Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The man moved swiftly through the shadows of the Via Colonna. It was early fall in this year 1746, and the cool night wind off the Apennines ruffled the folds of the thick greatcoat which sheathed him from jackboots to tricorne hat. A long rapier showed its hilt as he paused, swinging about to stare up the empty length of the long gray street.
For the tenth time, the man put his hand on an inner pocket of his waistcoat. The rustle of paper told him the note was safe. This perfumed note had brought him galloping from Savona to Rome. Its hastily scrawled feminine handwriting promised that the writer would help him achieve the revenge for which he thirsted.
The night was still, so still that the man could hear the faint rattle of a tradesman’s cart on the cobblestones of a distant public square. Sight of the empty street reassured him. He drew his greatcoat closer about him and emerged from the shadows.
Shortly now he would have the names of the murderers: those four men who, with the Count of Piabito, had put cold steel in the living bodies of his father and brother. For three months he had searched the Adriatic coast. Now, in Rome on this spring night, he would learn their names.
To his eager eyes, the great pile of stone and masonry that was the Palazzo Dei Gracchi seemed almost to glow. Its flat roof was set with a low marble balustrade, and the many square-topped windows were fitted with pedimented hoods. Only on the first floor did any light show; there a tin lantern hung in the loggia.
The man in the greatcoat moved with powerful strides that revealed the fine muscular coordination of his body. He was tall, and the coat framed the great width of his shoulders. Where the shadow of his tricorne did not hide his features, moonlight revealed a strong jaw and a face turned to copper by a tropic sun.
His hand touched the bronze knocker on the street door.
Caution made him tap lightly. His was no errand of mercy or compassion. He was keeping a rendezvous with an Italian countess to discuss ways and means of ridding the world of her husband. He did not know the motives of the contessa or why she should choose him as her instrument, nor did he care. His own motive was revenge, and it sufficed.
A maidservant opened the door. Her eyes were wide in a plump face below dark curls and a mob-cap “Follow me, signor,” she whispered, dropping into a curtsy “Madonna contessa is waiting.”
She took him through the pillared loggia and up a short flight of stone steps. They moved past a partially open bedroom door toward a drawing room. Their footfalls sounded strangely loud in the otherwise silent house. They swung in through the doorway, and the visitor came to an abrupt stop.
Astonishment must have touched his face, for the countess laughed softly. He had not expected a fetching black taffeta Watteau gown, with edgings of ermine at the low, wide collar and at the cuffs of her pleated sleeves. He had pictured a thin woman with tight lips and vindictive eyes. Instead, she was lush and full-bodied, attractive in a sensual manner. Her lips were red, and the black brows above her bright eyes had been carefully plucked and arched.
“You look surprised, Captain di Cadogna. Did you think to find a gorgon?”
Michele di Cadogna bowed stiffly. His shrug begged forgiveness for his words. “I expected a termagant, I’ll confess. From what I know of your husband the Count of Piabito, I didn’t expect him to have such an eye for beauty.”
She laughed with her head thrown back, the neck curls of her elaborate coiffure shaking to her mirth. “Prettily said, captain. You live up to your reputation. . . . Samaria, take the captain’s cloak.”
Her ringed hand gestured him into a Savonarola chair.
Michele let his eyes rove about the room, studying its high, delicately paneled walls fitted with Gobelin tapestries, the corniced ceiling and tall windows framed by drapes of maroon brocade worked with silver thread. A mahogany clavichord and its bench stood to one side of an upholstered sofa. The chairs and tables were massive, and the rich colors of the Turkish carpet blended subtly with the decorative motif of the room. Beyond the little oval table where Margarita da Tulleschi stood, he saw a huge oak credenza.
He waited until the serving woman went out into the hall and closed the door; then he leaned forward, bringing the note from his waistcoat pocket.
“You sent this?” he asked.
Amusement caused her handsome black eyes to glisten. Her mouth, large yet gently molded, curved in a lazy smile. “To be sure, captain. I sent the note. Would you care for a little wine? Some Bordeaux?”
Michele drew back into the chair until he felt its low back against his spine. Suspicion came alive in his blood. He was well aware that the Count of Piabito would not scruple to set a trap for him and bait it with his lovely wife.
