Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Ilarion walked swiftly along the Via Lata, in the cool of early evening. He was no longer the stable-boy in leather and homespun woolens, but a young dandy in slashed maroon velvet trunks and doublet, ornate with crimson satin. Scarlet and white hose were taut on his legs, and a red velvet cape swung to the rhythm of his strides.
He felt different, more vibrant, in these garments purchased with the gold that the contessa’s maid had slipped into his hand when she had come to the cortile by the fencing school.
Ilarion showed his teeth in a grin, and set his velvet cap at a more rakish angle on his thick-maned yellow head.
For days he had awaited Beatrice del Gallina’s call. Hour after hour, he had worked and slaved with his mops and pails, pestering gnarled old Balisandro into giving him lessons with the long blades that glittered on the walls of the ball.
The old man would snarl, “Gran Dio!” as he demonstrated the footwork that went with the appuntata. “It is ruining me, this contract I have made to teach you to use a foil, you clumsy scullion! No, no! Not that way. This way—”
But despite his rantings and his mumbled oaths, the one-eyed humpback taught him. He made his right hand and arm into an untiring ally of the blade in his fingers, taught him to think with his brain in the hilt of his sword, to let the singing steel whisper to that brain and obey its dictates.
Only yesterday, after their evening meal of cold lamb and slices of rich Parmesan cheese, with wine to wash down the coarse hard bread, the old man had told him grudgingly, with a sneer, “There is not much more I can teach you. You are better than any in Rome, already.”
The old man thought a while, with his large white head cocked on the bend of his wry neck. His black eye grew harder, glittering with the fierce pride that drove his twisted body. The flat of his hand slapping the bare tabletop made the wine-cans dance.
“In Rome? Diàvolo! You are better than any in all Italy, from Piedmont to Calabria! And that means you are the second best swordsman in the world!”
Ilarion had grinned.
The old man jabbed a long, gnarled finger out at him. His thick white brows came together until they touched under his brown, furrowed forehead. “I am the greatest, slop-boy! Do not forget that. Greater than this Biagio Marsanti your contessa prates of, greater than Bevilacqua! Yes, and greater than Achille Marozoo, who writes a book on the art. Dio mio! A book on fencing! Whoever heard of such a thing?”
And that night they had gone into the hall and lighted the torches, and for three hours they fought each other with blunted blades. When they were done, Jacopo hurled his blade from him so that it clattered against the wall.
“Per Bacco! It is done! The greatest work of Jacopo Balisandro! I have made you—me, Jacopo Balisandro!—from a lazy stable-lad into a great swordsman. I have made you—” The old man paused, choking. His great frame began to tremble. He shook soundlessly for a moment, and then wild, almost mad peals of laughter rose up from his throat to the wooden beams that crossed the ceiling above.
Ilarion stared. Has the old fool lost his mind? he thought. He watched him wipe the tears from his eyes.
“It is a private little joke,” he told Ilarion. “You would not appreciate it.”
And now, after those hours and days of work and fencing, when he despaired of ever hearing from the countess again, her French maid was here, thrusting the heavy bag of golden coins into his palms! Ilarion wanted to shout, to dance a gaillarde. His happiness bubbled inside him like a lid dancing on a steaming pot over the fire.
In an excess of emotion, he caught the woman and whirled her, laughing wildly. She had long black curls that jiggled on her white shoulders, and a mouth that was wine-red in her pert face.
“Give over this play! I’ve brought you a message, I tell you! Her Highness wants you to get her picture tonight—”
He kissed her gaily, and she arched against him, her own lips yielding to his hunger. Life was strong in young Ilarion della stalla, and he let the woman feel his strength until her tiny fists hammered at his shoulders.
“Dieu! You’ll crush me, stable-boy! Let me go now! La, now stop! The countess will pay you well for your work. She wants that picture very badly!”
“Where does this Marsanti live?”
“On a side street off the Via Lata. An artist’s studio, built into a house with brickwork and leaded windows. Two statues of Hercules front the door. His address is in the pouch of gold. She leaves the manner of entrance to your wits. But it must be a careful entrance. No one must know what you do, or that you work for Her Highness. If you have trouble, use your sword—though saints pity you, if you must! I have seen Biagio Marsanti with a blade in his hand!”
The Marsanti home stood on a street off the Via Lata that ran onward to the Porta da Popolo, through which Cesare Borgia had marched his army after his conquest of Forli. It stood almost under the shadows of Castello Sant’Angelo, its brick walls weathered with sun and rain, its leaded windows dull in the moonlight.
The street was quiet. With a bound, Ilarion was at the top of the fence, reaching a hand to the ornate balustrade that ran the width of the house below the rows of windows. Then he was swinging upward, sliding a leg across the sill.
