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Massimo Taparelli D'Azeglio - The Challenge Of Barletta (1833)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The author of this story followed the examples of many of his contemporaries in imitating the style of Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi; but the Fieramosca won a high place on its own merits.

AT the close of a day in April, 1503, the bell of St. Domenico, in Barletta, was sounding the last tocsins of the Ave Maria. His Grace the Lord Gonzales Hernandez had garrisoned his army in Barletta, where he awaited the tardy arrival of reenforcements from Spain; for his troops were inferior in numbers to the French, who besieged the town. Groups of Italian and Spanish soldiery were gathered on the piazza. A light vessel approached Barletta, a boat was lowered from her sides, and two men came ashore.

"Michele," said the one whose bearing had an air of superiority, "the time has come to be on thy guard. Thou knowest who I am. I'll say no more." The two companions passed on together to the "Inn of the Sun," where they found themselves in the company of a few soldiers belonging to Prospero Colonna, who then followed the fortunes of Spain. One fellow named Boscherino, on seeing the strangers, could not repress an exclamation—" The Duke!" A withering glance from one of the visitors silenced the surprised speaker.

Veleno, the host, was preparing food for his guests when a man dashed up with the news that Diego Garcia was returning with his cavalcade and three French prisoners. That night "the Duke" sent for Boscherino, who received the summons in fear and trembling. Don Michele led him into the presence of his strange and terrible master.

"I have been recognized by thee, Boscherino," he said, "and I am glad. Tell no one thou hast seen me. Thou knowest I can reward thy services, nor will it improve thy prospects much to excite my displeasure." Boscherino bowed his head with reverence and left the room.

About two o'clock in the morning Diego Garcia di Paredes, with his men and prisoners, arrived at the inn. Veleno had ready a hot supper for the famished company. Hunger appeased, the conversation became general and gay; Inigo, a handsome young Spaniard, was alone morose over the loss of his steed, which La Motte, one of the French captains, had killed in the recent encounter. This same Baron La Motte began disparaging the Italians, calling them cowards and assassins; he cited the infamous deeds of the Pontiff and those of his son, Duke Valentino (Caesar Borgia). Then the Frenchman spoke of one deed, in particular, perpetrated by the latter villain, who, failing in his designs upon the beautiful Ginevra di Montreale, poisoned her. At that time it was rumored Ettore Fieramosca had been her lover, and this fact explained his deep melancholy and apparent unsociability, though that did not interfere with his wide popularity in the army. Inigo praised Ettore, his friend, with all the ardor of a Spanish heart. La Motte sneered contemptuously, and declared that every Italian was a poltroon. Unable longer to restrain his passion, Inigo gave vent to his rage in a torrent of words.

"Were one of our Italians here, and above all, Fieramosca," he cried, " and you, who are a prisoner of Garcia, were only free, you would have occasion to learn that a French knight would have good use for both his hands to save his skin from the good sword of a single Italian."

Angry argument followed, and it was decided that when La Motte and his two fellow prisoners were ransomed, a challenge " to a battle in full armor, and to the last drop of blood," with a given number of combatants on either side, would be accepted.

The impetuous Inigo was too impatient to await the morning light ere he could tell Fieramosca of the events. He reached the neighborhood of the castle of Barletta as the sun rose, and found his friend already awake. Fieramosca listened to the narrator with flashing eyes. He sprang to his feet. "Now is not the time for words but for deeds," he cried, and began naming the champions who were to be chosen for the combat. Upon one Brancaleone he depended most, for he knew him at once as a lofty-minded, magnanimous, and powerful man. "First of all we must confer with Signor Prospero Colonna, and afterward address ourselves to Gonzales for the safe-conduct," said Fieramosca to Inigo, as they walked along the streets toward the residence of the Colonna brothers. On the way they were joined by Brancaleone.

When the three friends reached their destination they were greeted by the flower of the Italian army. The only subject of discourse was the challenge. After a few moments Signor Prospero appeared. This wise Prince realized the extreme importance of the result of a combat at the present crisis, for Italy was vacillating between two contending sovereigns. He invited Fieramosca to render a minute account of the whole matter. Signor Prospero thereupon addressed his audience, and requested each man to write his name on paper, that he might submit the list to Gonzales. Within an hour that great captain conceded safe-conduct and an open field for ten men-at-arms, Ettore Fieramosca being the first chosen among the knights. To him, also, was accorded the honor of bearing the written challenge to the French camp. Brancaleone accompanied Fieramosca into the enemy's lines.

