The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 10.

The Turquoise Gloves

Della Scala is alive!

The news flew like fire around Milan, rousing even the indifferent to some interest. The rumours then were true? Della Scala was alive? In the market-place, in the streets, in the houses it was discussed — the name of della Scala was on every lip. But in the Visconti palace it was not spoken. Silent, sombre as ever, the castle frowned over its beautiful gardens, and only by the companies of horse that spurred out of its side gates to fortify still more strongly the nine cities once held by della Scala and now the Visconti’s, only by this could it be told how much the news meant to the man within.

Giannotto, walking softly through the corridors, paused and looked out into the garden.

Something had caught his keen eye, and he watched, hidden by the curtain of purple silk.

A sea of flowers lay spread beneath him, while beyond a more formal part of the grounds, crowned with white terraces and set with cypress-trees, rose clear against the sapphire sky. To the right lay Isotta d’Este’s prison, the western tower, a massive building of huge strength, encircled on three sides with a moat, and guarded by soldiers.

Giannotto’s eyes glanced from the silver banner that hung above, lifeless in the summer air, to the soldiers at their posts below.

There was an entrance to the tower near to the palace, guarded but little used, half-hidden by myrtle that had filled up the dried moat and climbed up the wall; and, as Giannotto still watched, the figure he had seen enter there, hooded and cloaked, passed out again hurriedly, sped between the sentries, who studiously took no heed, and was soon lost to sight along the winding paths.

The movement was quick, the figure gone almost as soon as noticed; a casual observer would have taken little heed, but Giannotto’s eyes were trained, and he knew the figure for whose it was: Valentine Visconti.

‘She must have bribed high,’ he thought. ‘High indeed. Why should she visit the prison of Isotta d’Este?’ He followed her figure across the garden with curious, suspicious thoughts.

‘She is daring,’ he mused, ‘and foolish. Did she think no one’s eyes could be on her, when Visconti has spies who are to watch her every movement?’

He turned back into the corridor, twisting the ends of his scarlet robe between his fingers, and smiling to himself.

The secretary was in a better humour than his master; that Mastino della Scala should live to vex Visconti, that he should have snatched von Schulembourg, one of his dearest victims, back from underneath his very hand, pleased Giannotto, as did anything that annoyed Visconti, save when his master’s rage was such that his secretary felt its working. The Duke he knew to be alone. The brief audience he accorded was long over. Visconti had no friends; they who must sought him in the morning in the audience-room. For the rest, like the others of his tainted race, he lived alone.

He paused outside Visconti’s door, and the secretary smoothed a smile from his face, and, tapping lightly, entered with a silent, cringing movement.

The chamber was dark, although it was full noonday. Visconti had no love for the sunlight, and even the narrow windows were obscured and shrouded in dark purple.

The walls were panelled in carved wood, but, apart from the stiff chairs, the sole furniture of the apartment was a long low chest, set open, and showing silver goblets and curious bottles and glasses twisted into strange shapes, and coloured. At the farther end were two doors close together, and between them sat Visconti, huddled up against the wall, gazing at the floor with strained, wide-open eyes.

Giannotto, entering softly, noticed in his hand a bracelet, fashioned as a snake, emerald green, of striking workmanship.

‘A messenger from the Bologna embassy, my lord,’ he said, closing the door behind him, ‘has entreated me to ask thy attention for them.’

Visconti looked up quickly, and put out of sight the bracelet with a snap of anger.

‘What, do the Bolognese trouble me?’ he said fiercely.

‘They only follow the example of the Pavians, my lord,’ returned the secretary smoothly. ‘They would have thy mediation between the rival factions in their state.’

‘My mediation! Pavia asked it, as thou say’s; and so did Bergamo; yet do the twain who then appealed, to me reign in either city now? The Bolognese are foolish,’ said Visconti.

Giannotto shrugged his shoulders. ‘That need not trouble thee, my lord. Bologna is a wealthy town. Thy lordship will think of it?’

The secretary’s eyes were on the ground. Gian Galeazzo slipped his bracelet into his doublet and rose.

‘Aye, I will think of it,’ he said, ‘but for the moment there are more precious things to do even than using the Bolognese against themselves.’

