now indeed was silence; for all marvelled and were struck dumb that the Duke said naught concerning the bones of St. Prisian, and they searched one another's faces for the meaning of his words. But the Archbishop arose, and, speaking to no man, went to the Cathedral, and knelt before the altar in the chapel of St. Prisian, and there abode on his knees.

Surely never, from that day until this hour, has such a night passed in the city of Firmola. For the Duke sent orders that every man of his Guard should be ready to start at break of day in pursuit of Antonio, and through the hours of the evening they were busied in preparing their provisions and accoutrements. But their looks were heavy and their tongues tied, for they knew, every man of them, that though the Duke might at the end take Antonio, yet he could not come at him before the time that Antonio had said. And this the townsmen knew well also; and they gathered themselves in groups in the great square, saying, "Before the Duke comes at him, the sacred bones will be burnt, and what will then befall the Duchy?" And those who were friendly to Antonio, foremost among them being the apprenticed lads, spread themselves here and there among the people, asking cunningly whether it concerned the people of Firmola more that the blessing of St. Prisian should abide with them, or that a reluctant maiden should be forced to take the veil; and some grew bold to whisper under their breath that the business was a foul one, and that Heaven did not send beauty and love that priests should bury them in convent walls. And the girls of the city, ever most bold by reason of their helplessness, stirred up the young men who courted them, leading them on and saying, "He is a true lover who risks his soul for his love;" or, "I would I had one who would steal the bones of St. Prisian for my sake, but none such have I: " with other stirring and inflaming taunts, recklessly flung from pouting lips and from under eyes that challenged. And all the while Duke Valentine sat alone in his cabinet, listening to the tumult that sounded with muffled din through the walls of the palace.

Now there was in the city a certain furrier named Peter, a turbulent fellow who had been put out of his craft-guild because he would not abide by the laws of the craft, and lived now as he best could, being maintained in large measure by those who listened to his empty and seditious conversation. This man, loving naught that there was worthy of love in Count Antonio, yet loved him because he defied the Duke; and about midnight, having drunk much wine, he came into the square and gathered together the apprentices, saying, "I have a matter to say to you – and to you – and to you," till there were many scores of them round him: then he harangued them, and more came round; and when at last Peter cried, "Give us back the sacred bones!" a thousand voices answered him, "Aye, give us back the bones!" And when the pikemen would have seized him, men, and women also, made a ring round him, so that he could not be taken. And sober men also, of age and substance, hearkened to him, saying, "He is a knave, but he speaks truth now." So that a very great throng assembled, every man having a staff, and many also knives; and to those that had not knives, the women and girls brought them, thrusting them into their hands; nay, sundry priests also were among the people, moaning and wringing their hands, and saying that the favour of St. Prisian would be lost for ever to the city. And the square was thronged, so that a man could not move unless all moved, nor raise his hand to his head save by the favour of his neighbour. Yet presently the whole mass began to move, like a great wave of water, towards the Palace of the Duke, where the pikemen stood in ranks, ready now to go against Antonio. Suddenly arose a cry, "The Archbishop comes!" and the venerable man was seen, led through the crowd by Peter and some more, who brought him and set him in the front ranks of the people; and Peter cried boldly, "Where is the Duke?" But the Captain of the Guard came forward, sword in hand, and bade Peter be still, cursing him for insolence, and shouted that the people should disperse on pain of His Highness's displeasure. "Where is the Duke? Let him come out to us!" cried Peter; and the captain, despising him, struck him lightly with the flat of his sword. But Peter with a cry of rage struck the captain a great blow with his staff, and the captain staggered back, blood flowing from his head. Such was the beginning of the fray; for in an instant the pikemen and the people had joined battle: men cried in anger and women in fright: blood flowed, and sundry on both sides fell and rose no more; and the Archbishop came near to being trodden under foot till his friends and the priests gathered round him; and when he saw that men were being slain, he wept.

Then the lord Lorenzo hastened to the cabinet of the Duke, whom he found pacing up and down, gnawing his finger-nails, and told him of what was done outside.

"I care not," said the Duke. "She shall take the vows! Let the pikemen scatter them."

Lorenzo then besought him, telling him that all the city was in arms, and that the conflict would be great. But the Duke said still, "She shall take the vows!" Nevertheless he went with Lorenzo, and came forth on to the topmost step of the portico. And when the people saw him they ceased for a moment to assail the pikemen, and cried out, "Give us back the sacred bones!"

"Scatter these fellows!" said the Duke to the Captain of the Guard.

"My lord, they are too many. And if we scatter them now, yet when we have gone against Count Antonio, they may do what they will with the city."

