A Jay of Italy

A Jay of Italy

Author:
Bernard Edward Joseph Capes
Author:
Bernard Edward Joseph Capes
Format:
epub
language:
English

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Author: Capes, Bernard Edward Joseph, 1854-1918
Italy — History — 476-1492 — Fiction
A Jay of Italy

A JAY OF ITALY

BY

BERNARD CAPES

‘…Some Jay of Italy,

Whose mother was her painting, hath betrayed him.’

CYMBELINE

FOURTH EDITION

METHUEN AND CO.

36 ESSEX STREET W.C.

LONDON

First Published . . July 1905

Second Edition . . August 1905

Third Edition . . September 1905

Fourth Edition . . October 1905

A JAY OF ITALY

CHAPTER I

On a hot morning, in the year 1476 of poignant
memory, there drew up before an osteria on the
Milan road a fair cavalcade of travellers. These were
Messer Carlo Lanti and his inamorata, together with a
suite of tentmen, pages, falconers, bed-carriers, and other
personnel of a migratory lord on his way from the cooling
hills to the Indian summer of the plains. The chief of
the little party, halting in advance of his fellows, lifted
his plumed scarlet biretta with one strong young hand,
and with the other, his reins hanging loose, ran a cluster
of swarthy fingers through his black hair.

‘O little host!’ he boomed, blaspheming—for all good
Catholics, conscious of their exclusive caste, swore by
God prescriptively—’O little host, by the thirst of Christ’s
passion, wine!’

‘He will bring you hyssop—by the token, he will,’
murmured the lady, who sat her white palfrey languidly
beside him. She was a slumberous, ivory-faced creature
warm and insolent and lazy; and the little bells of her
bridle tinkled sleepily, as her horse pawed, gently
rocking her.

The cavalier grunted ferociously. ‘Let me see him!’
and, bonneting himself again, sat with right arm akimbo,
glaring for a response to his cry. He looked on first
acquaintance a bully and profligate—which he was; but,
for his times, with some redeeming features. His thigh,
in its close violet hose, and the long blade which hung at
it seemed somehow in a common accord of steel and
muscle. His jaw was underhung, his brows were very
thick and black, but the eyes beneath were
good-humored, and he had a great dimple in his cheek.

A murmur of voices came from the inn, but no answer
whatever to the demand. The building, glaring white as
a rock rolled into the plains from the great mountains
to the north, had a little bush of juniper thrust out on a
staff above its door. It looked like a dry tongue
protruded in derision, and awoke the demon in Messer
Lanti. He turned to a Page:—’Ercole!’ he roared,
pointing; ‘set a light there, and give these hinds a
lesson!’

The lady laughed, and, stirring a little, watched the
page curiously. But the boy had scarcely reached the
ground when the landlord appeared bowing at the door.
The cavalier fumed.

‘Ciacco—hog!’ he thundered: ‘did you not hear us
call?’

‘Illustrious, no.’

‘Where were your ears? Nailed to the pillory?’

‘Nay, Magnificent, but to the utterances of the little
Parablist of San Zeno.’

‘O hog! now by the Mass, I say, they had been better
pricked to thy business. O ciacco, I tell thee thy
Parablist was like, in another moment, to have addressed
thee out of a burning bush. What! I would drink,
swine! And, harkee, somewhere from those deep vats
of thine the perfume of an old wine of Cana rises to my
nostrils. I say no more. Despatch!’

The landlord, abasing himself outwardly, took solace
of a private curse as he turned into the shadow of his
porch—

‘These skipjacks of the Sforzas! limbs of a country
churl!’

Something lithe and gripping sprang upon his back
as he muttered, making him roar out; and the chirrup
of a great cricket shrilled in his ear—

‘Biting limbs! clawing, hooking, scoring limbs! ha-ha,
hee-hee, ho-bir-r-r-r!’

Boniface, sweating with panic, wriggled to shake off
his incubus. It clung to him toe and claw. Slewing his
gross head, he saw, squatted upon his shoulders, a
manikin in green livery, a monstrous grasshopper in
seeming.