It was during this mission that Fieramosca confided his unhappy love adventure to Brancaleone, who listened with deep interest to its unfolding. When but a youth of sixteen, under the command of Count Bosio di Montreale, he had met his captain's daughter, and they loved at first sight. Fieramosca held himself the most blessed man in the realm of Naples; then war broke out, and he separated from Ginevra cursing fate. After being severely wounded he made his way to Rome, where he was horrified to hear what had befallen Ginevra in his absence. During a sack of Capua her father had been killed, and she forced into marrying a ruffianly captain, named

Claudio Grajano d'Asti. As if this were not evil enough, the infamous Caesar Borgia, whose terrific acts were the subject of universal discussion, got wind of her enchanting loveliness, and his passion was aroused. Finding her virtue impregnable, he succeeded in administering a drug, which induced such profound coma that all said Ginevra was dead. Like others not in the secret of her suspended animation, Fieramosca thought his unfortunate lady was no more. He resolved to kill himself, and at night secretly stole into the church to die beside her bier. Prying open the coffin for one last look and kiss, the desperate lover was astounded by symptoms of life in the supposed corpse. A faithful servitor had luckily followed Fieramosca, and together they carried Ginevra from the sacristy. Hardly had this been done successfully ere Caesar Borgia appeared, accompanied by about thirty soldiers. The foiled Duke raged around the deserted church, but was obliged to abandon his undertaking. All these incidents had occurred some years ago. Meanwhile Grajano had followed the fortunes of Caesar Borgia, and the restored Ginevra did not seek to join him; instead she had placed herself under the protection of Fieramosca, and he had secured a refuge for her in the convent of St. Ursula on the island off the shores of Barletta. Not a soul knew of her whereabouts save Brancaleone, who now listened to the tale for the first time, and a Saracen maid, Zoraide, her constant companion, whom Fieramosca had once rescued from drowning.

At the conclusion of this extraordinary narrative, French cavaliers appeared to conduct the two Italian knights into the pavilion of their commander. Fieramosca, after repeating the insult of La Motte, read the challenge, which was promptly accepted, with the condition that the number of combatants be thirteen on each side in lieu of ten. The young Italian was confounded to find Grajano, the husband of Ginevra, in the retinue of the Duke de Nemours, and more nonplused when he learned that the rascal would fight in the forthcoming combat against his countrymen.

"Can you lift your sword with the French against the honor of the Italians?" exclained Fieramosca to Grajano, his eyes flashing fire.

"I fight for those who pay me!" said Grajano with a laugh.

Fieramosca hurled the epithet "Traitor!" at him, and the antagonists were unsheathing their swords when a multitude separated them, remembering that the person of a herald is held sacred. Ettore turned and excused himself for what had taken place, but even the Frenchmen admired his action. An hour later the herald and his companion passed over the draw-bridge of the gate of Barletta. They proceeded at once to Gonzales, who thereupon proclaimed a truce till the combat was over; he also sent an invitation to the Duke de Nemours to join him at a fete he had planned for his daughter, Elvira, who was expected shortly in Barletta.

That same day the two strange guests at the "Inn of the Sun," who were Caesar Borgia (Duke Valentino) and his henchman, Don Michele da Corella, began working out the former's purposes, which were to find Ginevra, and to attempt a secret political alliance with Gonzales. Don Michele conveyed a letter to the Spanish captain, who granted Caesar Borgia an audience. While waiting in an antechamber Don Michele cultivated the acquaintance of the Podesta of Barletta, a garrulous, weak-minded old man, and he told the wily questioner of Fieramosca's incurable melancholy because of a hopeless love. Don Michele pretended he could cure the case provided he were allowed to pass five minutes with the fair object of unrequited love. The foolish Podesta promised to locate the unknown inamorata. Duke Valentino was pleased at the report of progress made. Donning a hooded mantle, which disguised him, he made his way unobserved to the castle, where the illustrious Gonzales temporized about the proposed league of forces, but offered his visitor a suite of rooms for his privacy while he stayed in Barletta.

