Francesco Sforza, the son of Lodovico Moro, Duke of Milan, follows a stag in the chase and becomes separated from his companions. Then, having taken refuge in the hut of certain peasants, who take counsel together how they may kill him, he is delivered by a child, who has be come privy to the plot of the traitors, and the villains are afterwards quartered alive.
THE fable just narrated to us by Lionora opens out to me a wide field to tell you of a very piteous adventure, which, in truth, may be held to belong to history rather than to fiction, seeing that it happened to the son of a duke, who, after many tribulations, brought it to pass that his enemies were made to taste a bitter punishment for the offences they had wrought.
I will tell you then that, in these our times, there lived in Milan Signor Francesco Sforza, the son of Lodovico Moro, the ruler of the city, a youth who, both during the lifetime of his father, and after his death, suffered much from the bolts of envious fortune. In his early youth Signor Francesco was of graceful figure, of courtly manners, with a face which gave fair token of his righteous inclinations, and when he was come to that age which marks the full bloom of youth- his studies and all the other becoming exercises being finished-he gave him self up to the practice of arms, to throwing the lance and following the chase, gathering from this manner of life no little pleasure. Wherefore, on account of his converse and of his prowess in manly exercises, all the young men of the city held him in great affection, and he, on his part, was equally well disposed towards them. In sooth, there was no youth at all in the city who did not par take in a share of his bounty.
One morning the Signor Francesco gathered together for his pleasure a goodly company of young men, of whom not one had yet reached his twentieth year, and, having mounted his horse, rode away with them to follow the chase. And when they had come to a certain thicket, which was well known as the haunt of wild animals, they surrounded it on all sides, and soon it chanced that, on the side of the wood where Signor Francesco was keeping a vigilant watch, there broke forth a very fine stag, which, as soon as it beheld the hunters, fled away from them in terror. Francesco, who had the heart of a lion, and was likewise a perfect horseman, no sooner marked how rapid was the flight of the stag than he struck his spurs deep into his horse's sides and dashed away impetuously in pursuit, and so long and so far did he follow it that, having outridden all his companions, he found he had missed his way. Then, because he had lost sight of the stag, he gave up the pursuit, not knowing where he was or whither he should turn. Finding himself left alone and far away from the high road, and wotting nought as to how he should make his way back there to-seeing that the dark shadows of night were fast gathering around-he lost his wits somewhat, and was in no small fear lest there should happen to him some mischance which would not be to his taste. And so indeed it fell out.
Signor Francesco took his way onward and onward through the dubious paths, and finally came upon a small cottage with a roof of straw, and of very mean and ill aspect. Having ridden into the yard he got down from his horse, which he made fast to the fence which was built around, and straightway went into the cottage, where he found an old man, whose years must have numbered ninety at least, and by his side was a young peas ant woman, very fair to look upon, who held in her arms a five-year-old child, to whom she was giving nourishment. Signor Francesco, having made polite salutation to the old man and the young peasant woman, sat down with them and asked them whether of their kindness they would be willing to give him shelter and lodging for the night, not letting them know, however, who he was.
The old man and the young woman, who was his daughter-in-law, when they saw that the youth was of high station and of graceful seeming, willingly made him welcome, putting forth many excuses the while that they had no place for his accommodation at all worthy of his condition. Francesco, having thanked them heartily, went out of the cottage to have care for his horse, and after he had duly seen to its wants he entered once more. The child, who was very lovesome, ran up to the gentleman's side with all manner of affectionate greeting and covered him with caresses, and Francesco on his part kissed the little one with many soft words and blandishments. While Signor Francesco was standing talking in familiar wise with the greybeard and his daughter in-law, Malacarne, the son of the old man and the husband of the young woman, came home, and having entered the cottage, espied the gentleman who was chatting with the old man and caressing the child. He bade Signor Francesco good evening, getting a courteous return of his greeting, and gave orders to his wife that she should forthwith get ready the supper.
The master of the house then ad dressed Signor Francesco and begged to know what was the reason which had brought him into so savage and desert a place, and to this question the youth by way of explanation replied, 'Good brother, the reason why I have come to this place is simply because, finding my self alone upon my journey at the fall of the night, and not knowing whither to betake myself through being some what ill-informed as to the features of this country, I discovered by good luck this little cottage of yours, into which this good old father and your wife in their kindness bade me enter.' Malacarne, as he listened to the speech of the youth and marked how richly he was attired, and how he wore a fine chain of gold about his neck, of a sudden conceived a design against Francesco, and made up his mind, at all hazard, to first slay and then despoil him. Therefore, being firmly set upon carrying out this diabolical project of his, he called together his old father and his wife, and, having taken the child in his arms, went forth from the cottage. Then, when he had drawn them aside somewhat, he made with them a compact to slay the youth, and after they should have taken off from him his rich raiment to bury his body in the fields, persuading them selves that, when this should be done, no further report would ever be heard of him.