‘Messer Fool,’ he gurgled—’dear my lord’s most
honoured jester!’ (he was essaying all the time to stagger
with his burden out of earshot)—’prithee spare to damn
a poor fellow for a hasty word under provocation!
Prithee, sweet Messer Fool!’

The little creature, sitting him as a frog a pike, hooked
its small talons into the corners of his eyes.

‘Provocation!’ it laughed, rocking—’provocation by
his grandness to a guts! If I fail to baste thee on a
spit for it, call me not Cicada!’

‘Mercy!’ implored the landlord, staggering and groping.

‘Nothing for nothing. At what price, tunbelly?’

The landlord clutched in his blindness at the post of a
descending stair.

‘The best in my house.’

‘What best, paunch?’

‘Milan cheese—boiled bacon. Ah, dear Messer Cicada,
there is a fat cold capon, for which I will go fasting to
thee.’

‘And what wine, beast?’

‘What thou wilt, indeed.’

The jester spurred him with a vicious heel.

‘Away, then! Sink, submerge, titubate, and evanish
into thy crystal vaults!’

‘Alas, I cannot see!’

The rider shifted his clutch to the fat jowls of his
victim, who thereupon, with a groan, descended a rude
flight of steps at a run, and brought up with his burden
in a cool grotto. Here were casks and stoppered jars
innumerable; shelves of deep blue flasks; lolling
amphoræ, and festoons of cobwebs drunk with must.
Cicada leapt with one spring to a barrel, on which he
squatted, rather now like a green frog than a grasshopper.
His face, lean and leathery, looked as if dipped
in a tan-pit; his eyes were as aspish as his tongue; he
was a stunted, grotesque little creature, all vice and
whipcord.

‘Despatch!’ he shrilled. ‘Thy wit is less a desert
than my throat.’

‘Anon!’ mumbled the landlord, and hurried for a
flask. ‘Let thy tongue roll on that,’ he said, ‘and call
me grateful. As to the capon, prithee, for my bones’
sake, let me serve thy masters first.’

The jester had already the flask at his mouth. The
wine sank into him as into hot sand.

‘Go,’ he said, stopping a moment, and bubbling—’go,
and damn thy capon; I ask no grosser aliment than
this.’

The landlord, bustling in a restored confidence, filled a
great bottle from a remote jar, and armed with it and
some vessels of twisted glass, mounted to daylight once
more. Messer Lanti, scowling in the sun, cursed him for
a laggard.

‘Magnificent!’ pleaded the man, ‘the sweetest wine,
like the sweetest meat, is near the bone.’

‘Deep in the ribs of the cellars, meanest, O, ciacco?’

He took a long draught, and turned to his lady.

‘Trust the rogue, Beatrice; it is, indeed, near the
marrow of deliciousness.’

She sipped of her glass delicately, and nodded. The
cavalier held out his for more.

‘Malvasia, hog?’

‘Malvasia, most honoured; trod out by the white feet
of prettiest contadina, and much favoured, by the token,
of the Abbot of San Zeno yonder.’

Messer Lanti looked up with a new good-humour.
The party was halted in a great flat basin among hills,
on one of the lowest of which, remote and austere,
sparkled the high, white towers of a monastery.

‘There,’ he said, signifying the spot to his companion
with a grin; ‘hast heard of Giuseppe della Grande,
Beatrice, the
father of his people?’

‘And not least of our own little Parablist, Madonna,’
put in the landlord, with a salutation.

‘Plague, man!’ cried Lanti; ‘who the devil is this
Parablist you keep throwing at us?’

‘They call him Bernardo Bembo, my lord. He was
dropped and bred among the monks—some by-blow of
a star, they say, in the year of the great fall. He was
found at the feet of Mary’s statue; and, certes, he is
gifted like an angel. He mouths parables as it were
prick-songs, and is esteemed among all for a saint.’

‘A fair saint, i’faith, to be carousing in a tavern.’

‘O my lord! he but lies here an hour from the sun, on
his way, this very morning, to Milan, whither he vouches
he has had a call. And for his carousing, spring water
is it all, and the saints to pay, as I know to my cost.’

