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Title: The Word of Borgia
Author: Rafael Sabatini
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Language: English
Date first posted:  January 2014
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The Word of Borgia

by

Rafael Sabatini





I

MISTRUSTING the object of this gathering to which so secretly he had been bidden, Messer Graziani ambushed a half-score of his men about the street below, with orders to force their way into the house should he smash one of the windows as a signal.

Therefore it was with a mind comparatively at ease that he entered the long, low-ceilinged room where the conspirators awaited him. Situated in the mezzanine, this room ran the entire width of that palace of the Lord Ranieri, near the Bridge of Augustus, in Rimini, and overlooked the street at one end and the River Marecchia at the other.

It had an air of gloomy splendor; the walls were hung with gloomy tapestries, the carpet was of darkest purple, and amid the sparse furniture there was a deal of ebony, looking the more funereal for its ivory inlays. It was lighted by an alabaster-globed lamp on the ponderous overmantel, and by two silver candle-branches on the long table in mid-apartment. An enormous fire was roaring on the hearth, for it was a bitterly cold night of January, and the snow lay thick upon the city.

Graziani was cordially received by the Lord Ranieri—a portly, florid patrician of middle age—and conducted by him to the table about which the five remaining conspirators were seated. One of these rose instantly to add to Ranieri's his own welcome of the condottiere. He was a tall and very stately gentleman, with a long, swarthy face that was rendered longer by a brown, pointed beard. He was dressed in black, but with a superlative elegance, and a medallion of brilliants blazed upon his breast. He was the Prince Sinibaldi; a nobleman of Venice sent as an envoy by the Most Serene Republic to felicitate Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and Romagna, upon the recent conquest of Rimini.

Now this ambassador it was—and not Ranieri—who had bidden Graziani to that meeting. And it was this circumstance that had had awakened the suspicions of the Borgian soldier, ever mistrustful of all that came from Venice.

Of the others—whose eight eyes were intent now upon Graziani's face—three were gentlemen of Rimini, men of little account to the condottiere; but the fourth—a slight untidy fellow with a ghastly, hollow-cheeked face and lank hair that was faded to the color of ashes—he knew for a Roman named Gino d'Agnolo, and his presence went to swell the soldier's mistrust.

The fellow had but one hand—his left—which was as gnarled and yellow as a hen's foot. The other he had left in Rome together with his tongue, having been deprived of both by order of Cesare Borgia, whom he had defamed. His hatred of the Borgias and his virulence had been terrific; and they remained unabated by his punishment, though their expression was temporarily curtailed.

His fierce eyes glared mistrustfully at Graziani as the officer took the seat that was offered him; he opened his empty mouth to make a horrid, croaking sound, accompanying it by gestures to the Venetian.

* * *

THE Lord Ranieri resumed his seat at the table's foot; at its head Prince Sinibaldi remained standing, and from the breast of his doublet, where two buttons were unfastened, he drew now a small ebony and ivory crucifix.

"When we shall have made known to you the reason for which we sought your presence here to-night, Messer Graziani," said he, "it shall be yours to determine whether you will lend us your aid in the undertaking that is afoot. Should you refuse, it shall be yours to depart as you have come. But first we must engage you by solemn oath that neither by word nor deed shall you divulge what may be revealed to you of our designs."

The Prince paused. Graziani reared his young head and looked slowly round the board. All eyes were upon him intently, alive with a mistrust and enmity that naught could efface but the oath required of him.

Sinibaldi gently pushed the crucifix down the table toward him.

"First, upon that sacred Symbol of our Redeemer—" he was beginning, when Graziani pushed back his chair and rose.

He knew enough. Here was for certain a conspiracy against the State or against the life of his lord the Duke of Valentinois. It needed no more words to tell him that; and he was no fool to bind himself by oath to a silence that must make him a party to the treason.

"Sirs," said he, "it is not my way to thrust myself blindly into any business and make oath upon matters that are unknown to me. Suffer me, therefore, to take my leave at once."

