MoboReader> Literature > Romance of Roman Villas (The Renaissance)

   Chapter 8 THE QUEST

Romance of Roman Villas (The Renaissance) By Elizabeth W. Champney Characters: 53965

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


ROBERT DEVREUX, Earl of Essex, was in one of his worst moods as he strode the deck of his flag-ship in Cadiz Bay on a certain June morning in 1596.

And yet this favourite of Fortune stood then at the summit of his career, having by a brilliant assault taken the city for England, while a letter whose seal he had just broken assured him of the doting infatuation of England's Queen.

It was precisely this letter, as he now explained to his friend, which occasioned his dissatisfaction.

"You will not refuse me, Will," he pleaded, "since I can not undertake the quest, you must go in my stead. These papers contain negotiations of such delicacy that Henry of Navarre dared not send them overland through France, and my word is pledged to him to deliver them personally into the hands of the Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici, at his villa in Rome.

"When I met the King at Boulogne, on our first night out, this seemed an easy thing to do, for I had reason to believe that our cruise would extend to Italy. But now in the hour of my victory, when I have sacked Cadiz, I open the Queen's letter (which was not to be read until the accomplishment of that task), and find that, instead of being permitted to proceed, I must first sail at once for England; and all forsooth because of her love and impatience to reward the valour of her favourite! Can such a summons be disregarded? Assuredly not; but my honour and the fate of the Protestant cause in France hang upon your decision.

"Since it means so much," replied the other, "assuredly I will not fail you. But why may I not do this under my own name, as your authorised messenger?"

"Because the Grand Duke expects the Earl of Essex, the accredited deputy of the King of France. The deputy of a deputy would have no prestige with him, and would not even be admitted as guest at the villa. And it is with its lady, mark you, that your true errand lies.

"These negotiations have to do with the marriage of Henry of Navarre to the Grand Duke's niece Marie de' Medici. Ferdinando will make and break treaties as suits his advantage. The lady's heart must be gained, she must be made so ardently to desire this marriage that she will refuse all other suitors. In short you must woo and win her for the King of France. For such a task you have every qualification. You possess a knowledge of the Italian language and the understanding of its temperament and character which comes from sympathy. The Italians will not need to know that you bear the name of Brandilancia to recognise that you are the embodiment of the type of chivalry dreamed of by their poets. Beware, however, of receiving or giving too much love, for report hath it that the heiress of the Medici is surpassingly beautiful."

Brandilancia smiled somewhat bitterly. "You should know," he said, "that my heart is in England and though my love should remain forever unrequited, it can never be given to another."

"An excellent safeguard, in the present business," the Earl replied cheerily, "so here are all objections overcome, and may you have many a merry experience to recount when next we meet in England."

Hand met hand upon that compact, and while one Earl of Essex pursued his homeward course another in a swift sailing pinnace flew eastward bound upon adventures of which the archives of the English Admiralty preserve no record.

As the young adventurer Brandilancia, who was to play the part of the true Essex, rode up the hill crowned by the Villa Medici he was struck by the resemblance of the massive retaining walls to those of some medieval fortress. As such they had served in ancient days, holding the villa safe in their protecting embrace from any uprising of the populace of Rome, while on the side toward the Campagna they had withstood more than one siege of the Goths. But high aloft, near the summit of this cliff of natural rock and hewn stone the inhospitable windowless expanse was broken by a row of arched openings, and silhouetted against the dark void of one of these he caught a glimpse of a face framed in golden hair.

Though so far above him the lady, who had been gazing down the road from sheer ennui, had noticed the graceful figure of the cavalier, and had watched his approach until he halted with upturned face beneath her window. At that instant a little fan opening as it fell, dropped from her hand and fluttered in the light breeze, like a bird with a broken wing, beyond the road and into the ravine at its side.

Instantly Brandilancia sprang from his horse and, vaulting over the low embankment, clambered down the incline. A smiling contadina, who was beating out her linen on the margin of a basin of water, assisted him in his search, but having found the fan she was so curious in regard to its donor that Brandilancia endeavoured to divert her attention by plying her with questions concerning the locality. From her replies he learned that the washing pool was fed from an old aqueduct which passed under the Villa Medici on its way to supply the fountains of Rome.

"See, Signor," she said, pointing out a nail-studded oaken door concealed in the angle of a huge abutment, "they say that if that door were not bolted on the inside one might enter the tunnel which brings the water through the hill from its source miles away. There is a legend, too, that a Roman princess who lived up yonder, centuries ago, betrayed the secret to the barbarians, who came through the tunnel and sacked Rome."

Brandilancia paid little heed to this information, not dreaming that he would one day be indebted to it for escape from the villa which he was now so blithely entering. Climbing back to the roadway he waved the fan above his head and was greeted by a light clapping of hands from the lofty window. Who could the lady be? He would ascertain in time, and until he did so it was pleasant to reflect that some one within the villa was interested in his coming and had wafted him this welcome.

He had need of hospitality for he was faint from the ride from Ostia in the heat of an Italian June. The beautiful gardens glowed in dazzling sunshine which the scintillating jets of the fountains reflected and intensified. The statues seemed to shrink from the blinding light into their niches in the great square-cut hedges, and the tessellated pavement was hot beneath his tread.

Every detail of the antique relievi which the fa?ade of the palace had been designed to display was brought out by the intense illumination. In its lavish ornamentation and elegant proportions the building suggested a carved ivory cabinet, but one rifled of its jewels, for except for the keeper of the gate-lodge, to whom he had tossed his bridle, he had met no guards. The great doorway stood invitingly open, but Brandilancia hesitated to enter and looked about for some means of announcing his presence.

