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THE FORTUNES OF A FREE LANCE.
BY THE AUTHOR OF GUY LIVINGSTONE," ETC., ETC.
DAME GIACINTA'S TALE. *
"You must know, most noble cavaliere”—Dame Giacinta began-" that I was not city-bred, but born some four leagues hence, on the lands of the Vidoni, which stretch along Lake Bientina; in the service of which family I abode till the castle and fief changed masters: then I came hither to abide with mine uncle, in whose house, Matteo, my good-man, found me, and wedded me-despite my thirty years. The Florentines slew my father before I knew his face; and in that same battle Messer Geronimo Vidoni was wounded mortally. His widow, Donna Agatha, was very kind to my mother, and would have her always near her own person, albeit she was too weakly to be of great use as bowerwoman; and when, five years later, I was left orphan, caused me to be educated-it may be somewhat above my station; whilst she lived I never lost her favour, though she was too wise to spoil me. Her son too, was pleased to show me no small favour. Messer Marco was but a youth when he became head of his house; but both in bearing and spirit he was older than his years. Such as knew him well, liked him well, for he was true, and brave, and generous to the heart's core but he was no general favourite with men or women, being rough and curt of speech and something imperious of manner; neither did he affect the company of neighbours. Even in hunting or hawking he mostly took his pleasure alone, and seldom cared to show himself in
Some may remember to have seen the main incidents of this chapter more graphically set forth in a few verses that appeared three years ago in “Temple Bar," signed by Robert Buchanan. I have tried to make the plagiarism palpable by adhering even to manner; but it is better to make it still plainer by this confession.
the tilt yard-holding all other courtly pastimes in utter scorn. The lady Agatha used sometimes to lament this to me, and to wish that Messer Marco could be prevailed on to wed. A gentle, fitting, helpmate-she thought-might do much towards causing him to take such a place amongst his equals as beseemed the chief of the Vidoni. So she cast her eyes round about heedfully, till they lit on a damsel of good birth and breeding-daughter to one of the Spinetti-who had just returned home from the Carmelite convent, where she had been nurtured by the special care of the abbess.
Doubtless the lady Maddalena was rarely beautiful; but, had I been a man, I would as lief have wived with one of the fair saints that Sêr Giotto limned so deftly. Her cheeks might have been as snowflakes, for all the flush that love or anger ever brought out thereon; her eyes might have been wrought in sapphire; and her very smile -she smiled but seldom, save the mark!-was frozen too. I do not think, at first, Messer Marco was much drawn towards the maiden; but in most things he let his mother have her way, and perchance was somewhat weary of hearing from her lips "that if he cared not for wedlock, it still was his bounden duty in such troublous times to provide his house with an heir;" so he gave assent a little sullenly, making condition that he should be troubled with no formal wooing. Indeed, he scarce saw the bride half-a-score of times, before he brought her home.
The change that came over Messer Marco, within a year, was near akin to witchcraft. I was appointed the lady Maddalena's own tiring-woman, so I saw it all. Before they had been married two months, he loved her with all his soul and strength; but she never seemed to notice his passion-much less to return it. It angered me past patience, to watch his full brown face waxing thin and drawn, and his eyes hollower and brighter; whilst morning or evening brought no change in her small, white, demure face. It would have been better if she had shown fear or loathing of him, than that deathly coldness; but she would only draw herself slowly away if he came too near, or murmur, if he wrung her hand too hard-" I pray you be not so rough; you crush my fingers "-looking all the while like a virgin martyr. I cannot guess if the lady Agatha found out that she had made a mistake. She was not the woman, to confess such things to any living creature; if it was so, she had not long space to repent herself; for the marsh fever carried her off suddenly in the eighth month after the wedding. She passed away at last very happily and calmly, blessing both
her children, and praying that God, in His own time, would be pleased to remove from them the curse of barrenness.
My good mistress would scarce have been happy, even in Heaven, if she could have seen how things went on after she died. Messer Marco grew weary of wooing his white statue-moreover he fancied she mourned his mother less than was becoming. His temper grew fierce at times, and his tongue would utter wild words when it slipped its bridle. From being sober as an anchorite, he betook himself to deep drinkingthough I never saw him utterly besotted with wine. All the while his wife never stirred one of her baby fingers to beckon him back from the road he was treading-but looked on, placid and meek-smiling perchance, now and then, a little scornfully-just as if she had been watching, from a safe distance, the gambols of a big boar-hound. I began to hate her-I know not why-and I think she perceived this though her words were always sweet and meek, her voice seemed to grow harder whilst speaking to me at times.
When we first heard of our bride, there was much talk of her piety; and she took marvellous good care to keep up her credit for the same at Castel Vidoni. Benedicite! the good old chaplain who had shrived the Vidoni and their household for a score of years, might not serve our new mistress's turn. She prayed from the first to be allowed to keep her own confessor-a brother of the Franciscan monastery at Gallano-who had waited on her in her father's house ever since she left the Carmelite convent. Poor Donna Agatha, I remember, thought the request very reasonable, and worthy of such a paragon as she had chosen; and Messer Marco objected to nothing then; nor indeed up to the very last did he interfere with his wife's religious exercises.