‘He should have stopped at the rill, methinks.’

‘He will stop at nothing,’ protested the landlord
humbly; ‘nay, not even the rebuking by his parables
of our most illustrious lord, the Duke Galeazzo himself.’

Lanti guffawed.

‘Thou talkest treason, dog. What is to rebuke there?’

‘What indeed, Magnificent? Set a saint, I say, to
catch a saint.’

The other laughed louder.

‘The right sort of saint for that, I trow, from Giuseppe’s
loins.’

‘Nay, good my lord, the Lord Abbot himself is no
less a saint.’

‘What!’ roared Lanti, ‘saints all around! This is
the right hagiolatry, where I need never despair of a
niche for myself. I too am the son of my father, dear
Messer Ciacco, as this Parablist is, I’ll protest, of your
Abbot, whose piety is an old story. What! you don’t
recognise a family likeness?’

The landlord abased himself between deference and
roguery.

‘It is not for me to say, Magnificent. I am no expert
to prove the common authorship of this picture and the
other.’

He lowered his eyes with a demure leer. Honest
Lanti, bending to rally him, chuckled loudly, and then,
rising, brought his whip with a boisterous smack across
his shoulders. The landlord jumped and winced.

‘Spoken like a discreet son of the Church!’ cried the
cavalier.

He breathed out his chest, drained his glass, still
laughing into it, and, handing it down, settled himself in
his saddle.

‘And so,’ he said, ‘this saintly whelp of a saint is on
his way to rebuke the lord of Sforza?’

‘With deference, my lord, like a younger Nathan. So
he hath been miscalled—I speak nothing from myself.
The young man hath lived all his days among visions
and voices; and at the last, it seems, they’ve spelled him
out Galeazzo—though what the devil the need is there? as
your Magnificence says. But perhaps they made a
mistake in the spelling. The blessed Fathers themselves
teach us that the best holiness lacks education.’

Madonna laughed out a little. ‘This is a very good
fool!’ she murmured, and yawned.

‘I don’t know about that,’ said Lanti, answering the
landlord, and wagging his sage head. ‘I’m not the
most pious of men myself. But tell us, sirrah, how
travels his innocence?’

‘On foot, my lord, like a prophet’s.’

”Twill the sooner lie prone.’ He turned to my lady.
‘Wouldst like to add him to Cicada and thy monkey,
and carry him along with us?’

‘Nay,’ she said pettishly, ‘I have enough of monstrosities.
Will you keep me in the sun all day?’

‘Well,’ said Lanti, gathering his reins, ‘it puzzles me
only how the Abbot could part thus with his discretion.’

‘Nay, Illustrious,’ answered the landlord, ‘he was in a
grievous pet, ’tis stated. But, there! prophecy will no
more be denied than love. A’ must out or kill. And
so he had to let Messer Bembo go his gaits with a letter
only to this monastery and that, in providence of a
sanctuary, and one even, ’tis whispered, to the good
Duchess Bona herself. But here, by the token, he comes.’

He bowed deferentially, backing apart. Messer Lanti
stared, and gave a profound whistle.

‘O, indeed!’ he muttered, showing his strong teeth,
‘this Giuseppe propagates the faith very prettily!’

Madam Beatrice was staring too. She expressed no
further impatience to be gone for the moment. A young
man, followed by some kitchen company adoring and
obsequious, had come out by the door, and stood
regarding her quietly. She had expected some apparition of
austerity, some lean, neurotic friar, wasting between
dogmatism and sensuality. And instead she saw an
angel of the breed that wrestled with Jacob.

He was so much a child in appearance, with such an
aspect of wonder and prettiness, that the first motion of
her heart towards him was like the leap of motherhood.
Then she laughed, with a little dye come to her cheek,
and eyed him over the screen of feathers she held in her
hand.

He advanced into the sunlight.

‘Greeting, sweet Madonna,’ he said, in his grave young
voice, ‘and fair as your face be your way!’ and he was
offering to pass her.