"Is the villa under some enchantment?" he asked himself. "If so some imp or sprite should lurk hereabouts and now make its appearance."

As if in answer to this mental question a peal of elfish laughter greeted his ear,-a mirthless, falsetto cackle, like that of a parrot, and half hidden behind one of the great marble lions in the shade of the loggia he discerned a grotesque little creature, with the figure of a child and a woman's face, old in its expression of slyness and malignity.

Brandilancia started, although he knew that it was the custom of Italian princes to maintain dwarfs in their households. This woman, probably a dependent, was dressed like a princess. Her dress though soiled was of stiff brocade embroidered with gold thread, and the high lace ruff, which made her swarthy complexion darker by contrast with its whiteness, was edged with seed pearls.

"Come in, my lord," she croaked. "The Grand Duke regretted that, obliged to be temporarily in Florence, he could not receive you, but awaiting his return the villa is at your service, and the Grand Duchess and the Signorina will endeavour to make the time pass pleasantly."

He followed her, wondering as to her position. "How did you know me?" he asked. "You are expected," she replied, "and no one but an Englishman would have called at the hour of the siesta. Shall I show your worship to your own room, or will you await the ladies in the library?" His hand was on the little fan, and he was striving to frame some question whose answer would enlighten him as to the giver, but the dwarf's last word caught his ear, and acted like the scent of spirits upon a man thirsting for drink.

"To the library, by all means," he replied eagerly, and, as the heavy portières were drawn aside, the tiny creature at his side and even the golden-haired woman who had greeted his coming so graciously were for the moment clean forgotten, for he comprehended that one of his dearest hopes, long thwarted but never entirely relinquished, the hidden personal motive which had been the determining factor in his acceptance of this mission, was now about to be realised. The immense room from floor to cornice was walled with books: the writings of the fathers of the church-huge folios hasped in brass and ornamented with priceless illuminations-side by side with pagan literature, Greek manuscripts, and volumes of the Roman classics, while all the new harvest of the Italian Renaissance, in every department then known, had been carefully garnered. But high above the marshalled works of the poets, which his fingers lingeringly caressed as he passed them by, Brandilancia had detected a row of small volumes, and a thrill of triumphant delight shot through his frame as he climbed the step-ladder and with eager fingers plucked them from their niches.

For here were the novelli of Boccaccio, Masaccio, and Bandello, of Giraldi Cinthio and Ser Giovanni Fiorentino and of many another writer of romantic tales of whimsical gaiety, of intrigue, or of tragedy, and Brandilancia was a playwright gifted with a most exceptional genius for adaptation. He had read a few of these tales and had realised that they contained admirable material for dramatisation, but now by a turn of the wheel of Fortune the entire inexhaustible mine of absorbing plot of piquant situation and contrasting characters, slightly sketched but waiting only the touch of genius to spring into life, lay open before him.

With a sigh of supreme satisfaction he sank into the nearest chair and read like one under the influence of some hypnotic spell.

The secretary of the Grand Duke entered the library, shuffled about noisily, coughed, and even addressed him, but the reader was unconscious of his presence.

Curious as to what so enthralled the stranger the man of the ink-horn tiptoed behind him, read the title over his shoulder, and laughed aloud. Brandilancia surprised, laid down the volume and demanded the cause of this demonstration.

"Pardon me, Signor," replied the secretary, "but I could not refrain, your absorption pays me a great compliment for I am the author of that book."

"You, sir?" exclaimed the half incredulous reader.

"I, Celio Malespini, Secretary to his Excellency, the Grand Duke, a man of letters who has tried his quill in sundry other fields, as well."

"Then, Signor Malespini, accept my congratulations, for this story of the company of the Calza of Venice is one of the merriest I have ever read, and makes me eager to see their festival. Have you written other books as entertaining?"

"I have as yet written no others," replied Celio, flattered and wholly won by the stranger's praise, "but since you care for my poor efforts I can lay before your worship those of other authors more worthy of your attention."

From inconspicuous nooks and corners he dragged them forth and piled them before the appreciative Brandilancia, who forgot all else until a servant announced that his hostesses would receive him in the grand salon a half hour before the hour of dining.

Even then he would have turned again to the fascinating volumes had not the valet's added information that the luggage of the Signor was in his room reminded him that dinner in such a house was a function and not simply an opportunity for absorbing the provender necessary to sustain life.

Fortunately, Brandilancia was an accomplished actor as well as writer, and his theatrical experience had taught him to make quick changes not only of costume, but of mental points of view and characteristics, and Essex's wardrobe became him no more than the grace and manner of the gallant young nobleman which he assumed with equal ease.

The transformation effected within the next hour was even deeper than this, for as his eyes met those of Marie de' Medici he knew that here, either for good or evil, was a woman destined to exert a compelling influence upon his life.

It was not love, he told himself, for he was on his guard against that passion. She did not impress him as beautiful. Her eyes were overbold and searching but cold; but her bearing arrogant at first, softened as the days went by into a frank comradeship, and he discovered that she possessed a cultured and an appreciative mind.