He stepped back from the table, clearly intent upon departure; and instantly all six were upon their feet and looking to their weapons.

Graziani turned to the Lord Ranieri, who had flung himself between the soldier and the door.

"My lord," said he, "I came hither in friendliness, bidden to your house with no knowledge of what awaited me. I trust to your honor, my lord, to see that I depart in like case—in friendliness and with no knowledge of what is here toward. I would urge—"

A stealthy sound behind him made him turn, and Agnolo—who had crept up—leapt upon him, fierce as a rat, his dagger raised. The blade descended, and snapped upon the links of the shirt of mail the soldier wore beneath his quilted doublet.

The next instant Graziani had caught up that wretched wisp of humanity by the breast, and had dashed him across the room. The mute hurtled into one of the conspirators who stood midway between the table and the window, and threw the latter off his balance, so that in his turn he staggered against an ebony pedestal, and sent the marble Cupid that had occupied it crashing through the casement into the street below.

It was more than Graziani had intended, but no more than he could have desired. He observed the effect, smiled grimly, whipped out his blade, swung his cloak upon his left arm, and attempted to reach the door backward. But his enemies closed about him to cut him down, and when one sword had been shivered against his armored body, the remaining sought to reach his head.

He defended himself desperately, intent upon gaining time. If he could but hold out for a few moments, his men would be there in answer to the signal of the broken window. With that intent he backed before them until his shoulders touched the tapestried wall. There they pressed him hard, three swords at once, and he had no chance of further breaking ground, no chance of lessening the number of his opponents, no chance of doing more than parry their blows until relief should come, and little chance of that.

* * *

SUDDENLY Sinibaldi's blade licked in and out again with lightning quickness in a feint, and was swung round to a cutting stroke at Graziani's head. Dazzled Graziani was slow to the parry. He threw up his blade, but too late to do more than break the force of the blow as it descended. The edge, though somewhat deflected, sheared through his bonnet and laid his scalp open.

He dropped his sword, slithered gently down the wall and sat huddled at the foot of it, insensible, the blood streaming down his face. Sinibaldi was for putting a dagger through the soldier's windpipe, and thus making quite sure of him, but he was suddenly checked by the horrible, vehement outcry of the mute who had remained by the window, and simultaneously by blows upon thee door below.

For a long moment the conspirators stood at gaze, smitten with sudden terror, whilst the blows upon the door were repeated and loud voices summoned them to open.

Ranieri swore thickly and horribly.

"We are trapped! Betrayed!"

Uproar followed, until the mute showed the way out. He had crossed the room at a run, and, nimble as a cat, he had leaped upon a table under the window that overlooked the river, from which the house rose sheer. He never stayed to open. The acquaintance he had already made with Borgia justice quickened his terrors to the point of frenzy. He hurled himself bodily through, shivering the window and going down in a shower of broken glass to the black, icy waters below.

Like sheep they followed him. One after another they took the leap. Fortunately for them the tide was flowing, and it bore them up toward the Bridge of Augustus, where they could effect a landing—all save Agnolo, the mute, who was drowned, and Sinibaldi, who remained behind. Like Graziani, the Venetian, too, had come to that meeting with a shirt of mail under his doublet; and he had bethought him that this armor must sink him. So he had paused to doff it, vainly calling upon the others to wait for him.

Ranieri had answered him, standing upon the table, ready for the leap.

"Wait?" he had echoed. "Are you mad? Is this time to wait? Now more than ever must the thing be done, or we are all dead men—and it must be done to-night, as was planned. Your men are at their post. Come on, then!"

And he went through the window, and into the water with a thudding splash. Like an echo of it came a crash from below to announce that the door had given way. Heavy steps thundered up the stairs.