As the vesper-hymn was chanted in the church of the con-vent of St. Ursula, Ginevra knelt in prayer, one that was brief and seldom varied. "Most Holy Virgin," she said, "help me not to love him. Give me courage to seek out Grajano, and to desire to find him." She made a resolution to tell Fieramosca of her intention to search for her husband, but when the young knight came to the island in his little boat at twilight she lacked the courage of declaration, while he equally failed to impart the fact that Grajano was alive and among French soldiers. Fiera

mosca, however, gave eloquent tongue to describing the forthcoming conflict, and also the fete, proclaimed in honor of the Lady Elvira, for which a truce had been agreed upon. Ginevra forgot her worry, and Zoraide her embroidery, in giving attention to the exciting news. Their questions knew no bounds, especially regarding the personal appearance of the great captain's daughter.

Playing his part with the simple Podesta, Don Michele got him to point out Fieramosca; then, to allay any suspicion, the knave alleged that he possessed God-given miraculous powers, which he would exhibit that night to prove his interest beyond suspicion. From Gennaro, the gardener of St. Ursula and friend of the Podesta,, Don Michele gathered that Ginevra lived at the convent. To settle all doubt in the mind of his dupe was now his task, so Don Michele, arranging with Boscherino to help him with a supernatural seance, led the Podesta to a ruined church and cemetery, where the intrepid villain began his conjurations. His companion was chattering with fright when a ghost slowly rose from one of the vaults. It pointed to a tomb, which Don Michele examined, and found therein a pile of gold coins. But a score of brigands at this moment burst in upon them, held pikes to their throats, and took the heap of money. The prisoners were bound, blindfolded, and led away on an unknown journey which lasted over an hour, then Don Michele felt himself pushed through a door, and down a number of steps, into a cell. The grating of a bolt assured the captive that there was little hope of escape. By the next morning Don Michele had correctly guessed that he was at the bottom of the tower which defended the convent of St. Ursula at the head of the bridge connecting city and island. It was commanded by Schwarzenbach, a guzzling German, in league with the bandits, who hid their booty, and held their captives in prospect of reward.

Don Michele was brought before this German mercenary, who tried to intimidate him, but the pupil of Caesar Borgiaed the tables by declaring that an unseen witness (none other than Boscherino in the guise of a ghost) had already alarmed Barletta of the midnight attack. Schwarzenbach gave full credence to the assertion when his men reported the rapid approach of cavalry. It naturally led him to conclude his prisoner was of high rank, and Don Michele embraced the opportunity to wring from him a promise to lend aid in the abduction of Ginevra at a given time. Suddenly an old hag broke into their midst crying out that the brigand leader, Pietraccio, had murdered the Podesta, and that police and soldiers were pursuing the band of cutthroats. She had barely finished when a body of cavalry, led by Ettore Fieramosca, drove on to the bridge. They had two prisoners. One was was the ferocious Pietraccio; the other was his mother, herself an outlaw of fearful character. She had been badly wounded in the latest encounter. Both were thrown into the dungeon recently occupied by Don Michele. Fieramosca, without being observed, slipped away and visited Ginevra, who was surprised at his unexpected appearance at that hour. He related the adventures of the night, and dwelt upon the heroic defense of the son made by the bandit-mother. Ginevra's compassion was excited, and she determined to go to her succor with simples. To accomplish this charity Fieramosca had to obtain the dungeon key from Schwarzenbach, but Don Michele anticipated him, and wheedling the key from the bewildered commander he descended the cellar to set Pietraccio free. He found the bandit-mother dying, and with her last breath she cursed Caesar Borgia, who had ruined her life, and bade her son kill that fiend incarnate. Placing his poniard in the outlaw's hand Don Michele told him how to escape. In the features of the dead woman Don Michele had recognized those of the wayward wife of his youth!

It was the day on which Donna Elvira was expected, and the courtyard and terraces of Barletta Castle were magnificently decorated. Gonzales and his suite rode away to meet her. Prospero and Fabrizio Colonna were mounted on Arab steeds, while the herculean Diego Garcia was on the back of a wild Calabrian stallion. Ettore Fieramosca, arrayed in white satin, rode between Inigo and Brancaleone. On their way the cavalcade encountered the Duke de Nemours, with all his barons, coming to participate in the fete. Gonzales prayed him to accompany him, and a mile from the gates of the city Elvira and her train, which included the noble Vittoria Colonna, appeared. Dismounting, Gonzales ran to embrace his child, and Ettore and Inigo, having been chosen to act as esquires to Elvira, came forward with an Andalusian jennet, which the young Italian, on bended knee, helped her to mount. Donna Elvira thanked him with a smile, and a glance of frank admiration.

