In that hour I fell to pondering, and I even caught myself hoping that Messer Ramiro del’ Orca might not chance upon the discovery of how egregiously I had fooled him. He was dull-witted and slow at inference, and upon that I built the hope that he might fail to associate me with Madonna Paola’s elusion of his pursuit. Thus the chance might yet be mine of returning to Rome and the honourable employment Cesare Borgia had promised me. If only that were so to fall out, I might yet contrive to mend the wreckage of my life. I was returned, it seems, to the ways of early youth, when we build our hopes of future greatness upon untenable foundations!
Great hopes and great ambitions rose within my breast that January evening, fired by the gentle child that rode beside me. Fate had sent me to her aid that day, and I seemed to have acquired, by virtue of that circumstance, a certain right in her. Had Fate no other favours for me in her lap! I bethought me of the very House of Sforza, to which I had been so shamefully attached, and of its humble source in that peasant, Giacomuzzo Attendolo, surnamed Sforza for his abnormal strength of body, who rose to great and princely heights.
Assuredly I had the advantage of such an one, and were the chance but given me—
I went no further. Down in my heart I laughed to scorn my own wild musings. Cesare Borgia would come to know—he must, whether Ramiro told him, or whether he inferred it for himself from the account Ramiro must give him of our meeting—how I had thwarted him in one thing, whilst I had served him in another. Fate was against me. I had fallen too low to ever rise again, and no dreams indulged in a sunset hour, and inspired, perhaps, by a child who was beautiful as one of the saints of God, would ever come to be realised by poor Boccadoro.
Night was falling as we clattered through the slippery streets of Fossombrone.
We stayed in Fossombrone little more than a half-hour, and having made a hasty supper we resumed our way, giving out that we wished to reach Fano ere we slept. And so by the first hour of night Fossombrone was a league or so behind us, and we were advancing briskly towards the sea. Overhead a moon rode at the full in a clear sky, and its light was reflected by the snow, so that we were not discomforted by any darkness. We fell, presently, into a gentler pace, for, after all, there could be no advantage in reaching Pesaro before morning, and as we rode we talked, and I made bold to ask her the cause of her flight from Rome.
She told me then that she was Madonna Paola Sforza di Santafior, and that Pope Alexander, in his nepotism and his desire to make rich and powerful alliances for his family, had settled upon her as the wife for his nephew, Ignacio Borgia. He had been emboldened to this step by the fact that her only protector was her brother, Filippo di Santafior, whom they had sought to coerce. It was her brother, who, seeing himself in a dangerous and unenviable position, had secretly suggested flight to her, urging her to repair to her kinsman Giovanni Sforza at Pesaro. Her flight, however, must have been speedily discovered and the Borgias, who saw in that act a defiance of their supreme authority, had ordered her pursuit.