But God, who is altogether just, would not suffer these wicked schemings to come to the issue the miscreants desired, but brought all their secret design to light. As soon as the compact was finally made and their evil plans fully determined, it came into Malacarne's mind that he by himself alone would never be able to carry out the plan they had formed. And, besides this, his father was old and decayed, and his wife a woman of little courage, and the youth, as Malacarne had already remarked, seemed to be gifted with a stout heart, and one who would assuredly make a good fight for his life, and perhaps escape out of their hands. On this account he re solved to repair to a certain place, not far distant from his cottage, and to enlist the services of three other ruffians well known to him who dwelt there, and then, with their aid, fully carry out his design. As soon as these three worthies under stood what he would have them do, they at once consented to follow him, greedy of the gain he promised them, and having caught up their weapons, they all went to Malacarne's cottage.
There the child, having left the place where her mother and grandfather were together, returned to Francesco and gave him greetings and caresses more love- some even than before, whereupon the young man, observing the very loving ways the little one used towards him, took her in his arms and caressed her tenderly and kissed her again and again. The child, seeing the glitter of the chain of gold about his neck, and being greatly delighted therewith (as is the manner often with children) laid hands upon the chain and showed that she would fain have it round her own neck. Signor Francesco, when he saw what great de light the child took in the chain, said to her as he caressed her, 'See here, my little one, I will give you this for your own.' And with these words he put it about her neck. The child, who had by some means or other become privy to the business that was afoot, said to Francesco without further words, 'But it would have been mine all the same without your having given it to me, be cause my father and mother are going to kill you and to take away all you have.' Francesco, who was of a shrewd and wary temper, as soon as he realized from the words of the child the wicked designs which were being woven against him, did not let the warning pass unheeded, but prudently holding his peace he rose up from his seat, carrying the child in his arms, having the collar about her neck, and laid her down upon a little bed, whereupon she, because the hour was now late, forthwith fell asleep. Then Signor Francesco shut himself close in the cottage, and, having made secure the entrance by piling up against the door two large chests of wood, awaited courageously to see what the ruffians without might do next. Then he drew from his side a small firearm, having five barrels, which might be discharged all together or one by one, according to will.
As soon as the young gentlemen who had ridden a-hunting with Signor Francesco found that he had strayed away from their company without leaving any trace to tell them whither he might be gone, they began to give signal to him by sounding their horns and shouting, but no reply came back to them. And on this account they began to be greatly afeared lest the horse he rode might have fallen amongst the loose rocks, and that their lord might be lying dead or per haps eaten by wild beasts. While the young courtiers were thus standing all terror-stricken, and knowing not which way to turn, one of the company at last cried out, 'I marked Signor Francesco following a stag along this forest path, and taking his course towards that wide valley, but, seeing that the horse he rode was swifter in its pace by far than mine, I could not hold him in sight, nor could I tell whither he went.' As soon as the others heard and understood this speech, they at once set out on their quest, following the slot of the stag all through the night in the anticipation of finding Signor Francesco either dead or alive.
While the young men were thus riding through the woods, Malacarne, accompanied by the three villains his comrades, was making his way back towards his house. They deemed that they would be able to enter therein without hindrance, but on approaching the door they found it fast shut. Then Malacarne kicked at it with his foot and said, 'Open to me, good friend. Why is it you keep thus closed the door of my house?' Signor Francesco kept silence and gave not a word in reply; but, peeping through a crevice, he espied Malacarne, who carried an axe upon his shoulder, and the three other ruffians with him fully armed. He had already charged his firearm, and now, without further tarrying, he put it to the crevice of the door and let off one of the barrels, striking one of the three miscreants in the breast in such fashion that he fell dead to the ground forthwith, without finding time to confess his sins. Malacarne came, when he perceived what had happened, began to hack violently at the door with his axe in order to bring it down, but this intent he was unable to carry out, seeing that it was secured on the other side. Francesco again discharged his pistolet with such good for tune that he disabled another of the band by shooting him in the right arm. Whereupon those who were yet left alive were so hotly inflamed with anger that they worked with all their force to break open the door, making the while such a hideous rout that it seemed as if the world must be coming to an end. Francesco, who felt no small terror at the strait in which he was placed, set to work to strengthen yet further the door by piling up against it all the stools and benches he could find.