The brilliant cortege entered Barletta, and dismounted at the castle, where apartments were assigned to the new guests. Soon after the games and tournaments took place. Bulls were loosed in the arena and killed by men, among whom Diego Garcia distinguished himself. Then the knights entered the lists and fought against one another; in these combats Inigo won high honors for the Spanish, and Bajardo was acclaimed the greatest lance among the French. But Grajano d'Asti, more by good luck than skill, came off victor of the day, much to the chagrin of Fieramosca, who was compelled to remain beside Donna Elvira, and surrounded by noblest barons. Again Ettore vowed to inform Ginevra that her detestable husband was alive and in French service. Little did Elvira imagine his train of thought; the coquettish Spanish maiden had indeed begun to look on her handsome knight as a possible lover. Two in that vast assemblage watched Elvira and Ettore with painful emotions. One was Vittoria Colonna, who held a deep affection for the girl, and knew her susceptibility; the other was Zoraide, the Saracen attendant on Ginevra, whose hidden passion for Fieramosca had been only vaguely suspected by her mistress. Zoraide had persuaded Gennaro to take her to the tournament that morning, and she departed without waking Ginevra. When she did awake a hundred wild fantasies crowded on her brain. She was suspicious of Zoraide for leaving her so mysteriously, and even doubted Ettore. Weary of her own thoughts, she walked. The tower which guarded the entrance to the island was utterly abandoned; Schwarzenbach and his men had gone to the fete. Suddenly, a wretched, miserable man crept out of the bushes and threw himself on her mercy. It was the hunted Pietraccio. Compassion compelled Ginevra to hide him in a secret place under her house, where she brought him food.

Zoraide and Gennaro returned, the former evasive of questions, but the gardener garrulous about the recent exhibition.

He rattled on, relating all the details of how Fieramosca and Elvira were such a matchless pair, and that it was rumored they were to be married, and of how a certain Grajano d'Asti had won the trophy. Of course this news fearfully agitated Ginevra, who sought refuge in prayer. After long agony of soul, the supplicant decided to leave the convent that night by sea to seek her husband. "I will do right without thinking of the consequences," she said firmly. "The agonies I am going to encounter will only be the expiation of my errors." While Ginevra was in the depths of anguish, Pietraccio in his concealment overheard a conversation between Schwarzenbach and Boscherino, in which the worthy pair discussed the abduction of Ginevra that evening, and he learned that the instigator, Caesar Borgia, was in Barletta. At the first opportunity the bloodthirsty brigand swam to shore, bent on his mission of revenge.

Meanwhile all was gayety in the audience-hall of Gonzales, where a sumptuous repast was served. The fervid heart of Elvira was now entirely given up to Ettore. Even when a cloud settled over his brow, she believed herself the cause, though his mind was occupied with the unfortunate advent of Grajano d'Asti. One of Ettore's boon companions, Fanfulla by name, had become completely fascinated gazing upon the beauty of Elvira. Envy and a tinge of ill will possessed him at the absorbed attention she gave Fieramosca, to whom Fanfulla once play-fully whispered: "But thou wilt pay me for this some day."

The gala-day of Gonzales wound up with presentations of plays, followed by a grand ball. In the courtyard a squalid man wandered unnoticed—it was Pietraccio seeking to assassinate Caesar Borgia, and to give warning to Fieramosca of Ginevra's peril. All unconscious of imminent danger Ettore danced with the enamored Elvira, who was rash enough to propose their going out on the terrace after that dance. Fanfulla heard these words, and when a few moments later Fieramosca excused himself to his fair partner, pleading headache, the jealous fellow watched his exit; he was astonished to see Fieramosca rush from the place without cap or mantle, but he did not know that the cause of this violent action was a note, dropped at the young knight's feet, warning him of the plot to steal Ginevra, Inigo and Brancaleone also observed the precipitous flight, and they followed Ettore, whom they found talking excitedly with Pietraccio. Everything was then explained, and the men, securing armor and swords, set off in a boat for St. Ursula. Fieramosca and his companions sped over the dark waters, passed unheeded one lonely figure in a little boat, and came upon another boat, holding six men and the prone figure of a woman. A fierce fight ensued, during which Pietraccio was knocked senseless in the bottom of the enemies' skiff ; Fieramosca was wounded by a dagger-thrust in the hand of Don Michele, but the unconscious female was rescued. When her saviors reached the convent they saw that the woman was Zoraide, but the closest search failed to reveal Ginevra anywhere. Despair seized upon Fieramosca, and with it a terrible illness, caused by the dagger, which was a poisoned one. Zoraide recovered from her swoon and began administering to the stricken knight, who became delirious.