* * *

SINIBALDI, tearing still at the buttons of his doublet, sprang desperately for the window and wondered a moment whether he should risk drowning. Then he remembered that after all as the envoy of Venice he was inviolable, a man upon whom no finger was to be laid without provoking the resentment of the Republic. He had nothing to fear, where nothing could be proved against him. Not even Graziani could have said enough to imperil the sacred person of an envoy; and Graziani, he was assured, would never say anything again.

So he sheathed his sword and composed himself.

The door burst open and Graziani's men swarmed in, all ten of them, so furiously that they bore the Prince backward and all but trampled on him. A grizzled ancient, heading them, checked in mid-chamber and looked round, bewildered until he espied his fallen captain huddled at the wall's foot. He roared his anger at the sight, what time his men closed about the saturnine Venetian.

With as great dignity as was possible to a man so circumstanced, Sinibaldi sought to hold them off.

"You touch me at your peril," he warned them. "I am Prince Sinibaldi, the Envoy of Venice."

Over his shoulder the ancient answered him:

"Were you Prince Lucifer, Envoy of Topset, you should still account for what was doing here and how my Captain came by his hurt. Make him fast!"

Vainly did the Venetian storm, threaten and plead. They disarmed him, bound his wrists behind his back, and thrust him from the room, down the stairs and out into the snow-spread street.

Four remained above with the ancient who, on his knees, was looking to his Captain. And Graziani began to show signs of life. With one hand he smeared away some of the blood from his face, and opened his eyes dully to survey his ancient.

"You were no more than in time, Barbo," said he, his voice hoarse and feeble. "Get you to my lord Duke. Tell him that here was some treason plotting—something that is to be done to-night by those who escaped. Bid His Magnificence beware. Haste man, I—"

"Their names! Their names, Captain!" cried the ancient urgently.

But it was as if by sheer will Graziani had kept a grip of his senses until he could utter his warning. That done he relinquished the painful hold and slipped back into the peace and shadows of unconsciousness.

II

IN THE Communal palace of Rimini a great banquet was spread in honor of Cesare Borgia, the conqueror—the "Minister Divinae Justitiae"—who had delivered the State from the thraldom of Pandolfaccio, the hated Malatesta. Gathered there was a great number of repatriated fuorusciti—the nobles whom Pandolfaccio had exiled from his dominions that he might strip them of their possessions.

Jubilant, assured that Borgia justice would right the wrongs that had been done, these patricians gave free expression to their high spirits. Present too were the ambassadors and envoys of several powers, sent to congratulate the Duke upon his latest conquest. But it was in vain that Cesare turned his beautiful hazel eyes this way and that in quest of Sinibaldi, the princely Envoy of Venice.

The Orator of the Most Serene Republic, the smug and portly Capello, was in attendance, seated near the Duke. But the Envoy Extraordinary was nowhere to be seen; and Cesare, who missed nothing and left no riddles unsolved—particularly when they concerned a power so crafty and so hostile as that of Venice—was vexed to know the reason of this absence. It was the more remarkable in that Sinibaldi's princess—a stately, blonde woman, whose stomacher was a scintillating cuirass of gems—was seated on Cesare's right hand, between the sober black of the President of the Council and the scarlet of the handsome Cardinal-Legate.

The young Duke lounged in his great chair, a tall, supple gentleman of some five and twenty years, resplendent in a close-fitting doublet of cloth of gold that was edged with miniver. His pale, beautiful face was thoughtful, and his tapering, jeweled fingers strayed ever and anon to the point of his tawny beard.

The actual banquet touched its end, and the great hall, about three sides of which the tables were set, was being cleared by the seneschal. A comedy was about to be performed for the company's delectation. Tragedy, however—all unsuspected—was in preparation; and the actor who suddenly stalked in to speak its prologue, thrusting aside the lackeys who would have hindered him, was Barbo, the ancient of Graziano's company.

"My lord!" he bellowed. "My lord Duke!" And his hands fiercely buffeted the grooms. "I tell you, fools, that I must speak instantly with his Highness."

