There was a stir of hoofs without. They thundered on the planks of the drawbridge and clattered on the stones of the courtyard. The thought of Cesare Borgia rose to my mind. But never did drowning man clutch at a more illusory straw. Cold reason quenched my hope at once. If the greatest imaginable success attended Mariani’s journey, the Duke could not reach Cesena before midnight, and to that it wanted some ten hours at least. Moreover, the company that came was small to judge by the sound—a half-dozen horses at the most.
But Ramiro’s attention had been diverted from me by the noise. Half-turning in his chair, he called to one of the men-at-arms to ascertain who came. Before the fellow could do his bidding, the door was thrust open and Lucagnolo appeared on the threshold, jaded and worn with hard riding.
A certain excitement arose in me at sight of him, despite my confidence that he must be returning empty-handed.
Ramiro rose, pushed back his chair and advanced towards the new-comer.
“Well?” he demanded. “What news?”
“Excellency, the girl is here.”
That answer seemed to turn me into stone, so great was the shock of this sudden shattering of the confidence that had sustained me.
“My search in the country failing,” pursued the captain, as he came forward, “I made bold to exceed your orders by pushing my inquiries as far as the village of Cattolica. There I found her after some little labour.”
Surely I dreamt. Surely, I told myself, this was not possible. There was some mistake. Lucagnolo had drought some wench whom he believed to be Madonna Paola.
But even as I was assuring myself of this, the door opened again, and between two men-at-arms, white as death, her garments stained with mud and all but reduced to rags, and her eyes wild with a great fear, came my beloved Paola.
With a sound that was as a grunt of satisfaction, Ramiro strode forward to meet her. But her eyes travelled past him and rested upon me, standing there between the leather-clad executioners with the cords of the torture pinioning my wrists, and I saw the anguish deepen in their blue depths.
Across the length of that hall our eyes met—hers and mine—and held each other’s glances. To me the room and all within it formed an indistinct and misty picture, from out of which there clearly gleamed my Paola’s sweet, white face.
All at the table had risen with Ramiro, and now, copying their leader, they bared their heads in outward token of such respect as certainly would have been felt by any men less abandoned than were they before so much saintly beauty and distress.
Lucagnolo had stepped aside, and Ramiro was now bowing low and ceremoniously before Madonna. His face I could not see, since his back was towards me, but his tones, as they floated across the hall to where I stood, came laden with subservience.