Of contrasting character were the events occurring at the castle. Fanfulla watched Elvira saunter out upon the terrace, and, securing the cloak and cap belonging to Fieramosca, joined her. In the semi-darkness the daughter of Gonzales was deceived by the subterfuge. The moon shone unexpectedly, and a piercing scream rang out from below. Elvira and Fanfulla hurriedly separated for fear of the crowd that might be attracted to the terrace by the sound of the woman's voice.

That cry rang in the ears of the Duke Valentino, Cesar Borgia, as he dozed in his apartment on the ground-floor of the castle. Jumping up he made his way to the shore, where he discovered a woman unconscious in a boat. He carried her to his rooms. Conceive his astonishment on beholding the face of Ginevra, pallid and piteous. She had fallen insensible at witnessing the scene in the moonlight between Elvira and the false Fieramosca. Caesar Borgia wasted no time in executing his foul intentions upon Ginevra. Tears and pleadings were of no avail. The wild anguish and despair of the wretched woman were indescribable, but her fate was fixed and irrevocable! Don Michele returned in time to help carry the inanimate form of Ginevra back to her little skiff. He saw blood-marks on her left side. Preparations were then made for departure, and the terrible Caesar Borgia, with his servitors, left Barletta in a vessel awaiting them. Pietraccio, the prisoner of Don Michele, attempted to kill the fiendish Duke Valentino, but that son of Satan plunged a poniard in the young bandit's heart, kicked the palpitating body, and ordered it flung overboard.

Leaving Fieramosca in Zoraide's care, Brancaleone and Inigo went to Gonzales with the story of the night's adventures. A search was instituted too late to catch Caesar Borgia, though they found his victim. Ginevra revived long enough to bless Elvira, who she supposed was Fieramosca's fiancee, for she had been witness to the scene on the terrace which had provoked her cry of agony. After receiving the sacrament she prayed for their happiness, then died. This calamity was kept secret from Fieramosca, because of his condition, which was convalescent, under the care of Zoraide, and because of the approaching date of combat with the French, in which he hoped to distinguish himself. Brancaleone assured him that Ginevra was in good keeping, though she could not see him until after the great test of arms. Ettore was not satisfied by this explanation, but contented himself with preparing for the field.

The memorable day of the combat dawned. Twenty-six knights, in dazzling armor, ranged themselves in line for a desperate contest. Long and furious was the fighting, each man determined to conquer his foe. Brancaleone slave the skull of Grajano d'Asti in twain. La Motte was unhorsed and defeated by Fieramosca after a terrible conflict. At last the judges descended from the tribunal and approached the scene of blood, causing the trumpets to be sounded, and proclaiming in a loud voice that the Italians had conquered.

Vittoria Colonna considered it her duty to break the news of Ginevra's death to Fieramosca, but when it came to the point she could not tell him, though she said Ginevra was again at St. Ursula. Mounting his faithful steed Ettore rode on, and over the bridge to the island, where he arrived in time to see the body of his beloved lowered into an open tomb. Zoraide was sobbing on her knees. Ettore said not a single word. He was as rigid and as pallid as the corpse. Remounting his charger he dashed into the night, which was a tempestuous one. No friend of Fieramosca, no living soul of those times ever saw him afterward, living or dead. Some poor mountaineers of Gargano, who were tending their coal-pits, related to the peas-ants that one night in the midst of a wild storm they had seen a strange vision of an armed knight, on the peaks of some in-accessible rocks that overhung a steep declivity near the sea. At first a few only reported the vision, but the number in-creased, and at last the whole country around adopted the firm belief it was the archangel St. Michael.... In the year 1616, a tract of rocky seashore under Mt. Gargano had been left bare by the retreating of the sea. A fisherman found lying between the rocks a heap of iron, almost consumed by the marine salt and by rust, and underneath he found human bones and the carcass of a horse. The reader may draw his own conclusions. For us, our story is done.

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