The contessa wore the black taffeta and ermine gown as if it were a state robe, allowing its low-cut bodice to slip a little, rewarding his gaze with the sight of smooth, creamy shoulders. He found her smile inviting, and wondered whether this meeting in the night were as much trap as tête-a-tête.
The woman pouted. “Rumor says no woman is safe alone with you, at night and in her bedroom. I begin to disbelieve it, captain. I find you terribly respectable.”
Michele di Cadogna smiled tightly. “At another time I might attempt to justify that reputation. I’ve been out of Italy for some years. I thought the extravagances of my earlier days might be forgotten by now.”
The contessa laughed and turned to the oval table. She lifted a sheet of paper and came toward him, holding it out. “My husband makes certain that your name is not forgotten. Read this.”
It was a choice bit of pornography that linked his name with that of the Countess Margarita.
“Your husband circulates this?” he asked incredulously.
“He’s a determined man. He wants you dead, one way or another. By building public sentiment against you and by posing as the injured husband, he creates excuses for the day when he murders you.”
“As he murdered my father and brother!”
She moved toward the credenza, upon which rested a silver tray with tall ewer and wine goblets. Filling two goblets, she brought them back to him. At every stride the black taffeta rustled with provocative intimacy. It reminded him that he was alone in an otherwise empty palace with a very handsome woman.
Michele held the silver cup in a hand, frowning. “You didn’t bring me here to discuss the manner in which your husband libels us. Nor to serve me red wine. There was another reason.”
“To be sure, captain. But first, drink.”
To show him that the wine was neither drugged nor poisoned, Margarita da Tulleschi drank deep, holding the goblet in both hands. The light from the ceiling candelabra caught the rings that covered her fingers, making the emeralds and diamonds sparkle with a thousand tiny fires. She placed the cup on the oval table and clasped her hands.
“Your father was Count of Astromare, captain. I wonder if you remember it?”
“I haven’t been gone a lifetime.”
“Astromare is mostly farmland and forest, with a short stretch of seacoast. It’s also quite mountainous. Since you’ve been gone from Italy, Astromare has become a very valuable piece of property. It controls the Gran Sasso mountain passes from the Papal States down into the valley of the Aterno.” She paused.
“You’ve been out of Italy for—how long? Eight years? A lot has happened in that time. A lot, perhaps, that you know nothing about. Things you ought to know, to enable you to understand a little better just why Ludovico murdered your father and brother.”
“Will explanations bring them back?”
“It may help to save your own life, captain. After all, you are Count of Astromare now.”
Michele scowled. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“I’d like to give you a little lesson in eighteenth century Italian history. Now sit back—alla prima! While you’ve been traveling over half the world, half the world has been traveling over the Italian peninsula!
“France, Spain and Austria use our lands as a mutual battleground. They fight for power while some of our finest duchies—Lombardy, Tuscany, Parma, Modena—serve as an hors d’oeuvres on their international dinner table. They annex land and people as chess players do pieces. They conscript the young men of those duchies into their armies. The young women-well, their high ranking officers must be entertained while in the field, eh?
“Ah, that touches you, does it? How many pretty peasant girls of Astromare will go into the beds of Austrian officers, do you suppose, when Charles VII sends General Lobkowitz into Naples as he plans to do? But I go ahead of my story.”
The countess moved back and forth, fluidly graceful, speaking in low tones, but running words together as if she were in haste to be done with her task, or as if she feared an interruption.
Even before the days of the Borgias, Italy had been divided into strong city states—Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan, the Papal States, Naples-all independent and powerful and proud in rivalry. But they could not stand, each one alone and by itself, against united nations like Austria, France and Spain.
By the Treaty of Utrecht and Rasstadt, Austria won the duchies of Milan and Naples. This did not sit well with Louis XV of France, nor with Phillip V of Spain and his grasping wife, Elisabetta Farnese. And so Spain went to war, marching an army through the Papal States and over the Gran Sasso pass into Naples, to defeat the Austrians at Bitonto.