Hitherto Brandilancia had hidden a sensitive heart craving the sympathy that no woman had ever given him, under a gay and sportive exterior which made him a prince of good fellows, a man's man, and a loyal lover of his comrades, though they were far from appreciating his genius and his aims. But every serious conversation held with his young hostess confirmed him in his delusion that he had found a friend capable of understanding him. That she did not as yet wholly do so was the fault of his cursed disguise, which confused her perceptions of his real character with preconceived ideas of Essex. He longed to reveal himself to her, and did so to a greater degree than he realised.

Especially was this the case upon one memorable morning when, piqued that he should spend so much time in the library, she had followed him to that retreat.

She had found him absorbed in Luigi da Porto's novel La Giulietta, "a pitiable history that occurred at Verona in the time of Bartolommeo Scala," and she watched him slyly for some minutes amused by his preoccupation before interrupting his feast.

"Ah!" she exclaimed at length in pleased surprise, "you have chanced upon my favourite of all the books in my uncle's library. How many tears have I shed for these poor lovers but chiefly because I knew no Romeo so brave and noble and handsome to tempt me to die for him, or so devoted as to die for me. That was when I was a child of ten, my lord. I have learned since that such love exists only in novels, and have ceased to cry for it."

"You are very cynical, sweet lady," he replied, "and unkind to the novelists, whom I hold in worshipful esteem."

"And I also esteem them. It is precisely because the life they tell of is so different from my own, in which nothing ever happens, that a book-cover is for me a magic door by whose opening I escape out of the unendurable present. Even more than the novels do I love the plays, and to see them acted is better than to read them, best of all it must be to act in one. Ah! that would indeed be like living another life."

"True, dear lady," he answered eagerly, "but there is a form of diversion which to my mind is the most fascinating of all, and that is the writing of a drama, for in so doing we create a little world of our own, and control the destinies of the men and women whom we bring into being."

She shrugged her shoulders. "But I care only to be the author of my own r?le."

"And what," he asked, "would you choose that r?le to be?"

"I would be a Princess beloved by the King of the greatest nation in the world. Beloved, mark you, not bargained for, but sought out personally by the King who should love me for myself alone, a manifestly impossible plot even for a play."

"On the contrary, 't is a good one. Let us collaborate now in the planning of such a scheme. Let us suppose that for political reasons the King could not come in his proper person, but having learned to love you from report, were to seek you out incognito. Let us also imagine him so happy as to win your love. Would you be capable of the devotion which you demand of him?"

"Would I wed such a King whom I had learned to love, though in disguise? Most certainly."

"Ah! dear lady, you wilfully disregard the point I make. Would you wed this true lover, not knowing that he was a King? Let me put it still more strongly. Would you give yourself to the man you loved knowing that he was not of royal birth?"

"Ah! that is a different question; but I answer yes, for I am certain that my intuitions are so true that I could never love a man who was not in every sense a King."

He smiled indulgently. "So be it, we will write such a drama and show the world how true love pierces all disguise, and knowing its own, challenges all dangers."

She listened eagerly, but she attributed an interpretation which he had not intended to his perfectly simple suggestion. Placing her own personality out of the question was impossible for one so absorbed in self as this egoistic young creature. If Henry of Navarre were but like his Ambassador how easy it would be to love him! and suddenly it flashed through her mind that they were indeed one and the same. What other signification could be placed upon this supposititious drama which they were to evolve together?

Intrigue ran in her blood and distorted her perceptions. Transparent frankness was incomprehensible to her, and it appealed to her romantic imagination that the King of France should come like the hero of some wonder-tale disguised as his own envoy extraordinary to see and woo his princess.

Had she confided this wild idea to the experienced Malespini or to her companion, the dwarf Leonora, whose shrewd intellect was out of all proportion to her stunted body, she might easily have been disabused of her error; but with an overweening confidence in the accuracy of her own judgment she determined to weigh every sentence uttered by the man who purported to be the Earl of Essex and draw her own conclusions as to his identity.

To a mind preconvinced, proofs were not wanting. Brandilancia, fancying that the little fan had fallen from the hand of Marie de' Medici by accident, naively offered to return it. Her face clouded. "Then you do not care to keep my first gift?" she pouted.

"Your gift? May I then keep it?" he asked delighted.

"In exchange for the ring you wear," she replied, and he laid it in her hand.

She examined with curiosity the device engraved upon the seal, a gauntleted hand holding a lance in rest.

"Essex gave me that ring," he said thoughtlessly, for he was too excited to measure his own words. "I value it, not because I have a right to the arms it bears, but because he thought me a true knight errant eager for any enterprise of honour and gallantry."

"Essex gave it. Then you are not Essex?" she asked smiling.

"'T was but a slip of the tongue," he replied confusedly. "It was the King of France who presented it to me when I joined him with the English auxiliaries at the siege of Rouen. We were much in each other's company, not only in the main business of fighting, but in hawking and hunting in the neighbourhood. It was the enemy's country, and this gave zest to our escapades." He spoke rapidly but he could not distract her attention from his inadvertent admission.

"Yes," she commented thoughtfully, "I have heard that you were friends and comrades in many a wild adventure. Tell me more of the King, since you of all others should know him best."

Neurdein

Henri IV. receiving the portrait of Marie de Medici

P. P. Rubens

From the series of paintings ordered by her for the Palace of the Luxembourg

"I know, dear lady, that he loves you."

"How can that be since he has never seen me?"

"Love enters the heart through many strange portals, and Henry of Navarre knows you better than you suspect. Your portrait sent him by your uncle is engraved upon his heart. Love gives a mysterious power of second sight, and I doubt not that the King of France sees you at this moment even as I do, and that Marie de' Medici is for him as for me the embodiment of all womanly perfection."

