“What may be the purpose of your question?” he growled.
“To serve your master, whoever he may be,” I answered him serenely, “although it is a service I do not press upon him. I, too, am journeying to Cagli, and like yourselves, I am in haste and go the shorter way across the hills, with which I am well acquainted. If it so please you to follow me your need of a guide may thus be satisfied.”
It was the tone to take if I would be respected. Had I proposed that we should journey in company I should not have earned me the half of the deference which was accorded to my haughtily granted leave that they might follow me if they so chose.
With marked submission did he give me thanks in his master’s name.
I mounted and set out, and at my heels came now the litter and its escort. Thus did we quit the plain and breast the slopes, where the snow grew deeper and firmer underfoot as we advanced. And as I went, still plaguing my mind to devise a means by which I might penetrate to the Court of Pesaro, little did I dream that the matter was being solved for me—the solution having begun with my offer to guide that company across the hills.
We gained the heights in the forenoon, and there we dismounted and paused awhile to breathe our horses ere we took the path that was to lead us down to Cagli. The air was sharp and cold, for all that overhead was spread a cloudless, cobalt dome of sky, and the sun poured down its light upon the wide expanse of snow-clad earth, of a whiteness so dazzling as to be hurtful to the sight.
Hitherto I had ridden stolidly ahead, as unheeding of that following company as if I had been unconscious of its existence. But now that we paused, their fat, white-faced leader, whose name was Giacopo, approached me and sought to draw me into conversation. I yielded readily enough, for I scented a mystery about that closely-curtained litter, and mysteries are ever provoking to such a mind as mine. For all that it might profit me naught to learn who rode there, and why with all this haste, yet these were matters, I confess, on which my curiosity was aroused.
“Are you journeying beyond Cagli?” I asked him presently, in an idle tone.
He cocked his head, and eyed me aslant, the suspicion in his eyes confirming the existence of the mystery I scented.
“Yes,” he answered, after a pause. “We hope to reach Urbino before night. And you? Are you journeying far?”
“That far, at least,” I answered him, emulating the caution he had shown.
And then, ere more might pass between us, the leather curtains of the litter were sharply drawn aside. At the sound I turned my head, and so far was the vision different from that which—for no reason that I can give—I had expected, that I was stricken with surprise and wonder. A lady—a very child, indeed—had leapt nimbly to the ground ere any of those grooms could offer her assistance.