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Romance of Roman Villas (The Renaissance) By Elizabeth W. Champney Characters: 14119

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


There is not one that looketh upon her eyes but he dieth presently. The like property has the basilisk. A white spot or star she carrieth on her head and setteth it out like a diadem. If she but hiss no other serpent dare come near.-Pliny.

A STRANGE story is mine, not of love but of hatred, the slow coiling of a human serpent about its prey, with something more than human in the sudden deliverance which came from so unexpected a quarter when all hope had gone and struggle ceased.

Certes, I am not one of your practised romancers thus to reveal my plot at the beginning, and yet, with all I have told, you will never guess in what mysterious guise, yet so subtly that it seemed a breath of wind had but fluttered a leaf of paper, the enemy we feared was struck with such opportune paralysis.

Let those who doubt the truth of this tale or the existence of the basilisk question Cesare Borgia, for we saw the creature at the same time as we rode together near Imola in northern Italy. It was the beginning of that campaign in which I, much against my will, was in command of the French troops, which his Majesty Louis XII. had sent to aid his ally in the conquest of Romagna. I would far liefer have gone with my brother knights deputed to sustain Louis's right to the Milanese, for it is one thing to fight honourably for France and another, as I soon discovered, to aid a villain in the massacre of his own countrymen, and all for aims in which I had no interest. But it was only by degrees that I was enlightened concerning the character of Borgia. He was brave beyond doubt, and courage had for me great fascination. I never saw him flinch but once, and that before a thing which seemed so trivial that I counted it but a matter of physical repulsion.

C?sar Borgia Alinari

We were riding thus side by side in advance of our men, when a small snake darted from the thicket and hissed its puny defiance. I stooped from my saddle, impaled it on my sword, and waved it writhing in the air. But Cesare, to my astonishment, turned deadly pale and galloped incontinently in the opposite direction.

When I rejoined him after throwing the reptile into the underbrush he explained the seizure. The astrologer, Ormes, had predicted that he would meet his death neither from natural sickness nor from poison, nor yet by the sword or cord, but from the eye of a basilisk.

"And what manner of creature may that be?" I asked, wonderingly.

"It is a serpent," he replied, "but one so rare in Italy that not once in a century is it met with. The monster is gifted with the evil eye, killing whomsoever it looks upon. It bears a star-shaped spot upon its head, and when you whirled yon reptile in the air methought I discerned its baleful flash."

"And so you did," I replied, "but you need have no apprehension, the creature is blind."

"Blind!" he repeated incredulously.

"Of a verity. Its eyes have long since been removed, for the flesh has grown over the empty sockets."

"Then," said Cesare, "some wizard must have extracted them to serve him in his black art, and has let the serpent go free knowing that it is only by the eye of a living basilisk that this prodigy can be wrought. Fortunately you have killed it and there is no longer any danger."

"Nay," I replied, "I but wounded the creature. It crawled away when it fell."

"Then he who holds its eyes holdeth my life and by his hand I shall die," he stammered with white lips. Little thought I then that Cesare's inhuman cruelty and perfidy would cause me to thank God for his belief in the creature's malignancy and that the basilisk was to aid in the one episode which was in some measure to take the evil taste of this campaign from my mouth.

Only a few weeks later, on the first of January, 1500, our combined forces began in earnest the assault of the citadel of Forlì, which we had held in siege throughout the previous month. Little stomach had I for the business, since to my shame I was making war upon a woman. Imola which had already surrendered to us, was also her fief, but had she commanded its forces in person we would not have taken it so easily. For fighting blood ran in the veins of the Lady of Forlì, she being the grand-daughter of the great condottiere Francesco Sforza. And this was not the first time that she had fought for her castle.

She had come to it first as the bride of Girolamo Riario, but the townspeople had refused to recognise his authority and had stabbed him to death, throwing his naked, mutilated body into the moat before her windows.