From somewhere inside the house, a woman laughed with mockery in her throat. Ilarion froze. Dimly the moonlight came into the room, and he could see an unmade bed, and garments thrown carelessly across its sheets. Another burst of laughter brought him inside, to stand tensely, craning forward, listening.
There was only silence in the house now, and he moved past the bed. He went on silent feet out of the room and into the hall, where a flambeau shattered the gloom.
The studio door opened to the push of a hand, and he was inside. He blinked a little at the blaze of a dozen bronze floor lamps that made this corner of the room bright as sunlight.
A Savonarola chair, rich with crimson brocade, stood under the slanted windows. A lounge, curved at each end and deep with cushions, stood against the wall, where inbuilt shelves housed tall glass jars which were gay with red, blue, and yellow powders. Other jars held the oils that Marsanti mixed with his bright powders to form his colors. Two discarded palettes had been flung atop a pile of trash and slit canvas trimmings.
At the far end of the room, where the light of the floor lamps did not reach, paint-splashed canvases leaned against the bare plaster wall. There were dozens of oils here, leaning this way and that, some flat on the floor, others propped against the litter of casual chairs and tables that formed a wall for this impromptu storage space.
Ilarion went into the dark shadows and hunted among the paintings. He muttered impatiently over a group of religious oils, whose pink-fleshed angels and cherubs had a decidedly secular appearance. Ilarion went on, into the blackest shadows. He exposed a gilt-framed nude of a woman seated in the Savonarola chair, and another of a woman stretched on the lounge. He turned the next canvas, and his breath rasped in his throat.
Even in these shadows, he knew that face! This was Beatrice del Gallina.
Marsanti had caught her features in the brilliance of a shaft of sunlight. Her yellow hair was bound in a pearl fillet, and her blue eyes challenged the onlooker as she glanced back over a creamy shoulder. She lay on red velvet cushions, exposed from tiny white feet to the seed pearls in her hair. Shadows were draped like black satin across her rich body.
“Gran Dio,” Ilarion whispered, staring. His hand shook as he fumbled at his dagger. Its thin length slipped into the canvas. Guided by the frame, Ilarion moved it down and across until the canvas came free, tumbling into his fingers. He thrust it under his cloak and turned.
The mocking laughter that he had heard from time to time was loud now. Ilarion froze. A man and a woman were entering the studio, the man leaning close above her shoulder, the woman shaking her raven tresses and laughing richly, deep in her creamy throat. She wore a cloth-of-gold gown with a square bodice, a necklet of pearls gleaming above the wide expanse of bosom discernible in the fashionably deep cut of her bodice. Pearl rings were on her pale fingers, and a cap of pearls sat like a pool of milk-drops in her black hair.
“La, Messer Biagio!” she caroled. “You’d applaud my disrobing, if you dared! I come only to sit for my painting. Nothing more!”
Biagio Marsanti was a tall, thin man, with the gaunt look of the epicure. His dark eyes blazed hungrily, full brows above a bold, hooked nose, and his wide mouth was sensually full. He appeared to quiver in the lamplight as he thrust his arms wide on either side of his body.
“Madonna, you torture me! So many nights I have gazed on your loveliness, transcribing it to canvas! To mix oils, and dream of the whiteness of your skin! The jet of your hair! To see those limbs, those tender arms!
“Just once, I beseech you! Just once to adore with my lips! Madonna Dorotea, I implore you!”
Her laughter teased him. Her dark eyes, over the jeweled fan she held to her mouth, were luminous with merriment. “We grow eager, Messer Marsanti! Flatteringly so!”
From the black shadows where he stood, not breathing, Ilarion saw the woman lean forward and whisper into Marsanti’s ear. The artist straightened eagerly. He caught her hand and covered it with kisses.
“Never have I painted as I shall paint tonight, gracious one!” He turned and went to the door. For a moment he stood there, and his eyes glowed as he stared at the woman. He sought the door-pull then, fumbling behind his back, and went out, shutting the door behind him.
Humming softly, the woman moved to a steel mirror beyond the Savonarola chair. She put her fingers to the fastenings of her golden gown and loosened them. Still humming, she lifted out her arms, and then slid the rich gown to the floor, revealing her clinging silk undergarment, through which her back and legs were visible, as in a mist. She undid that, revealing a white linen smock jagged with lace, tight about her waist and hips. Ilarion was very still.
The woman was standing now before the mirror, her brocades and linens pooled on the wooden planking at her feet. She turned this way and that, her lips smiling, seemingly unaware that a man stood in the dark shadows of the far end of the room and stared at her. And then she spoke.
“Do you like what you see, Messer anonimo?”
Ilarion started so that his leg banged against the empty gilt frame at his feet. Per Bacco! Were there others in the room, too? His hand went to the hilt of his dagger, and slid it from its sheath.