The company had fallen silent, some startled by this intrusion, others wondering if this might be the opening of the comedy that impended. One or two rose to their feet. But it was Cesare who spoke, his voice crisp and metallic, bidding the man approach.

"What brings you thus?" quoth he, when Barbo stood before him.

"Treason, my lord," said the soldier, startling the company with that ugly word.

Cesare signed to him to proceed, and the fellow plunged headlong into the speech he had prepared.

"Messer Graziani lies senseless with a broken head, else were he here in my place, Most Potent. By his command, we—ten men of his company—broke to-night into the palace of the Lord Ranieri, and—

"Stay!" the Duke interrupted him peremptorily. "We are too public here."

But that was not his real motive. The real motive was that at Barbo's words Cesare's keen ears had caught the sounds of a sudden gasp and rustle on his right. He had shot a glance in the direction of the sound to see that Sinibaldi's lady had sunk back in her chair, her cheeks livid, her blue eyes staring with terror.

In a flash his swift brain had laid fact to fact and had found the solution of the riddle that had earlier puzzled him—the riddle of Sinibaldi's absence. He knew now where Sinibaldi had been that night, though he had yet to learn what manner of treason the Prince had been engaged upon.

He rose, and the company rose with him out of deference—all save Sinibaldi's Princess, who made the effort, but failed in it, as Cesare noted. He waved a hand to the feasters, smiling urbanely.

"Sirs and ladies, it is my desire that you be not disturbed by this." He turned to the President o: the Council: "If you, messer, will give me leave apart a moment with this fellow—"

"Assuredly, my lord, assuredly!" cried the President, flung into a sort of confusion by Cesare's lordly deference. "This way, Magnificent—this closet here—you will be private so." Stammering, fluttering, he stepped down the hall to throw open a side-door. Drawing back, he waved the Duke into a small antechamber.

Cesare entered, followed by Barbo. The door closed upon them, and beyond it there broke forth a babble of excited voices, as the guests fell to discussing this interruption.

Shortly now Barbo related the happenings of that night at Ranieri's house, repeating what Graziani had bidden him, and announcing that he held captive at least one of the conspirators—the Prince Sinibaldi.

"I trust that in this I have done nothing to deserve reproach, Magnificent," the fellow added with some hesitation. "His Excellency spoke of being an envoy of the Most Serene—"

Cesare waved his doubts aside.

"You have done well," he cut in shortly.

He turned, and strode the chamber's length and back again, slowly, fingering his beard, his brow dark with thought.

"You have no hint of the aim of the conspiracy? Of what this thing is they are to attempt to-night?" he asked.

"None, my lord—alas!"

"Nor who the men were that escaped?"

"No, my lord, save that one of them would probably be the Lord Ranieri."

"Ay—but the others—And we do not even know how many there were."

Cesare checked. He remembered the Princess Sinibaldi. She knew. Her bearing had betrayed that knowledge. He smiled darkly.

"Desire the Princess Sinibaldi to attend me here."

Barbo saluted and withdrew. Soon the door opened again. Barbo ushered in the princess, and at a sign from Cesare vanished!

* * *

THE Venetian lady stood before Cesare, deathly pale, her bosom galloping. With the very courtliest grace his Highness waved her to a chair. She sank into it limply. She moistened her dry lips, her startled eyes upon the Duke's face.

He set his finger-tips upon the edge of the table, and leaned across toward her.

"I have sent for you, madonna," he said, his tone the very gentlest, "to afford you an opportunity of rescuing your husband's neck from the hands of the strangler."

"Oh, my God!" gasped the afflicted woman, and clutched her bosom with both hands.—"I knew it! My heart had told me!"

"You alarm yourself without need," he said, and no tone could have been more soothing and reassuring. "Prince Sinibaldi is a prisoner below, awaiting my pleasure. But my pleasure, madonna, is your pleasure. I place his life in your hands."