The young widow instantly trained the guns of the citadel upon the town, and when it surrendered caused the murderers and their families to be hacked in pieces; and this was but one of many instances reported of her dauntless and vindictive character. She had remarried, but her second husband, Giovanni de' Medici, had recently died, and Caterina Sforza Riario de' Medici, in spite of her noble birth and connexions, had none to help her.

If Cesare Borgia had not already married perchance the opportunity would have been offered her to add another great name to those she already bore, for he recognised in this tigerish woman a fitting mate. He hated her indeed, but one does not hate one's inferiors, one despises or pets them, and Cesare hated the Lady of Forlì because he knew that he could never master her.

Therefore on New Year's Day, we having, as I have said, drawn our forces so closely about the citadel that for weeks past not a mouse could escape, Cesare before ordering the assault sent me to its lady with sealed conditions of capitulation.

I thought, as I rode across the draw-bridge with the white truce pennon fluttering from my lance, how at that other siege when summoned to surrender on pain of having her children put to death before her walls, this unnatural mother had replied coldly: "Children are more easily replaced than castles," and I was unprepared for the vision which greeted me in the gloomy hall.

For Caterina was no repulsive termagant, but a woman of marvellous charm. This fascination was something quite different from ordinary beauty. Its seat was in her eyes, which many thought not at all beautiful, for they were like those gems called aquamarine, of a puzzling tint varying from blue to green, lustrous and lapping the beholder with their gentle lambency, except when passion moved her, when I have seen them glow with a menacing light as though they might shoot forth green flames. But now she was all loveliness. The vicissitudes of her tragic life had left no trace except the slight scowl, which might be due to defective vision, for from the curiously linked chatelaine there depended a lorgnon with which she had a nervous trick of trifling.

Alinari

Catenna Sforza

Castle of Forlì in Background

By Palmezzani

She leaned forward as I entered, her lips a little apart and her cheeks glowing with excitement.

"You have brought me a message from your commander?" she asked, and I presented the letter.

But

as she read her colour flamed to deeper crimson and her small hands tore the missive in fragments. "And these are the terms proposed by a belted knight, companion of Bayard sans reproche; this your fufilment of your sworn devoir to women in distress? Then here is my answer," and she dashed the bits of paper in my face, "for my garrison will prefer annihilation rather than permit me to submit to such indignity."

"Believe me," I protested, "that, far from assisting in the framing of those terms, I am in utter ignorance of their purport. Believe also that though what I have hitherto heard has not prepossessed me in your favour, I now count those charges as lying slanders, knowing that no evil soul could inhabit so lovely a person."

Her lip curled scornfully. "I have listened to lovers' flatteries ere this," she answered, "and know how little they are worth."

"By your pardon," I retorted, "I am a lover indeed, but none of yours. It is because I love my good wife in Auvergne that I honour all women."

She had lifted her eyeglass as though to scan my face the more keenly to know if I spoke the truth; but apparently my words alone convinced her, and, feeling the discourtesy of such an act, she looked about the room irresolutely and let the lorgnon fall without meeting my eyes.

"Good," she said at length, "I like you better for that word. 'Tis a pity we must be enemies. Tell your master that I shall defend my fortress to the last extremity. If I am so unfortunate as to be conquered, demand that he appoint you my jailer, for to no one else will I submit myself alive."

I have taken part in many sieges but never saw I a more gallant defence than the one made by that doomed citadel. Its besiegers were quartered within the town, fattening on the supplies which flowed in from the country and sleeping warm at night, while the garrison of the castle burned its carved wainscotings for fuel and daily buried some famine-stricken sentry. Twice with blazing missiles Caterina's archers set fire to the houses within range of her guns, striving by destroying the homes of her own people to drive us from our shelter, and once in the dead of night she made sortie and strove to cut her way through only to be beaten back. She seemed more a deluding spirit of evil leading us on to our own destruction than an ordinary mortal, and when Cesare gave orders to bombard the castle it made our flesh creep to see her seated nonchalantly upon the ramparts scanning the artillerymen through her lorgnon, laughing when their shots went wild, and clapping her hands when they tore off fragments of the parapet on which she leaned as though she were but applauding a play. That very night an epidemic so deadly broke out among the cannoneers that some foolishly superstitious declared she had bewitched them with the evil eye, and others as falsely that the springs in the hills above the castle which supplied the fountains of the town were poisoned at her command.

But the inevitable day came when the Lady of Forlì announced that she was ready to surrender. Even then she demanded lenient and honourable terms as though mistress of the situation.

There must be neither bloodshed nor pillage. The allegiance of her subjects should be transferred indeed to Cesare as Duke of Romagna, and she offered herself and her children as hostages for their loyalty, but not to Cesare. They would trust themselves only to the watch-care of the Pope, and she stipulated that the French troops should be their body-guard to Rome.

Cesare laughed maliciously. "She is as safe in my care as in that of his Holiness," he said, "and it is to my interest that the boy alone should die. It was the great statesman Machiavelli who counselled that when a city was captured every male heir to its former lord should be slain, to guard against uprisings in the future. I will take her son into my own safe-conduct, but you may escort his sisters and mother in welcome, for I have no wish to come within the range of her quizzing glasses."

When I reported this to Caterina she shuddered slightly and answered questioningly, "From Cesare's so great personal solicitude I gather that the health of the young duke might suffer at the Borgia's table?"

To these alarms I could not reply reassuringly, but the lady presently laughed gleefully. "This is not a recent thought of mine," she said. "The idea occurred to me when Cesare first laid claim to our estates. Tell him that I cannot take advantage of his kind offer for I sent my son before the siege to join his cousin and godfather, Cardinal de' Medici, in his exile. The Cardinal's family feeling extends even to his most distant relatives and the boy could have no better guardian."

"Surely it is fortunate that you were so wise," I replied, and even Cesare had no doubt that she spoke truly.

It was the twelfth of January, the very day of the surrender, that I set out with my captives for the Eternal City. Caterina was conveyed in her litter with her elder daughter, but the younger insisted on riding on horseback at my side. She was an ugly little hoyden of five years, this Giovanna, who, squat of stature and swarthy as a gypsy, bestrode her little pony like a man; but, though by nature stubborn and subject to fits of anger in which she bit and scratched like a wildcat, to me she had taken a fancy as intense as it was inexplicable.

When I upbraided her manners as ill befitting a little maid, and marvelled at her unlikeness to her mother, she made answer: "Nay, but mamma can scratch also. You should have seen the face of the messenger who told us that the town of Forlì had opened its gates to the besiegers. I am like my father in looks, but I have my mother's spirit. Cardinal de' Medici said that if my father had worn the petticoat and my mother had been the man, the Medici would be ruling now in Florence."

"Would you like to rule, little princess?" I asked.

"Nay, I would rather fight. When I am grown I will be a great condottiere like you, Sir Knight."

"Tush!" I reproved her. "A girl a condottiere-who ever heard of such a prodigy?"

The child smiled mysteriously. "I have a mind to tell you a secret," she said.

"Giovanna, Giovanna!" her mother called, beckoning from her litter, but the little maid had fast hold of my stirrup leather, and pulled me close while she confided: "I am not Giovanna, I am not a girl at all. I am Giovanni de' Medici, Duke of Forlì, and one of these days I will cut off that Borgia man's head. But fear not; I will be good to you if only you do not tell."

The Borgias

From a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

(Pope Alexander VI. regards the dancing children, Lucrezia plays the viol, Cesar beats time with his stiletto on the stem of a wine glass.)

Permission of George Bell & Sons

I had no mind to tell, and though I let the Duchess know that her little son had betrayed his disguise, and reproached her for bringing him into the wolf's jaws, I swore to her that the secret should be safe in my keeping.

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