“I see your face, back there in the shadows, signore! Suppose I tell Biagio Marsanti that you spy on me? He would make mincemeat of your pretty face! I have only to call him.”
She tilted her head and watched her reflection ape her movements.
“Well? You have not told me! Do you like me like this? Am I something of which you have dreamed?” The woman preened herself before the glass.
Ilarion knew, now. There was no one else in the studio. Just he and this Madonna Dorotea. She had seen the reflection of his face in the mirror, and had mistaken him for someone else!
Like a cat, he moved. On silent feet he came forward, face hidden from the mirror by the angle of his advance. His arms went out. His hands closed over the woman’s eyes.
With Countess Beatrice he had been uncertain and shy, not because she was a woman, but because she was a countess, and knew him. This woman, with the linen and velvet of her robes pooled on the floor of the studio, was a noblewoman, too; but she did not know him. She probably thought him of noble blood, like herself. The thought gave him confidence.
At the touch of his hands, she stiffened.
“You are not—not the man I suspected!” she whispered. “Who are you? Chi? Who?”
For a moment he wondered how to divert her question. But then, he recalled Fra Matteo’s teachings—and the lyrics of the jongleurs and troubadours. Here was a chance to test their flowery eloquence! He called now on his memory, culling words from the ballads which the old friar had rendered into the Italian and read to his avid pupil. He spoke of her eyes and her hair, and the soft cream of her milky skin. He painted her as Bertrand de Born had painted Maenz de Montagnac. A languid smile grew on the woman’s mouth, and she shivered against the flame that his words had lighted inside her.
As his mouth touched her throat, he sighed, “Now you know me for an admirer, Madonna Dorotea. Always I see you from a distance. I could not resist the temptation to admire you from a position of better vantage!”
The woman yielded slightly, arching her throat against the advance of his lips. “Your hands are rough! That is how I knew you were not—not the man I thought you! His hands are softer even than mine! Your name? Your family?”
“To tell you that, I would betray friends who whispered to me where you went tonight.”
She turned, staring curiously at him, her warm black eyes touching his lean cheeks and full mouth, studying the crisp hair that framed his forehead. She curled a long black filigree of her hair in her fingers as her mouth twisted humorously.
“You fooled me,” she admitted. “I thought you a Ferrara, with those cheekbones and that Florentine yellow hair! You’re no Ferrara—at least none I know. And yet—”
“I’m a nameless admirer,” he pleaded, thinking of Marsanti somewhere outside the oaken door.
She let him draw her closer, smiled when she felt him tremble. She did not know that he was concentrating on the footsteps beyond the studio, listening to their pace, gauging the impatience of the artist.
“I had to slip in, to see you!” he told her. “To see you, to breathe in your perfume, to touch your skin. …”
He used flattery as he used the foil, this Ilarion of the stables. It came easily, unbidden, to his tongue. If he could convince her of these lies he, whispered, he might stand a chance to slip from the atelier, to drop the dozen feet to the cobblestones outside, and get away with the painting.
He bent his head and his lips caressed her. For a moment he fought the rising tide of hunger, using his hands to hold her away, and then the dam of his suppression broke, and his arms pulled her against him.
Neither heard the oak door swing in. Neither saw the rigid, red-faced artist framed in the doorway, his eyes protruding with apoplectic disbelief.
It was no word that Biagio Marsanti shouted. It was an explosion of pure sound, rearing up from the outraged depths. He came across the room, bounding effortlessly.
But Ilarion was awake, now. His arms let loose of the woman whose lips had moistened his own. She staggered back into the mirror, and almost fell. Beneath her thin brows, her black eyes were hungry.
A large table covered with paints and brushes, with props and a discolored oil jar, stood between the oncoming Marsanti and the somewhat dazed Ilarion. Biagio Marsanti put out a hand and ripped up the long table that lay there.
“Messer Marsanti,” began Ilarion. “I—”
“Per Bacco! You rash, ill-guided fool!” snarled the artist. “I’ll shred that face of yours so that no woman will ever want to see it again, by sun or candlelight!”
He cut with his sword, and the sound of its slashing made the air whistle. But where Ilarion had stood was now an empty space, for the sight of that bared blade recalled Ilarion to his mission. It cooled the blood that had fevered his body. It made him think of Jacopo Balisandro.
His own blade whisked from its scabbard, touched Marsanti’s, and disengaged. He lunged, and the artist retreated —but only for an instant. He was in again, his sword a needle of flashing brilliance before him.
“Your right cheek, you milksop!”
It was rash of Marsanti. The touch of that blade on his own, and the ease of its disengage and thrust, should have warned him. But he, like Ilarion, was not in secure control of his emotions. It made a man feckless, such emotion. It almost spelled doom for Biagio Marsanti.