She looked at him—looked up into that beautiful, smiling young face, into those hazel eyes that looked so gentle now—and cowered a moment, abjectly, Then her spirit rallied. He saw her stiffen, and if her voice shook there was defiance in her glance.

"My lord is the accredited envoy of the Most Serene," she said. "His person is inviolate. A hurt to him were a hurt to the Republic whose representative he is, and the Republic is not slow to avenge herself. You dare not touch him! You dare not! You dare not!" Her voice, grew strident.

Smiling still, he bowed. "I will leave you happy, then, in that conviction," said he, with a note of mockery so sinister that it broke her new-found spirit into shards.

She staggered to her feet, a hand to her heart, her eyes dilating.

"My lord! My lord! A moment! Have pity!"

He paused, his hand already upon the latch.

"Pity, madonna, as I have told you, lies with you. Your husband has been taken in treason. If—as I seem to see—you love him, and would not have him strangled this very night, it is yours to rescue him."

Wildly she scanned his face for some clue to his meaning. Thus in silence for a dozen heart-beats. Then—

"What—What do you require of me?"

Slowly he retraced his steps until he stood before her again. "All that is known to you of this conspiracy in which he was taken."

She covered her face with her hands and moaned a little. She swayed a a moment. He steadied her with gentle hands, and gently pressed her back into her chair.

"It is true," he explained, "that I do not wish to embroil myself with the Most Serene. And so I seek to gain my ends by gentle measures. But by the saints! If my gentle measures do not prevail with you, Prince Sinibaldi shall be stretched taut on the rack, and what is left of him shall be strangled afterward—ay, though he were an envoy of the Empire itself. My name," he ended, "is Cesare Borgia. You may have heard of me."

Of his determination his words left her no slightest doubt; and she had heard of his ways, as he suggested. She looked into his eyes again, and caught avidly now at the straw he held out to her.

"You give me his life for this information?" she cried.

"Tell me all you know of the treason that was plotting this night at Ranieri's, and I swear to you by my honor and my hopes of heaven that neither I not man of mine shall hurt so much as a hair of Sinibaldi's beard."

"He may blame me—" she began faltering.

Cesare's eyes gleamed.

"He need never know," said he insidiously. He was eager now. Reluctantly did he offer such a bargain. But it must be made. The matter was urgent. The blow—whatever its nature—was to be struck that very night; so that time pressed. He must learn at once, and at all costs, how to elude and parry it.

"You pledge me your word—" she began again.

"Already have I pledged it, madonna, and I do not forswear myself."

* * *

AT LAST he drew from her the sum of her considerable knowledge. Last night the Lord Ranieri had visited her husband. Already had she suspected that Sinibaldi was plotting with this friend of the fallen Malatesta. So she had been spurred to listen; and she had overheard that it was against Cesare Borgia's life that they conspired. Ranieri spoke of this banquet at the Communal. Cesare was to be escorted by torch-light back to the fortress of Sigismondo where he was lodged; and that should be their opportunity.

At some point on the road two crossbow-men were to be posted, to shoot the Duke as he rode by. To make doubly sure of Cesare's offering a fair mark, it was to be arranged that no mounted guards should hang upon his flank at this point; the halberdiers, being footmen, would not signify, as the crossbowmen could fire over their heads. To insure this Sinibaldi proposed to seduce Graziani, whom he had some cause to believe disaffected.

"That was all I overheard, my lord," she ended.

"Enough, as I live!" snorted Cesare, his eyes blazing.

His countenance flung her into fresh terror. She rose in her agitation, and appealed to him to remember his plighted word. He put aside his wrath, as a man puts off a mask, and smiled.

"Have no doubt," said he. "Neither I nor man of mine shall lay a finger upon your husband. And now, madonna, you were best away, I think. You arc overwrought."

She confessed it, and professed herself glad to depart.