The Duke stood still, pale, and again gnawing his nails; and the pikemen, finding the fight hard, gave back before the people; and the people pressed on.

Then Peter the furrier came forward, and the hottest with him, and mocked the pikemen; and one of the pikemen suddenly thrust Peter through with his pike, and the fellow fell dead; on which a great cry of rage rose from all the people, and they rushed on the pikemen again and slew and were slain; and the fight rolled up the steps even to the very feet of the Duke himself. And at last, able no longer to contend with all the city, he cried, "Hold! I will restore the sacred bones!" But the people would not trust him and one cried, "Bring out the lady here before us and set her free, or we will burn the palace." And the Archbishop came suddenly and threw himself on his knees before the Duke, beseeching him that no more blood might be shed, but that the Lady Lucia should be set free. And the Duke, now greatly afraid, sent hastily the Lieutenant of the Guard and ten men, who came to the convent where Lucia was, and, brooking no delay, carried her with them in her bedgown, and brought and set her beside the Duke in the portico of the palace. Then the Duke raised his hand to heaven, and before all the people he said, "Behold, she is free! Let her go to her own house, and her estate shall be hers again. And by my princely word and these same holy bones, I swear that she shall not take the vows, neither will I constrain her to wed any man." And when he had said this, he turned sharply round on his heel, and, looking neither to the right nor to the left, went through the great hall to his cabinet and shut the door. For his heart was very sore that he must yield to Antonio's demand, and for himself he had rather a thousand times that the bones of St. Prisian had been burnt.

Now when the Duke was gone, the people brought the Lady Lucia to her own house, driving out the steward whom the Duke had set there, and, this done, they came to the Archbishop, and would not suffer him to rest or to delay one hour before he set forth to carry the Duke's promise to Antonio. This the Archbishop was ready to do, for all that he was weary. But first he sent Lorenzo to ask the Duke's pleasure; and Lorenzo, coming to the Duke, prayed him to send two hundred pikes with the Archbishop. "For," said he, "your Highness has sworn nothing concerning what shall befall Antonio; and so soon as he has delivered up the bones, I will set on him and bring him alive or dead to your Highness."

But the Duke would not hearken. "The fellow's name is like stale lees of wine in my mouth," said he. "Ten of my pikemen lie dead in the square, and more of the citizens. I will lose no more men over it."

"Yet how great a thing if we could take him!"

"I will take him at my own time and in my own way," said the Duke. "In God's name, leave me now."

Lorenzo therefore got from the Duke leave for but ten men to go with the Archbishop, and to go himself if he would. And thus they set out, exhorted by the people, who followed them beyond the bounds of the city, to make all speed. And when they were gone, the people came back and took up the bodies of the dead; while the pikemen also took up the bodies of such of their comrades as were slain.

Yet had Duke Valentine known what passed on the hills while the city was in tumult, it may not be doubted, for all his vexation, that he would have sent the two hundred whom Lorenzo asked: never had he a fairer chance to take Antonio. For when the Count and those who had been with him to Rilano were asleep, Antonio's head resting on the golden casket, a shepherd came to the rest of the band and told them what had been done and how all the country was in an uproar. Then a debate arose amongst the band, for, though they were lawless men, yet they feared God, and thought with great dread on what Antonio had sworn; so that presently they came altogether, and aroused Antonio, and said to him, "My lord, you have done much for us, and it may be that we have done somewhat for you. But we will not suffer the sacred bones to be burnt and scattered to the winds."

"Except the Duke yields, I have sworn it, as God lives," answered Antonio.

"We care not. It shall not be, no, not though you and we die," said they.

"It is well; I hear," said Antonio, bowing his head.

"In an hour," said they, "we will take the bones, if you will not yourself, my lord, send them back."

"Again I hear," said Antonio, bowing his head; and the band went back to the fire round which they had been sitting, all save Martolo, who came and put his hand in Antonio's hand.

"How now, Martolo?" asked Antonio.

"What you will, I will, my lord," said Martolo. For though he trembled when he thought of the bones of St. Prisian, yet he clung always to Antonio. As for Bena and the others of the ten who had gone to Rilano, they would now have burnt not the bones only, but the blessed saint himself, had Antonio bidden them. Hard men, in truth, were they, and the more reckless now, because no harm had come to them from the seizing of the bones; moreover Antonio had given them good wine for supper, and they drank well.

Now the rest of the band being gone back to their fire and the night being very dark, in great silence and caution Antonio, Tommasino, Martolo, Bena, and their fellows – being thirteen in all – rose from their places, and taking naught with them but their swords (save that Antonio carried the golden casket), they stole forth from the camp, and set their faces to climb yet higher into the heights of the hills. None spoke; one following another, they climbed the steep path that led up the mountain side; and when they had been going for the space of an hour, they heard a shout from far below them.