For Ilarion did not give ground. He made the blade in his hand work for him, sliding Marsanti’s sword down its length with a thin high screech of steel, and then his right arm was uncoiling, sending the other back a stumbling five feet.
Ilarion moved in on the attack himself with a fille in quarte and a flashing, deft counter to Marsanti’s low thrust. He swept into the deadly pattinande.
Marsanti opened his dark eyes wide. Only Bevilacqua, and perhaps Achille Marozzo, who was writing his treatise on the art of the duello in his little hall in Bologna, knew those swift, grim sword-strokes. A touch of fear began to crawl with icy legs up Biagio Marsanti’s spine.
He yelled. As he fought furiously to stay that sharp blade from his flesh, he screamed, “Help! Eh, help me! A burglar in the house! He is killing me! Eh, help!”
The humor of the moment made Ilarion bare his even white teeth. He cried out, “And the contessa said I had reason to fear you!”
He came in with his sword a thin circle of flying steel. It caught Biagio Marsanti’s blade and ripped it from his fingers; sent it flying toward Donna Dorotea, who was frantically wrapping camisole and gown about her pink flesh.
Madonna Dorotea screamed as the blade clattered at her feet. Then Ilarion was whirling, evading Marsanti’s bull like lunge, and leaping for the leaded windows.
As he ran he snatched up his cloak, which hid the up-rolled canvas of the undraped figure of the Countess Beatrice. With cloak and canvas in hand, he leaped for the low sill.
He poised an instant, seeing the moonlit street below him and the armed horsemen, summoned by Marsanti’s cries that were sweeping around the corner and heading his way.
Legs straight out, he jumped. He struck the cobblestones with his body limp, and he rolled. He thudded up against a street fountain whose waters splashed over the wide stone rim of its marble bowl.
A trooper in haqueton and steel cap swung his horse toward him as he lay on the cobblestones. His sword flashed in the moonlight. Then the others were joining him, spurring their horses forward, crowding in until Ilarion found himself hedged by a forest of equine legs.
From the open studio window, Marsanti was shouting, “A thief, who tried to kill me! Two scudi to the man who brings him down! I am Biagio Marsanti!”
Their very eagerness gave Ilarion the chance he needed. They hemmed him so closely there was no room to wield a blade. He hurled himself upward. His hand closed on the bull-decorated jerkin of a rider. A quick tug, a fumbling of his foot for the stirrup, and as the trooper slid away, Ilarion appeared in his saddle.
Ilarion was no mean horseman. For years, in the stables attached to the house of Jacopo Balisandro, he had ridden and tended the stallions of the wealthy Roman youths who flocked to the old swordsman for lessons. A pressure of the knees, a yank at the reins was all that he needed. Perhaps the horse felt his mastery in the sure, deft ease with which he acted. The horse reared high, whinnying, pawing out with sharp hoofs to hold his balance.
The hoofs widened the space before him. And then Ilarion was backing the hoofs with the cold steel of his blade, slashing at arms and faces.
“Andarsene, amico mio! Let’s go!”
He was twenty feet away before they knew it, bent low over his animal’s neck, taking the long mane in his face, a hand on the thick, warm neck. He coaxed with his voice. He rode with his legs easing the weight of him in the saddle.
He was through the Piazza Montanara and over the Ponte Sant’Angelo before they were after him, swords waving in the night, their voices making the air ring. Windows swung open. Voices called out into the night, asking of the moon what madness was this that woke the people of Rome?
“A lover,” Ilarion shouted back at them. “Taken in surprise by a jealous husband!”
The good citizens of Rome reacted in varying ways. Some slammed shut their windows, mumbling over the morals of the present generation. Others sought for slop-pails and emptied them over the passing troopers. Still others leaned from their windows and pointed the way that the flying Ilarion had taken.
Ilarion pulled the animal around and sent him up an angling street. His eyes hunted anxiously. There stood the high walls behind which, in the quiet confines of the monastery garden, good Fra Matteo was wont to tell his beads. Ahead stood the towering bulk of the Porta da Popolo with its twin towers. And beyond the towers, in the shadows of the monastery walls, stood the corner wine-shop he sought.
As the horse ran on, Ilarion slipped his feet free of the iron stirrups. He swung out and away, slapping at the animal’s rump as he fell. He scrambled up quickly, ran toward the heavy vines that clung to the red brick wall of the wine-shop With practiced ease, he put his fingers on the vines, and climbed.
A bedroom window yawned above him. His hand caught its sill and lifted him. He moved up and tumbled into the dark room, just as Borgia’s horsemen swung by the towers and straightened out for the chase.
He heard a gasp from the woman in the tumbled bed. He turned his head and showed his face. “Be quiet, Tea!” he told her, to forestall the loud screech beginning in her lungs.