I am but a chattering beldame now, and then I was not a jot quicker of wit or of sight than other tiring-women; yet I profess that I disliked and distrusted Fra Rèmo's sallow face, from the first instant I set eyes on it. He might look as cool and saintly as he would, and droop the lids over his greedy black eyes, and press his lips together to keep down bitter words; but he could not keep the round red spots from coming out on his cheek-bone, nor his fingers from quivering under his robe. The first time I marked those signs was one evening, when wild weather constrained him to tarry at the castle, for the floods were out. Donna Agatha was ill at ease, so the monk sat at supper with my master and mistress alone-'twas the merest form; he touched naught but bread and fair water. It was my duty to stand behind the lady Maddalena's chair, to fetch aught she might require from her
chamber. Messer Marco had not yet fallen into the evil habits whereof I spake; but the night was sultry, and he had been less sparing of the flask than usual: his mood seemed somewhat jocund, and once-speaking to his wife--he put forth his hand and pinched her ear betwixt his fingers.
My good man was ever too easily moved to jealousy-the saints wot, with little cause-but he never would have chafed, at seeing such a caress bestowed on me by my cousin. It was marvel, to see the lady Maddalena shrink away as though her husband's touch profaned her; yet I watched not her so narrowly as I did the priest. It was a light scandal, after all, to make the blood flush so in his cheek, and set his fingers twitching in his sleeve. I understood none of these things then; but the time came when I understood them all. As I said, matters went from bad to worse after Donna Agatha's death, and came at last to this:-that the lady Maddalena would no longer share her husband's chamber, alleging that she feared his violent humours, especially when heated by wine. Perchance, Messer Marco was ashamed to contradict her; anyhow, he let her have her own way, sullenly. Thenceforward, she lived almost like a recluse; never going abroad, save when, at stated times, she went in her litter to confession or other religious exercise in the church of San Francisco at Gallano; Fra Rèmo came very rarely to Castel Vidoni, fearing, it was thought, insult if not injury; for our lord had looked askance at him more than once lately, vouchsafing no greeting beyond a growl in his beard.
In our household there was one Giuseppe Bandello, whose father and grandsire had been falconers before him to the Vidoni-a faithful servant enough and exceeding expert in his calling, but cross-grained in temper, and disliked by all save Messer Marco, who trusted him entirely. For some time Giuseppe's countenance had been gloomier than usual, and he went about muttering to himself as though some load on his mind troubled him; but none of us cared to ask what ailed him. One day he and Messer Marco went out, as was their wont, hawking alone together. I chanced to be crossing the great hall when they returned, and I saw from my lord's face that something had perturbed him strangely, so that I could not forbear questioning him; but he only laughed out loud-though all the while his lips twisted and writhed as though in pain-and bade me send him in wine speedily, for his mouth was parched with drought; saying, that nothing worse had happened, than that his fair falcon Bianca had spiked herself on a
heron's beak, so that the twain lay dead together by the side of the marish. As I was leaving the hall, he called me back sharply, and asked whether my lady did not purpose on the morrow to visit the church at Gallano. I answered him yea; for she had charged me to see that her litter was ready early, though she would have none of my company. He nodded his head without speaking-draining two or three beakers of wine, but tasting no food-called for a fresh horse, and rode forth alone; though it was past the hour of the Angelus, and the skies were overcast.
Nigh ten days ago, Fra Rèmo had set forth for Rome on some special mission; he was much trusted and esteemed by his Order, and it was thought would ere long rise high therein. Her confessor had been absent more than once before, and then the lady Maddalena was wont to be shriven always by a certain Fra Anselmo--an aged monk, of great repute for sanctity. On such occasions, I had noticed that my lady's devout exercises were gotten over much quicker than when Fra Rèmo guided them. All that night and the next morning passed without any signs of Messer Marco. My lady never troubled herself concerning his movements, and asked no questions now, as to whether he was gone, or for how long; but she went to Gallano as she had purposed, and had been home again some two hours, when my lord returned.
I was looking from the window into the courtyard when he rode in, and I hasted down to ask what ailed him. I thought for sure, he was sickening of the same fever that carried off his mother. His lips looked black and parched; and his eyes burned like lamps in the midst of his wan face; and, instead of sitting in saddle tall and square, he seemed all bent and shrunken together; and his chin was down on his breast, as if he were too weak to lift it. His voice, too, when he spoke, was quite weak and piping, though it got stronger afterwards. He said, there was naught amiss with him, save perchance some slight chill from the night dews, and that he would be well again when he had eaten and drunken. He bade me tell them hasten with supper, and pray the lady Maddalena not to fail to bear him company thereat, as it was the feast day of San Marco, his patron: for on occasion of fast or vigil, my mistress kept her own chamber. Right few words were spoken at supper; but Messer Marco's manner was so different from what it had been of late-so very quiet and gentle-that my lady's pale blue eyes opened wide in surprise more than once. He seemed to have forgotten his hunger and thirst though; for he scarce eat anything, and