She could only stare, the bold jade, at a loss for an
answer. The soft umber eyes of the youth looked into
hers. They were round and velvety as a rabbit’s, with
high, clean-pencilled brows over. His nose was short
and pretty broad at the bridge, and his mouth was a
little mouth, pouting as a child’s, something combative,
and with lips like tinted wax. Like a girl’s his jaw was
round and beardless, and his hair a golden fleece, cut
square at the neck, and its ends brittle as if they had
been singed in fire. His doublet and hose were of
palest pink; his bonnet, shoes, and mantlet of cypress-green
velvet. Rose-coloured ribbons, knotted into silver
buckles, adorned his feet; and over his shoulder, pendent
from a strand of the same hue, was slung a fair lute.
He could not have passed, by his looks, his sixteenth
summer.

Lanti pushed rudely forward.

‘A moment, saint troubadour, a moment!’ he cried.
‘It will please us, hearing of your mission, to have a taste
of your quality.’

The youth, looking at him a little, swung his lute
forward and smiled.

‘What would you have, gracious sir?’ he said.

‘What? Why, prophesy us our case in parable.’

‘I know not your name nor calling.’

‘A pretty prophet, forsooth. But I will enlighten thee.
I am Carlo Lanti, gentleman of the Duke, and this fair
lady the wife of him we call the Count of Casa Caprona.’

The boy frowned a little, then nodded and touched
the strings. And all in a moment he was improvising
the strangest ditty, a sort of cantefable between prose
and song:—

‘A lord of little else possessed a jewel,
Of his small state incomparably the crown.
But he, going on a journey once,
To his wife committed it, saying,
“This trust with you I pledge till my return;
See, by your love, that I redeem my trust.”
But she, when he was gone, thinking “he will not know,”
Procured its exact fellow in green glass,
And sold her lord’s gem to one who bid her fair;
Then, conscience-haunted, wasted all those gains
Secretly, without enjoyment, lest he should hear and wonder.
But he returning, she gave him the bauble,
And, deceived, he commended her; and, shortly after, dying,
Left her that precious jewel for all dower,
Bequeathing elsewhere the residue of his estate.
Now, was not this lady very well served,
Inheriting the whole value, as she had appraised it,
Of her lord’s dearest possession?
Gentles, Dishonour is a poor estate.’
 

Half-chaunting, half-talking, to an accompaniment of
soft-touched chords, he ended with a little shrug of
abandonment, and dropped the lute from his fingers.
His voice had been small and low, but pure; the sweet
thrum of the strings had lifted it to rhapsody. Messer
Lanti scratched his head.

‘Well, if that is a parable!’ he puzzled. ‘But
supposing it aims at our case, why—Casa Caprona is neither
poor nor dead; and as to a jewel——’

He looked at Madam Beatrice, who was frowning and
biting her lip.

‘Why heed the peevish stuff?’ she said. ‘Will you
come? I am sick to be moving.’

Carlo was suddenly illuminated.

‘O, to be sure, of course!’ he ejaculated—’the
jewel——’

‘Hold your tongue!’ cried the lady sharply.

The honest blockhead went into a roar of laughter.

‘He has touched thee, he has touched thee! And
these are his means to convert the Duke! By Saint
Ambrose, ’twill be a game to watch! I swear he shall
go with us.’

‘Not with my consent,’ cried madam.

Carlo, chuckling tormentingly, looked at her, then
doffed his cap mockingly to the boy.

‘Sweet Messer Bembo,’ he said, ‘I take your lesson
much to heart, and pray you gratefully—as we are both
for Milan, I understand—to give us the honour of your
company thither. I am in good standing with the Duke,
I say, and you would lose nothing by having a friend
at court. Those half-boots’—he glanced at the pretty
pumps—’could as ill afford the penalties of the road as
your innocence its dangers.’

‘I have no more fear than my divine Master,’ said the
boy boldly, ‘in carrying His gospel of love.’

‘Well for you,’ said Carlo, with a grin of approval for
his spirit; ‘but a gospel that goes in silken doublet and
lovelocks is like to be struck dumb before it is uttered.’

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