"The Grand Duchess is approaching," she said in a low voice, "and Henry of Navarre is a forbidden topic-talk of anything else-talk of art."

The subject was apropos, for they were in the garden and Ferdinando's collection of masterpieces was all about them, but the Grand Duchess had caught his closing phrase.

"Who is it," she asked drily, "who has the honour of being the embodiment of the Earl of Essex's ideal of womanly perfection?"

"The Medicean Venus," Brandilancia replied unhesitatingly, with a wave of the hand which took in that famous statue and also the lady at his side.

The Grand Duchess sniffed, she was silenced but not deceived, and she remained at her niece's side through the remainder of the afternoon.

As several guests joined them and discussed with great connoisseurship the merits of the sculpture Brandilancia's thoughts wandered to his host. "What manner of man was this Ferdinando de' Medici who had converted his garden pleasance into a museum?"

Mentally reviewing what he had heard of the Grand Duke it seemed that all that was most admirable in the race must focus in its present representative. But Marie de' Medici had let fall a disquieting remark which pointed to another side to his character. "See, your grace," she had said to Brandilancia, "here is a favourite play of mine, Il Moro di Venezia, a sad tragedy but it stirs one's blood to read it. Perhaps it stirs mine because it is not long since tragedies like that have been enacted in my own family. Love and jealousy and revenge are a part of our heritage, and at times I long to come into my birthright, for such existence as I now lead is not life."

This half-revelation so impressed Brandilancia that he could not expel it from his mind, and when next alone with the secretary, Malespini, he begged for an explanation.

"Tell me something," he begged, "of the character of the Grand Duke. I do not ask you to divulge private matters, but only such as are public property and with which I would be acquainted were I not so newly arrived in Italy."

Malespini gave him a compassionate glance. "I thought that all the world knew that my master was a child of Satan," he replied coolly. "The Signorina told you truly. He caused the death of his two sisters-in-law, and was responsible for the murder of his own sister, goading her husband the Duke of Bracciano to the act. It is commonly reported also that the Signorina's father, the former Grand Duke of Tuscany, together with his wife, Bianca Capello, were poisoned by Ferdinando, though he made the act appear to be that of the murdered Duchess."

"And what," asked the horrified Brandilancia, "was the motive of this crime?"

"Is it not apparent? Ferdinando de Medici, then a cardinal, had just failed in his candidacy for the pontificate (outwitted by that fox Montalto). If he could not be pope it suited him as well to be Grand Duke of Tuscany."

"If this is true is the Signorina safe in his power?"

"So long as their interests are the same, Signor. And you who are the friend of Henry of Navarre should know that the Grand Duke is anxious to place his niece upon the throne of France. Should she set her will against her uncle's ambition he would scruple at no perfidity or crime. You wonder why I, who am in his service, should tell you this. It is because I am strangely drawn to you. From the moment I saw that you appreciated what I had written, that we spoke the same language, strove after the same ideals, I was yours heart and soul. They talk of love at first sight, a foolish matter between man and woman, but when two men recognise that they are congenial spirits it is the most natural and inevitable thing in all the world. And so I tell you again, be on your guard for your personal safety. If, however unjustly, any distrust of you should be awakened in the mind of the Grand Duke, if he imagined that the Signorina had learned to care for you, then your life, and hers as well, would not be worth one soldo."

This conversation occasioned the guest of the villa serious thought. It obtruded itself in the very tales of intrigue, passion, and murder which he read to drive it from his mind, those fascinating novelli with their records of bloody hereditary vendettas, of innocent or guilty lovers alike done to death by indiscriminating cruelty.

"Truly," he thought, "in Italy a woman's kiss and that of a poniard go often in such close company that the sweet woman's mouth which lets love in almost touches the red mouth of the wound which lets life out."

Though not so definitely explained, he had felt the presence of danger before; but so long as it threatened himself alone it added a spice of excitement to the adventure; now, however, that he realised what grave consequences the least indiscretion on his part might bring upon Marie de' Medici herself, he determined to be doubly circumspect.

With this intention he held himself aloof from the superb mundane life of the villa, and, retiring to the library, occupied himself in translating and rearranging old plays. But all day as he wrote, though half unconsciously, his thoughts were with his fair hostess, and always at the hour of the siesta of the Grand Duchess Marie de' Medici was with him in person. It was on the second morning of his seclusion that she had tapped at the door and offered her aid in his work; thus converting the very means by which he sought to avoid her into a stratagem for the uninterrupted enjoyment of her society.

Had Brandilancia been more sophisticated, it might have struck him as exceptional that a princess who been brought up in the strictest conventionality should have granted the privilege of such intimate association even to so exalted a personage as the Earl of Essex. He believed her confidence due to girlish innocence, and was more than ever determined to protect her from himself. Leonora was always on guard in the ante-room, and joined them whenever she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. It surprised this world-wise little sentinel that on none of these occasions had the young man appeared to have taken any advantage of his opportunity, and she was irritated by the amused condescension with which he treated her. He could never realise that this grotesque and tiny creature was not an uncanny child, and he had nicknamed her good-humouredly The Owlet, on account of her large round eyes.

"I had not thought the Earl of Essex so blind," she said to him one day when they chanced to be alone.

"My eyes are not fashioned to see in the dark like yours, Owlet," he replied. "Tell me what it is yo

u see."

"Many things, but the plainest of all to me is that whoever you may be you are not the Earl of Essex."