"The prince shall follow you," said Cesare, as he hurried her to the door. "But first we shall endeavor to make our peace with him. Be content," he added, noting the fresh terror that leaped to her eyes—for she bethought her of what manner of peace Cesare was wont to make with his enemies—-"he shall be treated with all honor. I shall convert him by friendliness from these traitors who have seduced him."

"It is so! It is so!" she exclaimed eagerly.

He bowed his agreement, and opened the door. He entrusted her to the President of the Council to conduct her thence and to her litter; then he stepped back to his place at the head of the board, and set a brave example of mirth, as if not a care or thought weighed upon his mind. Thus he restored a gay humor to the feast.

But when the President had returned from his mission, Cesare raised a finger, and signed to the steel-clad Barbo, who stood waiting as he had been bidden.

"Bring in Prince Sinibaldi," he said, and with that laid constraint and silence anew upon the company.

The Orator of Venice, the portly, slimy Capello, heaved himself to his feet, and, in the intensity of his perturbation, made so bold as to go round to Cesare's chair, to whisper a protest in the ducal ear.

"A little patience, sir," was all that Cesare answered him; but the glance in the Duke's eyes drove back the flabby ambassador like a blow.

* * *

THE double doors at the hall's end were opened, and Barbo returned with Sinibaldi and an escort of four men of Graziani's company. The prince's wrists were still pinioned behind him; he was without hat or cloak and his clothes were in some disarray.

The company's amazement deepened; a murmur ran round the board. At a sign from Cesare the guards fell away from the Venetian, whilst Barbo parsed to remove, at last, the prisoner's bonds.

Sinibaldi, the very incarnation now of scornful dignity, held his head high and boldly fixed his eyes on Cesare's impassive face. Then, without being bidden, he burst into angry speech.

"Is it by your Potency's commands that these indignities are put upon me—upon the sacred person of an envoy?" he cried. "The Most Serene, whose mouthpiece I have the honor to be, whose representative I am, is not one lightly to brook such treatment."

Cesare sniffed delicately at his pomander ball.

"I trust I apprehend you amiss when I gather that you threaten. It is not well to threaten us, Excellency; not even for an Envoy of the Most Serene." There was something terrible in the cold, level tones, something still more terrible in the eyes that smiled upon the Venetian, so that Sinibaldi quailed and lost much of his fine arrogance, as many another tall fellow had done when face to face with the young Duke of Valentinois.

Capello in the background wrung his hands and suppressed a groan.

"Let us hear, my lord, your own version of this night's affair," quoth Cesare.

The Venetian had his tale prepared, and out it came forthwith. It was the tale that might have been Graziani's, and was cunningly adapted to Sinibaldi's need.

"I was bidden my lord, in secret to-night to the house of my lord Ranieri, urged by the statement that a matter of life and death was to be treated which concerned me closely. I found a small company assembled there; but ere they would tell me the purpose of that gathering, they desired me to make an irrevocable oath that whether or not I became a party to the matters that were to be disclosed to me, I would never divulge a single word of it, nor the name of any whom I had met there.

"I am not a fool, Magnificent, and I scented treason, as they knew I must. I would have drawn back; but already had I gone too far in going there, and it was plain that they would never suffer me to depart again to spread the alarm. So in self-defense I took the oath imposed; and having taken it I announced that I desired to hear no more of any plot that might be theirs, and I begged them to let me depart now that they had sworn me to silence.

"But men of their sort are easily fearful of betrayal. They refused to let me go; a fight ensued in which one of them fell to my sword. Then the noise of our brawling brought in a patrol. The conspirators flung themselves from a window into the river. But I—having nothing to fear since I was innocent of any evil—remained, and so, came to be taken."

There was a gasp of relief from Capello at that explanation.

"You see, Magnificent, you see—" he was beginning.

"Peace, man!" the Duke bade him impatiently. Then very courteously he turned to Sinibaldi.