Giannotto waited. The Duke paced to and fro a moment, then broke into the subject next his heart.

‘Thinkest thou della Scala will outwit me?’ he said eagerly. ‘Thinkest thou that if he do reach Ferrara he will rouse the Estes to action?’

‘He had two good hours’ start,’ returned Giannotto, ‘and the road to Ferrara offers many chances.’

‘And those men — who let him escape them? Do they still live?’

‘Aye, my lord. They are valuable. It is enough that Alberic da Salluzzo has been lost to us —’

‘They shall yet hang for it,’ said Visconti.

With rapid steps he returned to his seat, flung himself into it, clutching the arms with vice-like grip.

‘He cannot do anything, Giannotto,’ he said. ‘He cannot rouse the Estes — against me! No; when della Scala ruled nine cities, and his revenue was equalled only by the kings of France — I stripped him, I routed him. And now!’ he smiled and his eyes widened, ‘he is a beggar. Perhaps it is not so ill that he lives to know it. It is a better revenge than any I could have devised, della Scala a beggar, a hanger-on at his kinsman’s court, deafening his ears with unwelcome prayers, sinking into contempt before the people who once owned him lord!’

Giannotto was silent. He could not imagine Mastino della Scala a beggar at any prince’s court.

But Visconti, blinded and absorbed by hatred, continued unheedingly:

‘Carrara also, the Duke of Padua, is too necessary to the Estes. They cannot stand without him. Will he, thinkest thou, ever be won over to side with Mastino? No, Giannotto, I do not fear him. Let della Scala live robbed of all — and with Count Conrad as an ally!’

‘Shall we then dismiss him, my lord?’ ventured Giannotto smoothly; ‘he who is not worth fearing is not worth considering.’ He seated himself at the low table as he spoke, his watchful eyes on Visconti, and drew some papers from the flat bag at his side.

The Duke returned no answer. In truth he heard not what was said, but leaned back in his chair and fell to thinking. The secretary, looking at his brooding face, shuddered a little at what his master’s thoughts might be. He wondered also as to that green bracelet Visconti had concealed.

The silence grew oppressive, and Giannotto moved uneasily. He loved not to sit alone with Visconti when he fell into these musings.

The Duke roused himself.

‘Ah,’ he said, breaking suddenly into a passion of declaim. ‘A god can do no more than say, “I have succeeded — in all I have undertaken, I have succeeded!” And I can say as much. I have succeeded. I looked on life and took from it what I wanted, the fairest and the finest things that offered; and the price — others paid it. Truly, I have succeeded!’

Giannotto shrank back at Visconti’s outburst, and made no answer.

But the Duke had forgotten him. He was but uttering his thoughts aloud.

‘Five years ago,’ he said exultingly, ‘I rode outside the gates of Verona and challenged della Scala to single combat. He sent his lackey out with a refusal, and in my heart I said: “I will bring that man so low that life shall hold nothing so sweet to him as the thought of meeting me in single fight!” I have succeeded! Isotta d’Este looked past me and laughed, and I said, “She shall live to feel her life within my hand.” In that also I have succeeded!

‘And three years ago, only three years ago, I stood within this very room, four lives between me and the throne of Milan — four lives, all crafty — and two young. But I— I, the youngest, took my fate and theirs into my hand. I said: “It is for me to reign in Milan — I am the Duke.” In that I have succeeded!’

He paused, with dilating eyes and parted lips, intoxicated with pride.

‘This ambition is his madness,’ thought Giannotto; but he still was silent.

‘In another thing,’ continued Visconti, and his voice was changed: he breathed softly, and his eyes sparked pleasantly. ‘Last May-day I saw the people in the fields, pulling flowers; I knew they were what poets call happy. Among them were two girls, one dark, one fair, and she with the dark hair had her betrothed beside her. They were happy among the happy, they loved each other — and I rode unseen. The may was thick and white, I watched them through the flowers and vowed: “I too will be happy, even as they are happy, though I am Visconti; I will be loved for myself alone; that fair-haired girl shall care for me as her companion for her lover — life shall give me that as well!”

And he rose, triumphant, smiling, resting his hand on the arras that hid the door behind him.