The contessa moved from an ornate bronze fireplace screen to a heavily upholstered Cresson armchair, the taffeta gown rustling at every step. Her hand touched the fabric of the backrest a moment as she frowned thoughtfully.
“Naples became an independent kingdom after that with the son of Philip and Elizabetta—the Infante Charles-as its king, Carlo II. Now Austria plans to go to war again, to recover Naples as a gift to the Duke of Lorraine—Maria Theresa’s husband.”
“They must come through Astromare,” he said bitterly. “Over the Gran Sasso pass.”
A heaviness in his middle made Michele come to his feet and walk. He had grieved for his father and brother. Now he found himself sorrowing for the people of his duchy. An invading Austrian army, when it came over the Gran Sasso and down into the rich valley of the Aterno, would look on the men and women of Astromare as enemies to be looted, ravished, shot down amid gales of coarse laughter. …
“When the Spaniards crossed the Appenines,” Margarita da Tulleschi said, “they came as friends. There’s Farnese blood in your veins, and as you know the Kingdom of the Sicilies has been allied with Spain for five hundred years, since the time of Peter of Aragon.
“Your father didn’t defend the Gran Sasso against them. Rightly or wrongly he felt that Elisabetta Farnese was only staking a claim to what, in all justice, was rightfully her own.
“Ah, but now!
“Now when Austria wants to come marching over those same mountains, what would the Count of Astromare do? Would he be content to sit in his villa overlooking the Adriatic? Or would he—as Charles of Austria deemed more likely—gather his troops and march into the mountains to defend his homeland from the invaders? Charles made his choice and wrote to my husband.”
Michele smiled grimly. “You tell me that the Emperor of Austria, Charles VII, and not your husband, is the murderer. Your husband only held the dagger. Is that it?”
“It’s part of it. The rest—that in return for this service Charles promised Astromare to him with a stipend of fifteen hundred gold ducats each month—is so much salt to rub in your wound. It makes my husband out a monster.”
The contessa smiled bitterly. “That’s a fact I’ve held close to my heart since I learned it myself some years ago. Now it’s out in the open I tell myself: Margarita, you’re a fool! Why stay any longer with such a man? Still, a part of me remembers that the Count of Piabito is a very wealthy man. I can wear such fripperies as this gown, or jewels like this necklace. I ride in a carriage and have dozens of maids to wait on me. Against it, I balance my need for love and affection.”
Curiosity had its way with Captain Michele di Cadogna. “And which part of you emerges triumphant?” he asked.
“It’s too early to say, signor. The battle still rages tempestuously, believe me!”
She was an attractive woman, this contessa. The white shoulders that rose upward out of the ermine collar of her Watteau gown were smooth and plump, indicating a pleasant amplitude to the bosom that strained roundly into its bodice. Tight across the curve of her hips, the taffeta suggested further shapeliness of thigh.
“Starved for love?” Michele said. “You? This I cannot credit, signora. Were you to say a fever for one particular man burned in your veins I could believe. This other, that you balance riches against ribaldry, I cannot.”
Her arched black brows rose. “Ah! Now I begin to discover the Michele di Cadogna who was the talk of Rome in his youth. You and that other rascal-what was his name? —Casanova! Giacomo Casanova! Fellow students at the Sapienza, weren’t you? Ringleaders in all kinds of devils-try!”
He grinned. “Casanova! I’d forgotten him!”
Michele shook his head. “I’ve sobered since those days, madonna. I’m no longer the scapegrace. I hold a naval commission from the King of England. I served with Commodore Martin in America. A man learns temperance. Even such a man as I.”
Margarita da Tulleschi pouted. “Pooh! What excitement is to be found in a temperate man? A woman likes to have her virtue challenged. She enjoys being thought desirable. Even a highly respectable woman secretly thinks she could be a femme fatale if ever she put her mind to it. Men like Casanova keep such thoughts alive and such pleasant imageries keep a woman young. So did you, once.”
Gloomily he said, “My mission in Rome is not to please amorous women. I wish it were.”
The countess sighed and shrugged. “I don’t like to say this, but—your family is dead. You are alive. And a man with something to live for, other than a vendetta, will stay alive longer than a bitter misanthrope.”