He was off his guard, and his expression confirmed her suspicions. She laughed maliciously, and her face, always sly and old beyond her years, was absolutely repulsive now as it reflected her gloating sense of her advantage.

"Put your mind at rest, my lord," she said, mockingly. "Your secret is safe in my keeping. I do not know your aims, but if you will take me into your confidence you are sure of success. I am only dangerous when I am angered. Why should you not succeed? The Signorina is completely infatuated with you. If we make her believe that you have assumed the character of the Earl of Essex from love of her she will readily forgive you that deceit. Together we can accomplish anything and everything, for you have a winning way with women, and I have brains-yes, more than you give me credit for-and this doll-faced girl shall make our fortunes. When we have sucked the coffers of the Medici dry, take me with you to your own country, and I will be your faithful accomplice there also, for, misshapen and hideous as I am, I love you, my beautiful adventurer; yes, with a devotion of which my mistress is not capable, for she is vain and shallow and selfish. Oh, why did God give her the form of an angel and put my soul in the body of a demon?"

Brandilancia, up to this point speechless with astonishment, had not been able to interrupt her, and the dwarf had climbed to the table, where, perched at his elbow, she had poured her confidences into his ear; but as she drew his face to hers with her small claw-like hands he forgot all considerations of policy in an unconquerable repulsion, and wrenched himself rudely from her.

"Imp!" he exclaimed, "your soul matches your body. You are hideous through and through."

The look which she gave him was full of malignity. "You shall live to learn that the good-will of a devil is better than her ill-will," she said, as she slipped from the table and left the room.

Brandilancia's uneasy compunction which immediately followed his hasty exclamation was soon effaced by the dwarf's apparent forgiveness. "We were both indiscreet," she said to him the following day; "let us forget and be friends."

But Leonora would not forget, and the young man had lost his opportunity of making her his friend.

She immediately carried her doubts to her mistress. "The man is not the Earl of Essex," she asserted. "He is some base impostor, I know not whom, but I will make him declare himself ere long."

Marie de' Medici was silent, but her thoughts were voluble. Since it had pleased her royal lover to come incognito she would betray him to no one nor even allow him to suspect that she had penetrated his disguise, but would flatter the King by feigning that she loved him for himself alone, and would exert every endeavour to make him sincerely her lover.

In spite of the injunction of the Grand Duchess, they often spoke of Henry of Navarre, and Brandilancia in the desire to forward the mission upon which he had been sent, told of Henry's unhappy wedded life, expressing with great frankness his own detestation of the craft and cruelty of Catherine de' Medici and the levity of her daughter Marguerite of Valois.

"You forget," Marie de' Medici had replied, "that they are my kinswomen."

"I forget many things in your presence which I should remember," he had replied. "Sometimes even that I, too, am a married man and, knowing you as I do, I can not blame the King of France that he is seeking, through divorce, freedom from a marriage into which he was half tricked, half forced, and that he is willing to risk salvation for the hope of your love."

That answer pleased her well. She had no doubt now that he loved her, and did not hesitate to assure him in many covert ways that the feeling was reciprocated. Brandilancia would have been blind indeed not to have recognised her admiration, but he believed it merely appreciation of his genius, whereas her mind was too limited to comprehend it. She was in love with the possibility of being a queen upon such easy terms, delighted to find that the necessary husband was no uncouth tyrant but a man of winsome personality whose delicate assiduities were ever present and yet never over passed the restraints of deference.

It would have been difficult for two persons to have more utterly misunderstood each other. Brandilancia had reached the full maturity of his mental powers. His genius had created many charming women, but the ideal for which his lonely heart yearned had only gradually taken shape in his mind, and the heroine which he now gave to literature marked an epoch in his career.

He had found the plot of his drama sketched in part in one of the novelli of Ser Giovanni; but the conception of an aristocratic yet gracious lady gifted with all perfection, with which he replaced the siren of Belmont, was not, as he supposed, a portrait from life of Marie de' Medici. The character sprang directly from his own intense longing, and by some unreasoning reflex action, his mind endowed the woman who happened to be near him with qualities which he created and which she unhappily did not possess.

The idol which he worshipped was absolutely the work of his own hands, for it was not until his imagination had cheated his eyes, and he had begun to look at Marie de' Medici through its flattering lenses that he thought her beautiful. And yet at the age of twenty she possessed very real attractions: a southern blond, not milky-veined, like the pale maidens of the north, but with all the gold of the hot sunshine in her hair, and the rich blood glowing through her fair skin like flame in an alabaster lamp. Superbly modelled, but lithe and tall, she carried regally the sumptuous opulence with which nature had endowed her, and the soft curve of her shoulders, throat, and bosom had not as yet blossomed into the plethora which Rubens depicted with so gloating a brush. Nor was she precisely the same as when Brandilancia had looked upon these charms unmoved. All arrogance and self-confidence were gone or lay buried under the most appealing of coquetry, a shy tenderness apparently born of irresistible impulse showing itself in little wilful sallies, a glance or touch, seemingly instantly regretted, and followed by alternations of reticence. He admitted her bewitching but had no idea that he was himself bewitched. His was a literary passion. He was a student of life as well as of books, and he had never before had the opportunity of studying such glorious examples of both at close range.