Now it is well known that, the brighter and finer the night, the more still and silent it is, and a single word, though it be spoken a long way off, may at such times be easily heard; wherefore on this account the hurlyburly made by these ruffians came to the ears of Francesco's companions. They at once closed their ranks, and, giving their horses free rein, quickly arrived at the spot from whence came the uproar, and saw the assassins labouring hard to break down the door. One of the company of young gentlemen at once questioned them what might be the meaning of all the turmoil and uproar they were making, and to this Malacarne made answer: 'Signori, I will tell you straightway. This evening, when I came back to my cottage weary with toil, I found there a young soldier, a lusty fellow full of life. And for the reason that he attempted to kill my old father, and to ravish my wife, and to carry off my child, and to despoil me of all my goods, T took to flight, as I was in no condition to defend myself. Then, seeing to what sore strait I was reduced, I betook myself to the dwellings of certain of my friends and kinsmen, and besought them to give me their aid; but, when we returned to my cottage, we found the door shut and so strongly barricaded within that there was no making entrance, unless we should first break down the door. And not satisfied with outraging my wife, he has also (as you may well see) slain with his firearm one of my friends and wounded another to death. Wherefore, finding it beyond my endurance to put up with such ill-handling as this, I have made up my mind to lay hands on him dead or alive.
The young men in attendance upon Signor Francesco perceiving what had happened, and believing Malacarne's tale to be true on account of the dead body lying on the ground before them and of the other man gravely wounded, were moved to pity, and having dismounted from their horses, cried out loud, 'Ah, traitor and enemy of God, open the door at once! What is it you are doing? In sooth you shall suffer the penalty due to your misdeeds.' To this Francesco answered nought, but care fully and dexterously went on strengthening the door on the inside, knowing not that his friends stood without. And while the young men went on with their battering without being able, in spite of all the force they used, to open the door, a certain one of them, having gone a little apart, espied in the yard a horse tied to the fence, and, as soon as he had drawn anigh thereto, he knew it to be the horse of Signor Francesco, so he cried out in a loud voice, 'Hold off, my comrades, and let go the work you are about, because our master is surely within there;' and with these words he pointed out to them the horse tied to the fence. The young men, as soon as they saw and recognized the horse, were at once convinced that Signor Francesco was shut up within the cottage, and straightway they called upon him by name, rejoicing greatly the while. Francesco, when he heard himself thus called, knew that his friends were at hand, and, being now freed from all dread of his life, he cleared away his defences from the door and opened it. And when they heard the reason why he had shut himself up so closely, they seized the two ruffians, and, having bound them securely, carried them back to Milan, where, after they had first been tormented with burning pincers, they were torn in quarters, while living, by four horses. The little child by whose agency the nefarious plot was found out was called Verginea, and her Signor Francesco gave in charge to the duchess, in order that she might be well and care fully brought up. And when she had come to an age ripe for marriage, as a reward for the great service she had rendered to Signor Francesco she was amply dowered and honourably given in marriage to a gentleman of noble descent. And after this they gave her in addition the castle of Binasio, situated between Milan and Pavia, which in this our day has been so sorely vexed by continual broils and attacks that of it there hardly remains one stone on another. And in this sad and terrible fashion the murderous thieves made a wretched end, while the damsel and her husband lived many years in great happiness.
All the listeners were quite as strongly affected by pity as by astonishment while they listened to this touching fable. But as soon as the happy issue thereof was declared, they all recovered their gladness, whereupon the Signora gave her command to Isabella that she should forthwith set before them her enigma, and she, with her eyes yet moist with tears, spake thus in modest manner:
Good sirs, amongst us here doth dwell
Isabella's learned and subtle enigma gave great pleasure to all the listeners, but there was not a single one gifted with understanding acute enough to disentangle its meaning; so Isabella in her modest way thus expounded it: "My enigma means the ever-varying thoughts of men's minds, which are invisible and run into every place, though at the same time they abide ever with the man in whose brain they are formed. Thought remains in one spot, it wanders around, and no one knows where; but, though it permeates every sphere of man's intellect, it still remains with him, and is the source from which infinite and varied phenomena take their rise." 'Weighty and subtle indeed was the solution of Isabella's enigma, and there was not one of the company who was not entirely satisfied therewith. Vicenza, who knew that it was now her turn to speak, waited for no further command from the Signora, but began her fable in the following words.
Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Facetious Nights by Straparola. W. G. Waters, translator. Jules Garnier and E. R. Hughes, illustrators. London: Privately Printed for Members of the Society of Bibliophiles, 1901. 4 volumes.