Margarita went to the oak credenza and brought back the silver ewer. She poured wine into both cups and handed one to him. “Sometimes it helps to talk about a sorrow. It drains the heart, as medicine extracts a poison.”
Michele closed his hand around the stem of the heavy goblet. “What’s there to talk about? I didn’t find their bodies. I can’t tell you anything about their wounds or their last few minutes on earth.”
His words made him see again the blue waters of the Adriatic as they had been three months ago when the Royal Devon, on which he had sailed from London Town, dropped anchor in Astromare bay. The beach was a dun carpet under his jackboots as he leaped from the little cock boat, and went striding up the sand toward a row of wood and stucco cottages that formed the little fishing village on a sloping beach below the Cadogna villa.
His eyes roved the thatched roofs, the white cottage walls, the tiny, recessed windows. A two-wheeled cart stood beside a chicken run exactly as it had stood when he had left for Rome those years ago. Except for the increase in the number of chickens, he might never have been away.
An old man in striped jersey and ragged breeches opened a door and came out into the sunlight, limping on a gnarled blackthorn stick and squinting at him. Michele grinned and waved.
“Well, Pietro?” he demanded. “Don’t you know me?”
The rheumy eyes went over him slowly, then widened in recognition. “The young one! Michele!”
“I’ve been to London and across the ocean to the Americas with the English navy, Pietro.” Michele filled his lungs with the crisp, salty air. “Yet the best air in the world is here.”
But there was sorrow in the old man. It showed in his rounded shoulders and downcast eyes. Cheerfully Michele slapped his back.
“Such a gloomy face, Pietro. What are your worries? Has your granddaughter run off with a scoundrel? Or won’t your son give you any wine at the dinner table?”
The old man shuffled his worn sandals in the dust. “It isn’t that, signor. It is the two new graves on the hillside. I see them from my little room every night at sunset. I say a prayer then, for your father and brother.”
At first, Michele did not understand. He stared at the old man. When Pietro moved his head, Michele turned and looked upward at the white magnificence of the Cadogna villa on the hillside. Then he saw the two white marble headstones in the little family cemetery.
“Four men came riding in the night, crying the villa for shelter,” Pietro said. “One was the Count of Piabito. The three others were hardened ruffians. Expert sworders. I understand one ran a dagger into your father while the others fought your brother with their blades. He was found with twenty cuts in his body.”
“There—” Michele began again. “There were no witnesses to these killings?”
“Only Luisa, who’s alive today because she ran at the first contact of the steel.”
Without a word the old man limped down the single street of this fishing village that had served the Cadogna family when a Borgia ruled in Rome. Halting in front of a small cottage, Pietro banged his gnarled blackthorn stick against a door panel.
“Luisa! Luisa! It’s young Michele come home again!”
A glad cry and strong arms greeted him. Luisa—the daughter and granddaughter of other Luisas who had been Cadogna family cooks for two hundred years-fairly threw herself on him. Her lips caught his cheek and chin, and then she held him back to stare up into his face.
She was still an attractive woman. The eight years he had been away from Astromare had added only a little flesh to her strong shoulders, to the full breasts pressing into a thin woolen smock. Her black hair hung loose and untended. Her feet were bare.
“So big you’ve grown,” she murmured. “Ah, you’re not a boy any longer, are you?” Her laughter rang out, rich and merry. Luisa was remembering the uncounted ti when, during his fourteenth and fifteenth years, he had spied on her whenever she went to swim naked and alone in the bay waters below the rocky ness. Once she caught him watching, and next day she boxed his ears.
She tugged him into the cottage. “You’ll sleep here while you’re in Astromare. There’s nowhere else for you to go. Besides,” with a sidelong glance at the old man, “it will be safer if not too many people know you’re back in Italy.”
He would have protested but Pietro nodded gloomily. “It’s true. The Count of Piabito won’t stop until you’re dead, too. In this way he wipes out the whole Cadogna family—pouf! Like that!”
Hesitantly, Michele asked, “There was a feud, while I was gone? Between my father and Ludovico da Tulleschi?”