He completed his portrait of his ideal heroine Portia, the noblest that he ever depicted, and found to his surprise that quite another type of woman was forming itself in his mind. Powerful outside influences mingled their impressions with the long-stifled hunger in his heart. He was not in love with his hostess, but he was starving for love, and each book that he read, every object of art that he looked upon, and nature itself was steeped with the charm and passion of Italy. If he tossed aside Boccaccio and his too suggestive confrères to seek refreshment in the garden it was only to find himself face to face with the famous statue of the most seductive of all women, she who made C?sar her slave and Antony her "floor-cloth."

She obtruded herself upon him everywhere, for his very bed

was hanged

With tapestry of silk and silver,

the story

Proud Cleopatra when she met her Roman.

He had read with Marie de' Medici the history of the Egyptian Queen, and had brooded over it until against his will something of the fascination of the "Serpent of Old Nile" invested his comrade, and the name of Antony ever after called up in her memory also the inspired face of her fellow-student in the dangerous science of love.

Realising vaguely the influence which like some mephitic perfume, an opiate of the soul, emanated from the purely literary reconstruction of such a character, he laid it aside for the heart-breaking story of Giulietta, whose very innocence moved him still more profoundly.

It was midsummer, the quivering July heat brought out the pungent scent of the freshly clipped box-hedges, and set the mad flood stirring as in the brief action of the play. During the day the white glare drove the guests of the garden festivals into the shadiest recesses of the cypress labyrinths. The flowers themselves seemed to have vanished from the parterres, or, like the Cereus, bloomed only at night, plainly visible under the luminous sky, when the nightingales vied with the viols of the serenaders.

On such a night as this Brandilancia, who had been reading late, closed his book and, after the departure of the last reveller, stepped upon the terrace to cool his brain heated by inspiration. A kindred restlessness brought Marie de' Medici to her balcony and he recklessly sprang upon a marble bench which almost enabled him to touch her hand.

"Listen, dearest lady," he said, "it is your favourite story, which I have re-written with my own heart's blood."

Enthralled, though only half comprehending, Marie de' Medici listened as he poured forth in impassioned improvisation lines which from that day to this no one who has ever loved has heard untouched. The actor's training gave to the burning words of the poet artistic expression worthy of the most finished theatrical production, and as such they lacked not their due appreciation and applause though from a most undesired audience. A low chuckling and a clapping of hands greeted the close of the recital, and the two successful impersonators of Romeo and Juliet saw to their confusion that the scene had been witnessed by a burly man-at-arms, who now stalked from the shadow of a group of cypresses.

"Bravo!" he cried, "da Groto himself did not act that play so well, when I saw him years since in the Farnese theatre at Parma. But you have taken liberties with the lines and, per Bacco! have improved them. Whoever you may be you are too good an actor for such paltry assistance."

"And I know no one better qualified to pronounce upon a play than Captain Radicofani," replied Marie de' Medici, reappearing from the interior of her chamber whither she had retreated on the appearance of the intruder. "It is odd that you should have chanced so opportunely upon us as we were rehearsing our little comedy. My lord of Essex, permit me to present Captain Tuzio Radicofani, as brave a soldier as ever wielded sword, and one loyally attached to my uncle's service. What news do you bring from the Grand Duke, Captain? Will he soon return to us?"

"The Earl of Essex?" the other repeated in surprise disregarding for the moment Marie de' Medici's questions. "It is rare indeed to find one of Fortune's favourites so variously talented. His Excellency the Grand Duke, though he enumerated both your physical and mental accomplishments with great particularity spoke not of play-acting."

Brandilancia did not relish the shrewd look in the half-closed eyes, nor did he fancy the bullet-shaped close-cropped head with its overweight of occiput and bull-dog jaw, but he replied courteously, "such trifling diversion on the part of an idle man is surely less remarkable than its appreciation by one of action like yourself."

"The Grand Duke would also have been surprised," the soldier continued, "could he have assisted at this little scene. Your highness does himself discredit in referring to the performance as trifling, for, by the Blood, I never saw so accomplished an actor. The Signorina's talent likewise astonished me, though it was confined to mere pantomime, one might have thought it the languishing of a love-sick girl. By your favour, Signorina, there are indeed certain letters in my saddle-bags which my groom has in charge, but the varlet has gone to his supper in the servants' hall. I, too, am hungry and will seek the steward. The letters, with your Highness's permission, shall be presented on the morrow, which indeed is almost here."

They entered the villa together in apparent friendliness, but it was with a sense of impending evil that Brandilancia retired to his room.

Was it simply that the man had interrupted them at a moment when in spite of Marie de' Medici's tactful greeting no audience was desired, or was there something sinister in his coming? The more Brandilancia reflected the less he liked the familiarity which amounted to an assumption of authority. Radicofani's voice had not rung true. "The fellow suspects me. Nay, he knows that I am not the Earl of Essex," groaned the young man, as he tossed upon his bed; "and if his creature knows, then the Grand Duke knows also, and who can guess on what errand this villain comes? He pretended to believe that we were rehearsing a comedy, but he doubtless places the worst possible construction upon the scene which he has just witnessed. Was it a comedy, or am I in earnest? Ah! I have deliberately fallen into the trap against which Malespini warned me. I have lingered too long in this fool's paradise. Love and its penalty have stricken me in the same instant. Thank Heaven! no thought of this madness of mine can have entered the pure mind of my lady. Until this night I have breathed no word that could have betrayed it, and even now she doubtless thinks my ravings those of a poet. I will leave the villa to-morrow, lest my further presence here should bring trouble upon her."