"My lord," he said, "it grieves me that you should have been mishandled by my guards; but you will perceive that until you told your tale the appearances convicted you; and so, you will acquit us, I am sure, of any discourtesy to the representative of the Most Serene.

"I may add that in the case of any one less accredited, I might be less ready to accept the explanation you have proffered, and I might press for the names of the men who, you are satisfied, were engaged in treason."

"Those names I should already have afforded your Magnificence but for the oath that binds me," answered Sinibaldi.

"That, too, I understand; and so, my lord, I do not ask a question which you might have a difficulty in answering. Let us forget this unhappy incident. A place for the Prince Sinibaldi—here at my side. Come, my lord, let me play host to you, and make you amends for the rude handling you have suffered in this my city. Here is a wine that in itself should be some recompense. A whole Tuscan Summer is in every flagon."

Scarcely believing himself so easily out of his terrible position, wondering whether he were not perhaps dreaming, Sinibaldi sank into the chair that was set for him at the Duke's side. The men-at-arms clattered out, the mimes were summoned to perform their comedy, and the evening wore merrily on to its conclusion, what time Cesare Borgia played the host to the Venetian prince, leaving him overwhelmed, by the courtly charm in which no man of his day could surpass the Duke.

And whilst he laughed and jested, Cesare's mind was pondering the situation. He was wondering how far the Serene Republic herself might have a hand in this matter, how far Sinibaldi might be an agent sent expressly to do this work of murder. At every step, in every way, Venice had betrayed her hostility. By arms and money she had secretly reinforced his enemies against him. By intrigues and audacious slanders she had sought to embroil him, now with France and now with Spain. Was Sinibaldi the hand of the Republic in this affair?

It behooved the Duke to walk with caution. He must respect the word he had pledged to Sinibaldi's lady; yet he must punish Sinibaldi, and he must take the fellow's confederates so that the treason be stamped out. And he must perform all this without giving Venice the least cause for grievance, remembering that Sinibaldi's story was not to be refuted since Graziani—the only man who knew the truth besides Cesare—was insensible and not likely to live.

Toward midnight, at last, Cesare rose to withdraw. But not yet would he part with his new-found friend Sinibaldi. The Venetian must ride with him to the citadel—ay, and the Venetian Orator, too, must be of the party.

Arm in arm the Duke of Valentinois and Prince Sinibaldi went down the ball and along the gallery toward the great courtyard, where men were getting to horse and ladies into their litters, and where a hundred torches were already blazing.

Near the guard-house a lackey in Cesare's livery of black advanced, bearing the Duke's cap and cloak.

* * *

NOW it happened that this cloak—which was of tiger-skin very richly laced with gold—was as costly as it was conspicuous. It was a present that Sultan Bajazet had sent to Borgia out of Turkey; and Cesare had worn it constantly since the cold weather had set in, not only out of his love of splendor, but also for the great warmth that it afforded.

As the lackey now advanced with that noble garment, Cesare turned suddenly to his companion.

"You have no cloak, my lord, and it is a bitter night. Since out of loyalty to me you lost your own, let me replace it and at the same time offer you this poor token of the esteem in which I hold you and the Serene Republic which you represent."

He took the cloak from the servant and held it for the Prince. Sinibaldi's eye looked into Cesare's. The Duke was smiling; ad yet, to the Venetian there was something terribly significant in that smile. Cesare knew. Sinibaldi realized it, and saw that he was trapped.

What could he say? How, short of an open avowal, short of declaring that the wearing of that cloak would be a danger to him, should he decline the proffered honor? And in that moment the fat Capello shuffled up, rubbing his hands in satisfaction, for he had overheard the Duke's gracious words.

"A noble gift, Magnificent!" he purred. "And the honor to our Prince will be held by the Most Serene as an honor to herself."

"Nay," laughed Cesare, "it is no more than the Prince's due."