“No feud.” Pietro shrugged eloquently. “Nobody knows why the attack was made. They rode up in the night-ate of the agnellotti that Luisa cooked-then drew their steel.”
“It was horrible,” Luisa said. “Horrible! Your poor father sitting in his high-backed chair, a dagger in his chest. Your brother with his back to the hangings—the ones that show your ancestor the admiral at the Battle of Lepanto with blood running down his cheek, down his chest—”
She wept softly. “I ran away. I screamed and men came from the village. By that time, it was too late.”
Michele went to the cottage door and stood looking up the green hillside at the white walls of the villa. This was his home, this gentle slope of hill and outward stretch of blue bay waters. Those white walls above, the gardens beyond them and the marble fountains, the summer house and the stables, were as much a part of him as his heart. A desperate loneliness grew within him.
Like Luisa, he too had run away from the villa eight years before. In Rome he had attended the Sapienza for eleven months, until the opportunity came to sail to London as adjutant to an English sea captain. During those eleven months in Rome he had become embroiled with a group of fellow students whose sole aim in life was to have fun. Nightly they roamed the streets, claiming all the pleasures of the great city as their own. They pounded on doors and forced their way into any home that took their riotous fancy.
The names of Michele di Cadogna and Giacomo Casanova passed from mouth to mouth, sometimes with laughter, more often with curses. Sober merchants and tradesmen did not enjoy seeing their good food and fine wines swilled by a lot of students, nor relish the sight of the maidservants in their arms, kissing and hugging. Sometimes when a wife or daughter was particularly handsome the students kissed her, too.
From London, Michele had sailed with Commodore James Martin on a tour of the West Indian islands of Barbados, Tobago and Jamaica. A northerly wind carried them to New York, where Michele saw his first redskin. The commodore conceived himself a master swordsman, and since Michele had more than a passing knowledge of the art they fenced daily on the quarter deck, stripped to their middles. If nothing else, those long days at sea put a polish to his blade-work that would otherwise have taken years.
Brooding in the doorway, he put a hand to the rapier that hung by his side. “Four men,” he whispered between his teeth. “Four men to hunt down and kill as they killed my father and brother!”
He swung on Luisa and the old man. “The Count of Piabito was one of them. Who were the others?”
“I never heard their names. No, wait! One name I do know. Alberto. A lean man with a cast in one eye and a purple mark on the corner of his mouth. The others—let me think. One was a big, fat man, very dark of skin. A Moor, maybe. The other was-well, commonplace. Medium sized, quiet, without distinction. He may have been a seaman at one time, though. He wore silver hoops in his ears.”
She came across the dirt floor to him. Her hand rested on his arm. Pity gleamed in her eyes. “Let them be, signor. Nothing good can come of vengeance.”
Michele shook his head. His course was set.
He made inquiries all along the coast with a quiet deadliness that frightened some of the peasants and fishermen whom he questioned. They could tell him nothing, they protested, with shrugs and gesticulations.
For five months he searched, from Astromare eastward to Genoa and west as far as Nice and the French border. One morning, while he was staying at an inn below Foggia, a dusty rider handed him a perfumed letter from the Countess of Piabito offering to aid his search.
Michele was in the saddle before the courier had quenched his thirst with a leather mug of sack.
The contessa held out his goblet again.
“Four men,” she whispered. “My husband and three others.”
“Alberto Belamento. Iafet Mollame. Eugenio Razzo. They’ve helped my husband before in his excursions.”
She came very close to him, warmly perfumed and seductive in the thin black taffeta which clung to her mature curves.
“Your part in this?” Michele whispered hoarsely. “What do you gain by playing Delilah to your husband’s Samson?”
Her shrug allowed the wide ermine collar of the gown to slip off a smooth white shoulder. “My husband concerns himself more with politics than with prurience these days. The tempest in me rages fiercely. Perhaps I only take a stride toward the affection my nature demands. If I were a widow, I would be wealthy.” Her red tongue crept out to touch her lips, making them glisten. “I’d never be lonely, then.”
Michele felt no surprise. In his time, and at his level of society, cynical immorality and corruption were a way of life. Kings and princes felt no compunction at accepting largesse from other rulers to side them against any enemy. And if, in turn, the enemy offered more than the original bribe, they did not blush to turn their coats and paint different arms on their soldiers’ livery.