The secretary gazed upon him fascinated.

Lifting the arras, he paused again, and looked back with a smile that transformed his face.

‘In that too have I succeeded!’ he said melodiously; and, opening the narrow door, he was gone, as always, noiselessly. The secretary shook himself.

‘Why does he unburden his soul to me?’ he murmured. ‘Does he think, because I sit silent, I have no ears, no memory — that I shall forget? “In that too have I succeeded!” Aye, thou hast it all thine own way, Visconti, so far.’

With a slight shrug of the shoulders Giannotto fell to writing.

When his pages were finished, he put them into his bag for the Duke to sign, and grumbling at his absence, stayed, but dared not follow. Presently he decided to take his own dismissal.

As he rose to go he remembered Valentine Visconti, flying through the garden after her secret visit, and he considered if she could bribe him to silence heavily enough to make it worth his while to venture an encounter with her.

Visconti did not stint his sister for money, and she might pay well. Still, dare he let her know he spied?

Then his thoughts went to Isotta d’Este, and he wondered, with some interest, what her fate would be.

In open day Isotta d’Este had been captured; all Europe knew she was his prisoner; Tuscany and the Empire already looked with interest on the Duke of Milan’s growing power, and that Duke a usurper. Visconti had to step warily.

Still busy with his thoughts, the secretary had reached the door, when it opened and the ancient Luisa, Isotta’s prison attendant and spy, entered, glancing expectantly around.

Giannotto looked at her slowly; he hated her — indeed, he hated most people, but her in particular, for she equalled him in servile cunning and surpassed him in greed.

‘I would see the Duke,’ she said, looking at him mistrustfully. ‘Thou canst not see him,’ returned the secretary, ‘for he is not here.’

But old Luisa seated herself calmly on one of the black-backed chairs. ‘I will not take thy word for what I can or cannot do,’ she said. ‘I have important tidings for his ear alone.’

Giannotto longingly wondered if it were possible to win her news from her and share in the reward.

‘I will get thy news in to the Duke,’ he said. ‘Trust it to me, and I will see he does not forget who brought it, but ’tis impossible to see him now.’

Luisa smiled.

‘I would be my own news-bearer,’ she said, and made no movement to go.

‘Visconti is in his laboratory,’ said Giannotto angrily. ‘Whatever thy news, art thou so mad as to think of following him there? Wilt thou not trust it to me?’ he added more gently. She shook her head placidly.

‘Have thy way,’ sneered Giannotto. ‘Stay and see the Duke, and be dismissed for having left thy post, and remember there are more eyes on the western tower than thou knowest.’

The old woman looked uneasy, but stubbornly kept her place. And seizing his bag and papers, Giannotto was gone, and the heavy door closed behind him before she could know what was going to happen.

‘Giannotto!’ she cried in alarm. ‘Listen a moment —’ And she ran and pushed at the door.

Giannotto opened it a little and showed his smiling, crafty face.

Wilt thou give me the news or wait till the Duke leaves his laboratory and finds thou hast been absent from thy post an hour, perchance more?’

‘Take it then,’ said Luisa with a cry of vexation. ‘But I will repay thee, Giannotto.’

She thrust into his hands a piece of parchment.

‘It was left with me by the Lady Valentine to give Isotta d’Este. Now, make what else of it thou canst,’ and Luisa shuffled past him, terror overmastering greed. To be locked within that chamber to await the Visconti was what she had not heart for. Moreover, she could tell the Duke another time — and he would listen — how Giannotto had forestalled her.

She shuffled off, and Giannotto in triumph reentered the chamber. He read the parchment, one of many: ‘Della Scala lives’

‘And the Lady Valentine conveys it to Isotta d’Este’s prison,’ mused Giannotto. ‘Now, shall I tell my lord that piece of news or no?’

He regarded the two doors, between which Visconti’s chair was set, and gently tried them: one was locked, the other opened to the touch. He dared investigate no further, and returning to his chair, sat down to wait. The minutes dragged on, and he fumed with impatience.

Visconti’s laboratory was not altogether a secret place. Giannotto had helped him in his experiments; there was an assistant who attended the fires. But no one followed the Duke into it unbidden.