Sinibaldi alone caught the sinister second meaning of the words, and trembled in the heart of him, cursing Capello for a fool. Then he took courage. He bethought him that it would be more than likely after what had passed that the conspirators would hold their hands that night. If so, then all would be well. After all, Cesare could no more than suspect. With definite knowledge the Duke must have acted in a more definite manner.

Reasoning thus, Sinibaldi recovered some of his assurance, murmured some words of gratitude and hints of his unworthiness, and submitted to have the cloak thrust upon him and even a scarlet velvet cap, which too, was Cesare's own. Then he mounted the splendid charger that likewise—further to do him honor—Cesare placed at his disposal. And all the while Messer Capello stood by, licking his lips to see so much deference paid the envoy of his Government.

"That is a lively horse, my lord," said Cesare to the prince, at parting. "But my footmen will be about you in case it should grow restive." And again Sinibaldi read the threat that underlay the words, and conceived their true meaning to be that it would be futile for him to attempt to escape the test to which he was being submitted.

Thus they rode out through streets that were still thronged to see this magnificent cavalcade flanked by footmen bearing torches. And few perceived that the tall man on the splendidly caparisoned horse, in the scarlet bonnet and tiger-skin cloak, riding with the Venetian Orator for only companion, was not the Duke of Valentinois; few paid any heed to the man in the black cloak and heavy hat, who rode a little way behind, almost eclipsed by a group of gay cavaliers that surrounded him. And such was the clamor of the crowd that none heard the twice-repeated twang of an arbalest from a house at the corner of the Piazza della Cittadella. But the grooms sprang forward to seize the bridle of Sinibaldi's charger, and a great uproar was raised when the man in the tiger-skin cloak rolled sideways from the saddle with an arbalest-bolt in his brain.

First was heard the awful cry:

"The Duke is dead!"

And then, as if by magic, there, on horseback, sat the duke himself, his brazen voice ringing above the din and confusion.

"In there!" he shouted, flinging an arm toward the house. "In, I say; and see that not a man escapes you. It is the Envoy of Venice whom they have murdered, and they shall pay for it with their necks, whosoever they may be!"

The house was already surrounded, and into Cesare's net fell the four conspirators together with two sbirri who were of the household of Sinibaldi, as their liveries showed.

They were dragged forward into the square, where a great circle had been formed by the torch-bearers, and at last the truth of the matter entered the sluggish brain of Capello, Sinibaldi had been mistaken for the Duke. Had the Duke, he wondered, so intended it? If so, heavy should be the reckoning with Venice. He swung round upon Cesare, a fury in his eyes. But ere he could speak Cesare had seized him by the shoulder and was pointing to the stricken Ranieri and his fellow-prisoners.

"Look, Messer Capello!" he cried "Look—Ranieri, of all men, to have done this thing. And the others—all Sicibaldi's friends; and two of them in his own livery—his own servants, as I live! And they have murdered him!"

And Capello understood that to declare that Sinibaldi had been shot in Cesare's stead was to declare that Sinibaldi had planned the shooting—to convict by a very simple inference the envoy of the Most Serene.

Blankly, trembling, Capello looked into the Borgia's eyes, and saw that the Borgia mocked him. And, bitterer still, he was forced to play the dupe; forced to pretend that he saw in this no more than Cesare intended that the world should see. He stifled his rage and chagrin, and stood there with bowed head. He must play the part imposed upon him.

"My lord," he cried, "I appeal to you for justice against these murderers in the name of Venice!"

"It shall be done, sir. Trust me to avenge a servant of the Most Serene."

Next morning six bodies dangled from the balcony of the house whence the bolts had been shot—Cesare Borgia's justice upon the murderers of Prince Sinibaldi.

He was pleased when Capello came, white-faced, to thank him in the name of the Republic for that summary justice; but best pleased to reflect that he had kept his word to the prince's lady, and that neither he nor any man of his had set a finger upon Sinibaldi to avenge the Venetian's plotting against himself.


THE END

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