Now that he had a reason for the contessa’s conduct, Michele was inclined to accept it at face value. He drained the wine cup and rose to his feet.
“More wine,” she said a little too loudly, and went to the oak credenza. She turned with the silver ewer in a hand to find him standing as if frozen, not looking at her but at the door to the outer hall.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“I thought I heard a noise. Someone’s walking in the hall outside.”
The Countess smiled. “I’m all alone except for Samaria. Perhaps you heard her.”
He shook his head, unconvinced. The suspicion that had died came alive again. He threw back the skirt of his cloth coat to free the hilt of his rapier.
Margarita da Tulleschi was at his elbow, lifting the wine cup. Her mouth seemed very red and swollen. It parted slightly as if in invitation to a kiss. Her hand tilted the goblet and he drank, losing himself in the languorous eyes that held his gaze.
“I’m alone, captain. I’m always by myself, it seems. Did I tell you I’m a very lonely woman? Yes, I did.” Her knee touched his leg and lingered, pressing. Laughter shone in her eyes, and temptation was in every line of her lush body.
“You see, I’m trying to find the scapegrace who made his name a byword on the streets of Rome. That other-and much more fascinating-Michele di Cadogna who, with Giacomo Casanova, invaded respectable homes demanding dinner, and stayed to kiss the wives and daughters of unfortunate tradesmen.”
“And if you found him?” he whispered.
The contessa was very near him, her perfume smothering his senses as her soft lips ground hungrily against his mouth. Her warm white arm was a provocative yoke about his neck and he could hear the aroused surge of her breathing. His hands at her hips urged her forward. Now he felt soft flesh—she wore very little beneath the black taffeta—tight along the front of his action-hardened body. It had been a long time since Michele had held a woman in his arms; certainly not since leaving England for Italy, and in Italy he’d been too busy with his vendetta to look about for venery.
“Your lips are sweeter than the wine you fed me,” he whispered when she drew her mouth away. His own lips sought her soft throat and nibbled greedily at her bared shoulder close to the ermine collar. A shudder went through her body and she hugged him closer, fitting her exciting breasts and hips and thighs against his quickening flesh.
“You’re a devil,” she murmured in his ear.
“I’m a man with a beautiful woman.”
She asked wistfully, “Am I beautiful, signor?”
“Whoever invented the word must have had you in mind. As cool water is to the thirsty traveler, as food is to the starving man, so you are to me.” His hands touched the fastenings of her gown; he undid one snap and then another. As the taffeta parted he put his hands on her soft back and drew her against him once more.
Fire lay on her lips, on the titillating thrust of her tongue. Impatience and a primitive hunger throbbed in her loins. Michele could feel the hardness of her breasts surging against the confinement of her bodice linens. He began to lose himself in the sweet delights of this avidly sensual woman; his lips slid caressingly across her mouth and upward to her ear as his palms found more and more of her white back to stroke.
“Signor, I cannot breathe—“
“Let me be your breath of life!”
“Your lips are so hungry, yet your hands are so gentle! You make me forget who I am.”
“Become a different Margarita with me!” “Yes—oh, yes! I haven’t felt this way since—”
The hallway door burst inward and a man cursed softly, fluidly, cold rage alive in his voice. Michele whirled about, knowing that the countess was reaching frantically behind her to fasten the snaps of her gown. Had she lured him into a trap? No. Her stricken expression dissolved the question. She was terrified.
Michele would have known the man standing in the open doorway regardless of where he met him. Ludovico da Tulleschi was tall and lean with years. His face was scarred and pitted from an old pox. A black mustache, waxed and drawn into two sharp points, gave him the air of an irascible Satan. As if to disguise his ugliness, the Count of Piabito affected a rich habit of burgundy velvet, white stockings and black shoes with vivid scarlet heels. A heavy gold chain dangled from the watch in the fob pocket of his waistcoat, which he wore unbuttoned to display the lacy frill of a lawn shirt.
And behind Tulleschi, half a dozen hard-faced men awaited their orders.