"Our flight is known," said Tommasino.

"Shall we stand and meet them, my lord?" asked Bena.

"Nay, not yet," said Antonio; and the thirteen went forward again at the best speed they could.

Now they were in a deep gorge between lofty cliffs; and the gorge still tended upwards; and at length they came to the place which is now named "Antonio's Neck." There the rocks came nigh to meeting and utterly barring the path; yet there is a way that one man, or at most two, may pass through at one time. Along this narrow tongue they passed, and, coming to the other side, found a level space on the edge of a great precipice, and Antonio pointing over the precipice, they saw in the light of the day, which now was dawning, the towers and spires of Firmola very far away in the plain below.

"It is a better place for the fire than the other," said Antonio; and Bena laughed, while Martolo shivered.

"Yet we risk being hindered by these fellows behind," said Tommasino.

"Nay, I think not," said Antonio.

Then he charged Tommasino and all of them to busy themselves in collecting such dry sticks and brushwood as they could; and there was abundance near, for the fir-trees grew even so high. And one of the men also went and set a snare, and presently caught a wild goat, so that they had meat. But Antonio took Bena and set him on one side of the way where the neck opened out into the level space; and he stood on the other side of the way himself. And when they stretched out their arms, the point of Bena's sword reached the hilt of Antonio's. And Antonio smiled, saying to Bena, "He had need to be a thin man, Bena, that passes between you and me."

And Bena nodded his head at Count Antonio, answering, "Indeed this is as strait as the way to heaven, my lord, and leads, as it seems to me, in much the same direction."

Thus Antonio and Bena waited in the shelter of the rocks at the opening of the neck, while the rest built up a great pile of wood. Then, having roasted the meat, they made their breakfast, Martolo carrying portions to Antonio and to Bena. And, their pursuers not knowing the path so well and therefore moving less quickly, it was but three hours short of noon when they heard the voices of men from the other side of the neck. And Antonio cried straightway, "Come not through at your peril! Yet one may come and speak with me."

Then a great fellow, whose name is variously given, though most of those whom I have questioned call him Sancho, came through the neck, and, reaching the end of it, found the crossed swords of Antonio and Bena like a fence against his breast. And he saw also the great pile of wood, and resting now on the top of it the golden casket that held the sacred bones. And he said to Antonio, "My lord, we love you; but sooner than that the bones should be burnt, we will kill you and all that are with you."

But Antonio answered, "I also love you, Sancho; yet you and all your company shall die sooner than my oath shall be broken."

"Your soul shall answer for it, my lord," said Sancho.

"You speak truly," answered Antonio.

Then Sancho went back through the neck and took counsel with his fellows; and they made him their chief, and promised to be obedient to all that he ordered. And he said, "Let two run at their highest speed through the neck: it may be they will die, but the bones must be saved. And after them, two more, and again two. And I will be of the first two."

But they would not suffer him to be of the first two, although he prevailed that he should be of the last two. And the six, being chosen, drew their swords and with a cry rushed into the neck. Antonio, hearing their feet, said to Bena, "A quick blow is as good as a slow, Bena." And even as he spoke the first two came to the opening of the neck. But Antonio and Bena struck at them before they came out of the narrowest part or could wield their swords freely; and the second two coming on, Bena struck at one and wounded him in the breast, and he wounded Bena in the face over the right eye, and then Bena slew him; while Antonio slew his man at his first stroke. And the fifth man and Sancho, the sixth, coming on, Antonio cried loudly, "Are you mad, are you mad? We could hold the neck against a hundred."

But they would not stop, and Antonio slew the fifth, and Bena was in the act to strike at Sancho, but Antonio suddenly dashed Sancho's sword from his hand, and caught him a mighty buffet, so that he fell sprawling on the bodies of the five that were dead.

"Go back, fool, go back!" cried Antonio.

And Sancho, answering nothing, gathered himself up and went back; for he perceived now that not with the loss of half of his men would he get by Antonio and Bena; and beyond them stood Tommasino with ten whom he knew to be of the stoutest of the band.

"It is a sore day's work, Bena," cried Antonio, looking at the dead bodies.

"If a man be too great a fool to keep himself alive, my lord, he must die," answered Bena; and he pushed the bodies a little further back into the neck with his foot.

Then Sancho's company took counsel again; for, much as they reverenced the sacred bones, there was none of them eager to enter the neck. Thus they were at a loss, till the shepherd who had come along with them spoke to Sancho, saying, "At the cost of a long journey you may come at him; for there is a way round that I can lead you by. But you will not traverse it in less than twelve or thirteen hours, taking necessary rest by the way."

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