Even as he formed the resolution a slight sound caught his ear, the cautious opening and closing of the door which led from the ante-chamber of his bedroom into the outer hall, the only means of communication between his own room and other parts of the villa. A light shone between the folds of the portière, and there were sounds of some one moving about softly in the ante-room. Springing from his bed, Brandilancia seized his sword.

"Who is there?" he demanded.

"'T is I, Radicofani," and the tapestries parted, disclosing the form of the Captain, towering beyond a camp-bed which had been spread across the doorway.

"I should have informed your worship," he apologised smugly, "that I sleep here to-night. Put up your sword, and rest assured that no one shall pass this room without my license."

"And could they give you no better lodging than that?" asked Brandilancia.

"Room in plenty," the Captain replied, "but it is on the Grand Duke's orders that I act as your body-guard, and I enter upon my duties at once, for I am responsible for your safety."

The prisoner inquired no further, but letting fall the portière, threw himself upon his bed confounded. His resolution to leave the villa had been made too late.

But the morning brought a fresh access of hope, as Brandilancia noticed between the widely-drawn curtains that the obstructing truckle-bed had been set against the wall and that his guard had left his post.

The dwarf Leonora, who was the only occupant of the dining hall when he descended, stole to his side and bade him await the Signorina in the belvedere in the upper garden.

Here Marie de' Medici presently joined him.

"My lord," she said, between her quick panting, for she was out of breath with running, "I shame to tell you, but you must leave us at once, indeed you should have done so long since."

"It is what I had upon my mind to say to you, sweet lady," he replied. "I have an appointment to meet at Venice ten days hence, and must leave my papers for the Grand Duke and proceed upon my journey, much as it irks me to tear myself from your company."

"Then you know not that my uncle has sent Radicofani to take you to Florence?"

"The Grand Duke does me honour, and under other circumstances I would gladly accept his further hospitality; but his Highness will understand that Robert Devreux is not free to follow his own inclinations."

"No, you are not free," she answered hastily. "Read this letter which Radicofani gave to my aunt this morning and which I purloined from her writing-cabinet. Nay, hesitate not but read, for it concerns you vitally." At her command he read:

To the Grand Duchess Christina de' Medici.

"Most honoured and dear Spouse:

"Your letter informing me of the arrival at the villa of a person purporting to be the Earl of Essex has occasioned me great concern inasmuch as the fellow is undoubtedly an impostor.

"His Eminence, Don Jerome Osorio, Bishop of Algarve, who arrived in this city some five days since, asserts positively that on the date upon which this rascal presented himself at the Villa Medici the Earl of Essex personally conducted the sack of the town of Faro in southern Portugal, and, having feloniously carried the bishop's library on board the English flag-ship, he forth-with set sail for the open ocean, evidently upon his return voyage for England.

"Imagine, therefore, my anxiety on learning that you have given harbourage to some rascal, who having by base practises learned that the Earl had an errand with me, now usurps his name and credit. I send this letter by my trusty servitor, Radicofani, whom I have charged to bring the villain with all speed to me that I may examine him by the question and learn his motives in assuming this disguise. If he has brought with him any papers (some of which he may easily have stolen from the Earl of Essex) see to it that Radicofani obtains possession of them before the rascal's suspicions are aroused. I tremble when I think how he may have practised upon your unsuspicious nature, and what villainies he may already have accomplished, or rather I would thus tremble did I not know that you inherit the resolution of the race of Lorraine, which, even when a mistake has been committed, knows how to wring success from disaster. Confiding thus in your courage and your woman's wit, I remain,

"Your loving husband,

Ferdinando.

"P.S. For the better furtherance of my desires confide my suspicions to no one not even to my niece, but take leave of this caitiff with all ceremony as though he were indeed him whom he represents."

Brandilancia paled slightly, but not at the danger in which he stood. "The Grand Duke is correct in his suspicions," he said, "I have lied to you, I am not the Earl of Essex."

She smiled enigmatically. "You have known it all along?" he exclaimed. "Then I am a poorer actor than I thought."

"Nay, you acted your part well, but early in our acquaintance I knew you for a nobler man than the Earl of Essex. I have no guess as to the station to which you may have been born, but you are fitted to play a knightly part, on a far different stage from this, my King among men."

"And when I have won my crown," he replied, "the world shall know that it was your faith in me which nerved me to the effort, for I shall lay it at your feet, my Queen, the only woman who has ever really understood or cared for me." His arms were about her and she was sobbing in the excitement of her triumph. "Yes, yes," she cried, "you will come again, but now you must fly. What am I that I should hold you thus when you stand in danger of your life?"

"Have no fear for me dear lady," he replied. "The Grand Duke is fair-minded, and will not fail to credit my assertions when I explain why I undertook this adventure."

"My uncle believes nothing without absolute proof. Such chivalrous motives as yours would seem to him incredible. If you fail to convince him of your identity he will execute you as a common rogue. If you prove it he will use every inch of his advantage ere you escape his clutches. You must fly, but how? On learning an hour since, that Radicofani had descended to the city, I ordered our horses for a ride only to learn that he had left strict orders at the stables and at the gates of the villa that you were not to be allowed to leave the grounds. My friend, you are a close prisoner. Think fast. What can you do?"

"Nothing, dear lady, but trust that since I have committed no crime I shall not receive the treatment of a criminal."

"What loss of time is this?" exclaimed Leonora as she suddenly made her appearance from behind the hedge. "Here I have stood on guard for half an hour by the sun-dial and you have wasted it in idle chatter. I tell you, Signor, my mistress is right, you are as good as a dead man if you trust to the Grand Duke; but take the advice of the Owlet and we will foil him nicely."