But, as time went on, Giannotto debated with himself that he would venture. Visconti was long. What was he doing? It was an opportunity to spy. If caught, the secretary could plead anxiety as to his master’s safety. Summoning his courage, Giannotto rose and crept to the unlocked door and softly pushed it back.

It opened on a flight of stairs, black marble, carpeted in gold, the high walls hung with tapestry in red.

The steps were few in number, before they twisted abruptly out of sight. Round the bend floated a thin wisp of grey smoke.

Giannotto slowly and cautiously mounted. At the bend the steps still continued, twisting again.

It was very silent, very still, only the lazy floating wreath of smoke moving. Giannotto came within sight of a door, ajar. He marvelled at it. It was thus Conrad von Schulembourg had escaped — through an unlocked door. Visconti trusted overmuch to the terror of his name.

Giannotto slowly and cautiously pushed it a little further open. It showed him the outer laboratory, a long low room of grey stone, and lit by a large window set back a man’s height in the wall.

Hanging over a clear charcoal fire, burning in a pan, was an elaborate silver pot, seeming to quiver in the vapour that shimmered off the fire underneath.

Around it on the floor stood glasses, vases, jars, and goblets, glass, china, and gold.

Save this, the vault-like chamber was void of furniture; only on the stove near the window lay a pile of things, curiously mixed. They held Giannotto’s eyes. They were not in the laboratory when he worked there.

A man’s doublet of white satin, a scent bottle, a spray of roses, a mask, a poniard, two scarfs intertwisted, and, sparkling on an inlaid tray, a massive ring — he knew it, he had seen it on Isotta’s hand — her wedding ring; all this thrown among two birds and a hound, stiff and dead.

Giannotto started a step back. Then his eyes fell on the window-seat, and even he could scarce suppress a cry. For Visconti stood there, erect and motionless, so motionless and so one with the stone beside him, Giannotto had not known him there. From head to foot he was clad in grey. In his right hand he held a pair of gloves, turquoise blue, magnificently worked in pearls, and in the other a small phial filled with a yellow, slow-moving liquid. This he held high against the light, which fell strong and cold upon his upturned face and thick, curling red hair, and Giannotto gazed, fascinated, on the gleam of his teeth as he smiled with a slow satisfaction. Giannotto had seen enough. His heart beat quickly. He drew the door to again, and crept back down the steps unobserved, gaining the outer chamber, trembling; and there for a moment fell upon his knees, as if in thanks for a most merciful escape. His thanks were not without their reason. Hardly was the secretary in his chair again, when a light footfall sounded and Visconti entered.

For one moment Giannotto thrilled with terror, but a covert glance at the Duke’s face reassured him.

‘I have this to give you, my lord,’ he began at once. ‘It was left in the Lady Isotta’s prison.’

Visconti took the parchment.

‘By whom left there?’ he asked.

‘I know not, my lord,’ said Giannotto. ‘Luisa brought it, but dared not leave her post.’

His own narrow escape of a moment since had tied up Giannotto’s tongue.

‘It will not be hard to discover,’ said Visconti. ‘Someone who did not bribe Luisa high enough.’

‘Della Scala lives,’ he read again.

‘Let the Lady Isotta have it,’ he said. ‘It may keep her alive. It looks to me that she may die, Giannotto, of the bad air and the confinement,’ and he smiled. ‘I would certainly not have her death. Give her the parchment.’ And he handed the parchment back, dismissing Giannotto with the gesture.

Clearly Visconti was in a mood that held neither comment nor reward, but one the secretary was glad to escape from so easily. With a deep obeisance he departed.

‘Who bribes the woman to comfort Isotta d’Este? The soldiers are to be trusted,’ mused Visconti. ‘Once I know I will remember it.’

He drew from his doublet the velvet gloves of turquoise hue and laid them on the table.

They were beautiful in their perfect workmanship, huge gauntlets fringed with pearl and gold and tasselled at the points with rubies. On the back was a rich design also in pearl and gold, and they were lined with white satin, covered in fine silk lace.

Truly they were a work of art. Visconti raised them delicately by the tassels and looked long at their rich blue, admiringly, and with a curious expression.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32