For an instant a suspicion flashed across his mind that her apparent friendliness was untrustworthy. It was she, he suspected, who had ushered Radicofani into the garden on the previous evening, or at least had failed to give warning of his approach. But he dismissed these thoughts as unworthy.

"What expedient do you suggest Leonora?" he asked.

"Do you not recognise that contadina," the dwarf replied, "the one standing between the fountain and the parapet yonder? She is a friend of yours and will help me save you."

"A friend of mine!" Brandilancia repeated wonderingly.

Leonora laughed maliciously. "Have you forgotten possessing yourself of a little fan which my mistress dropped, quite by accident, from a window on the day of your arrival, and that you were assisted in finding it by the laundress of the villa? The artful jade has a better memory. She does not fail to remind me of the incident and to inquire for you whenever she calls for the linen. I have been obliged to stop her mouth with more than one coin to keep her from blabbing to the Grand Duchess. However that incident proves to have been all for the best. Her cart is at the kitchen door, she is waiting there at my orders. Summon her to your room, purchase and don the costume which she now wears. With her kerchief shading your face no one will recognise you, and you will drive away in triumph throned upon her hampers, until well beyond the city when you can turn the donkey loose and catch the Venetian post."

View from the Garden of the Villa Medici

His laugh rang out boyishly. "The adventure of Bucciolo, which I read to the Signorina, from the tales of Ser Giovanni suggested that expedient," he said. "It were a good motive for a roaring farce, but I must consider the dignity of the name I bear."

"Nay speak it not," entreated Marie de' Medici in a whisper, throwing her arms about his neck. "I heard a step upon the gravel."

He regarded her wonderingly, "Let who will hear," he persisted. "It shall never be said that the Earl of Essex slunk from danger in a wench's petticoats."

"Well spoken, I like you the better for that," laughed a loud voice, and Captain Radicofani parting the shrubbery suddenly appeared, interrupting, for the second time, their confidences. "How unsuspectingly you children fell into my trap," he sneered. "I knew that the Signorina would warn you. You were acting a tableau I presume just now as you held her in your embrace. A pretty scene, i' faith, but one of which the Grand Duke will not be amused to hear. I had hoped to learn still more of the libretto of this little play, but you know more of mine. We will make no further pretence, and lest I lose you by further shilly-shallying, we will start upon our journey at once.

"Until we are well upon our way, Signorina, may I beg you, and Leonora also, to remain in your own suite of apartments and to attempt to hold no communication with this gentleman?"

Marie de' Medici bowed haughtily. "I shall employ the time in writing my uncle how unwarrantably Captain Radicofani exceeds his orders," she replied as she swept angrily from the belvedere.

Seeing that the indignation of her mistress merely amused the condottiere the dwarf took a cajoling tone. "At least your highness will remain to luncheon," she said insinuatingly.

"That invitation I am powerless to refuse," replied the Captain, "but you may order it served in this gentleman's chamber, whither I will now conduct him."

With a disconcerting chuckle Radicofani suited his action to the word, and busied himself with preparations for the journey, taking care, however, as he strode from ante-room to bed-chamber to keep his prisoner constantly in sight. The latter's hope of escape had reached a low ebb when Malespini knocked timidly. He had brought certain papers which the Signor had left in the library. Captain Radicofani received the secretary distrustfully and bestowed the papers among his own effects. "I will look them over," he commented, "and if innocent pass them on to our friend before we arrive in Florence."

Malespini retreated deferentially, but, once outside the door he executed a silent war-dance as an outlet for his rage. In its eccentric evolutions he hurtled against a servant bringing the luncheon, and fully half of the viands poured like an avalanche down the stairs. While the man strove to gather up the broken crockery the secretary snatched the tray and with ill-concealed triumph re-entered the apartment.

"Is this all you have brought?" grumbled the disappointed Captain.

"Truly," replied the wily Malespini, "this light collation was intended solely for his highness the Earl of Essex, who I hear must keep his room. For your lordship dinner awaits in the banquet-room, where the Grand Duchess has ordered a boar's-head, stuffed with sage and onions, together with a pasty of pheasants, and where she will serve you with her own hands a stirrup-cup of the Grand Duke's oldest vintage."

Captain Radicofani sprang up with alacrity, but noticing that Malespini was edging nearer to his friend, ordered the secretary gruffly to pass out before him.

"Behind the bed," said Malespini in a low voice to the prisoner, as he lighted one of the tapers in the mantel candelabra, "and take all of these candles, all or you are lost."

"Idiot," shouted the Captain; "it is not yet noon. What need of lights? Play me no tricks, but leave the room."

Springing from his chair as soon as the door had closed behind Radicofani, Brandilancia examined the huge state-bedstead, and with a little exertion trundled it forward. Behind its tapestry hangings a secret door, suspected only by a crack in the wainscotting, opened beneath his prying fingers, and revealed a spiral staircase leading downward into pitchy darkness. Comprehending Malespini's admonition, he hastily appropriated the candles, and, drawing the bedstead into its place behind him, descended the dizzily circling steps. Eighty-seven he counted, twisting round and round within the turret, and then he paused, for he distinctly heard the sound of rushing water. The air had become moist as well as cool, and the steps were green and slippery with moss. Advancing with more caution, he presently found himself in a vaulted passage a little higher than his head, where a narrow pathway followed a conduit of dark water, which reflected the flame of his candle in a thousand glancing sparkles.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares