The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 12.

Graziosa’s Lover

In the courtyard of the painter Agnolo’s house in Milan, the sunshine fell strong and golden, sparkling on the fountain that rose in the centre from its rough stone basin, and throwing the waxen blossoms of the chestnut into brilliant relief against the sapphire sky.

The courtyard was of stone. Around three sides ran the wall, one with its door into the street; opposite was a large garden, entered by an archway, the wicket in which stood always ajar.

The fourth side of the quadrangle was formed by the dwelling-house, which stood with its back to the ivied walls, itself a long, low building, the upper half of which, jutting above the lower, was supported on pillars of carved stone.

Around the bottom wall ran a wide border of plants, some climbing, others heavy with brilliant blossoms, trailing along the ground, and in the cool, blue shadows in the recess formed by the projecting storey were large pots of spreading ferns, vivid green, mingled with the spikes of bright scarlet flowers.

The basin of the fountain in the centre was velvet green with moss, and over the limpid water there spread the flat leaves of water-lilies. Above the wall rose the sweet-smelling chestnuts, spreading their fan-like foliage and snowy blossoms, tier upon tier, against the brilliant sky, and through the low arch, trellised with roses, the garden stretched, a bewildering mass of colour, white, mauve, yellow, pink, blue and red, into the soft distance, a swaying mass of trees. It was late afternoon, and the shadows were lengthening, as out of the house, the door of which stood open, came the little painter. He stepped into the, sunshine, mopping his face and shaking his clothes.

From head to foot he was a mass of green slime, his doublet torn, his hands scratched, his face hot and perspiring. After a few vain attempts to remove the dirt that clung to him, he looked around with a rueful countenance.

‘Graziosa!’ he called. ‘Graziosa!’

The lattice of an upper window was thrown open, and Graziosa looked out.

At sight of her father she laughed. ‘Hast thou been down thy passage again, Father?’ she called from the window.

Agnolo made a wry face good-humouredly. ‘That I have,’ he returned, ‘and fell into a pond at the other end’

‘The other end!’ echoed his daughter. ‘Then you got through?’

Vistarnini rubbed his damaged hands together with satisfaction. ‘Aye,’ he said with a smile, ‘after tearing my clothes, fighting briars, stepping on toads, stifling with dust, and pitching on my face in the dark, I—’

‘Fell into a pond!’ laughed Graziosa.

‘Got to the other end,’ cried the little painter. ‘Got to the other end!’ Graziosa disappeared from the window, and came running into the courtyard, a slender figure in scarlet.

‘Got to the other end,’ repeated Vistarnini breathlessly. ‘A noble underground passage, Graziosa, that is what we have discovered, large enough to admit an army if need were, and with a concealed opening, leading out through a cave to the midst of —’

‘A pond,’ suggested Graziosa with a glance at his garments. ‘A wood — the pond was a mere accessory; a wood, some two miles beyond the town’

‘Then since this end is reached from our house, we are the only ones who can gain access to it?’ said Graziosa.

We are,’ returned the painter proudly. ‘And, Graziosa, we will remain so.’

‘Thou mean’st thou wilt tell no one?’ asked his daughter. ‘No; it will be very useful. I hate to be for ever passing the gate, giving accounts of myself to every saucy soldier. In time of need, should there be a war then perchance we can speak of it.’

‘I think we should speak of it now,’ said Graziosa thoughtfully. ‘I think we should tell the Duke.’

‘Tell the weathercock!’ said Vistarnini. ‘I tell thee it will be useful; the tolls nearly ruin me — and now I can bring everything I buy outside in through the secret passage.’

”Tis scarce honest, Father’

Agnolo laughed.

‘I discovered it,’ he said. ‘No one knew of it, and the Duke can well spare my tolls.’

‘Meanwhile change thy dress, Father,’ laughed Graziosa, ‘and thou always dost as thou thinkest. I have no more to say.’ Then, as Vistarnini moved toward the house, his daughter called after him softly:

‘I may tell Ambrogio, Father?’

‘Thou mayst do no such thing,’ returned Agnolo. ‘His conscience would prick him — he is over grave and honest —’

‘He is not,’ said Graziosa indignantly. ‘I mean — he would not tell — I am sure he will not tell!’

‘And so am I— for he will never know,’ said Agnolo with a smile. ‘Now thy promise, Graziosa, that thou tellest no one, not even thy precious Ambrogio — and the first thing I smuggle through shall be a new silk gown for thee!’

Graziosa laughed, and seated herself on the edge of the basin. ‘I promise,’ she called. ‘But as for the gown, thou couldst have brought me that in any case!’

Vistarnini turned into the house, and silence again fell on the sunny courtyard.

Graziosa looked musingly at the gate, then down at her bare arm and sighed.

Two pet doves whirled down from the chestnuts and strutted across the courtyard, with a show of white tails.

Graziosa noticed them suddenly, in the midst of her dreaming, and was rising to get their evening meal, when the little painter, clean and reclothed, bustled out of the house, carrying a flat dish.

‘Here is thy food!’ he cried to the birds. ‘Are ye hungry, little ones?’

And he threw the grain in a golden shower.

‘Ambrogio is not here to see you feed today,’ he continued. ‘What makes him late, Graziosa?’

‘The way is long,’ she returned, ‘from the convent where he works, Father, and the monks grudge him any time away from the altar-piece.’

‘And the bracelet?’ said Agnolo. ‘He vowed thou shouldst have it back.’

‘I wish he had not,’ said the girl in distress. ‘He will do something rash, I fear me. How can he get it back from the Visconti palace?’

‘He won’t get it back,’ said the little painter cheerfully. ‘Even a lover would not be quite so mad as to beard the Visconti for a toy.’

‘Yet he swore I should have it again. It was rash of me to tell him how I lost it,’ replied Graziosa.

‘Then he would have thought thou hadst given it to the stone-cutter next door, and there would have been high words, flashing eyes. “Ha — ha — come out and be slain, thou varlet! Skulking dog, thou list!” then swords out, and thou lying in a faint — bewailing the day of thy birth. After that, thunder and lightning — gore — the brawlers driven into the street — the soldiers come up — and off we go to prison for disturbing the streets with our frays.’

‘You jest too much, Father,’ said Graziosa. ‘It may be serious if Ambrogio try to recover the bracelet.’

But a light knock on the outer door interrupted her, and with a heightened colour she rose.

‘It is he, Father!’ she whispered. ‘I knew he would not fail us.’ Agnolo hurried forward and drew back the bolts, and truly enough Ambrogio entered.

Graziosa’s lover was of medium height, a slight man, with beautiful grey eyes. His attire was the plain garb of a student. Today his right hand was hanging in a sling, while in, the other he carried a roll of drawings.

‘Still alive!’ said Agnolo pleasantly. ‘Graziosa was fearing thou hadst spitted thyself on Visconti’s sword in the recovery of her bracelet.’

Ambrogio took little heed of the painter, but closing the door softly behind him, turned with a tender glance to Graziosa.

‘Wert thou grieving for me?’ he said gently. ‘I am safe, my beautiful, and see, I have kept my word.’

As he spoke he drew out the emerald bracelet from his robe, and handed it with a smile to the girl who stood there, blushing with pleasure and astonishment.

‘Thou hast got it back,’ she cried; ‘from the Visconti’s palace

Ambrogio smoothed her bright hair tenderly.

‘The bracelet was thine,’ he said, ‘therefore I went there for it, and have brought it back to thee, even from the, Visconti’s palace.’

Agnolo was staring at him in amazement.

‘How didst thou do it!’ he exclaimed.

Ambrogio touched his bandaged arm with a smile.

‘With only a small injury,’ he said, ‘since ’tis not the hand I paint with.’

And now Graziosa broke in with passionate exclamations of pity for his wound, of admiration for his courage, covering the injured hand with caresses.

‘Thou hast recovered it — by force?’ asked Agnolo again, incredulous.

‘Call it by force or what thou wilt,’ returned Ambrogio. ‘There is no need to speak of it more. It is enough you are in no danger. No one will follow me here to regain it.’

Graziosa kissed her recovered treasure and clasped it on her arm again.

‘I shall never dare to wear it save within these walls,’ she said.

Ambrogio took her hand in his, and led her toward the house.

‘Do not fear, sweet,’ he returned, looking down at her with a smile. ‘Wear it where and how thou wilt. Tisio Visconti will not annoy thee more.’

The girl glanced up, startled by the authority of his manner. Ambrogio, noticing the questioning look, turned it aside with a pleasant laugh.

‘The Duke is tired of his whims, and is putting him under a closer watch,’ he said. ‘From now on he will not often ride the streets’

‘I am sorry for him,’ said Graziosa impulsively. ‘I am very sorry for him.’

They were at the house door, and Agnolo, stepping ahead into the dark entrance, led the way up a flight of shallow wooden stairs.

‘This is stirring news, Ambrogio,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘About the Duke of Verona’s escape, I mean. Do you think there will be a war?’

‘I am a man of peace,’ returned Ambrogio softly, his eyes on Graziosa. ‘How should I know? Still, I do not think della Scala will trouble the peace of Milan much.’

And now Agnolo, at the top of the flight of stairs, was holding open a wide door through which they passed into Agnolo’s workshop, filled with the pleasant litter of his occupation. ‘I do not agree with thee,’ he said. ‘Della Scala’s is a great name. Were I Visconti, I should not feel secure.’

Graziosa and Ambrogio entered the long room, high and light, its windows opening wide on to the street.

And Ambrogio, seating himself near one of the large easels, turned to Agnolo, the while he drew Graziosa gently down beside him.

‘What has the Duke of Milan to fear from della Scala?’ he asked.

‘Everything,’ cried Vistarnini excitedly, for keenly did the little painter love to air his views. ‘Everything. Mark me, Ambrogio, if the Duke of Verona do not suddenly fall on one of Visconti’s towns.’

‘He has no army,’ said the student. ‘He cannot rouse the d’Estes.’

‘He will!’ cried Agnolo. ‘He will — he and Count Conrad. Didst thou not rejoice, Ambrogio, when Count Conrad escaped? We heard of it from the soldiers. Graziosa was glad at heart, as every man or woman or child must be. Such a fate! Didst thou not rejoice he had escaped it?’

Ambrogio was mixing colours in a china saucer, and tapped his foot a little impatiently.

‘Why should we talk of della Scala — and Visconti?’ he said.

‘Visconti! Who wishes to talk of him?’ returned the little painter. ‘Tales have come to me about him, too terrible to repeat before our Graziosa,’ he added, lowering his voice.

‘You gossip too much with the soldiers, Father,’ said Graziosa. ‘I do not love the soldiers, nor should you listen to their tales about Visconti.’

‘They would seem to tell them a little too freely,’ murmured her lover, and drew his brows together.

‘What dost thou mean, Graziosa?’ cried her father, ‘as if it were only from the soldiers we hear of the Duke. Lately some fine tales have got about, and on no soldier’s authority.’

‘Shall we not set to work on the pictures?’ interrupted Ambrogio. ‘You said, methinks, these tales were not for. Graziosa’s ears.’

‘Indeed, ’tis true,’ and the little painter bustled to the second easel and drew the curtain that hung before the large panel, revealing an almost completed picture of St Catherine in scarlet robes.

‘Thy work looks well, Ambrogio,’ he said, and removing a similar covering from the easel by which Ambrogio sat, gazed at the companion panel on which was depicted the archangel Michael. But mine is better,’ he added, ‘as it should be; thy work will improve with thy years.’

”Tis as fine work as thy St Michael, Father,’ said Graziosa, ‘and a good likeness.’

‘Nay, not so fair by half as thou art,’ murmured Ambrogio. ‘Thou art not easy to copy, Graziosa.’

Agnolo was studying his picture intently.

”Twas an idle fancy to take thee as my model for St Michael,’ he said at length. ‘Thou does not inspire me as St Michael, Ambrogio.’

‘As what then?’ asked his daughter, smiling at her father’s earnestness.

Agnolo laughed.

‘As no saint at all,’ he said. ‘He is like nothing but the wicked young man reclaimed in the legend of St Francis, and not very reclaimed either!’

Graziosa smiled still more, but Ambrogio faintly flushed and bit his lip.

‘Thou art welcome to paint me in that character another time,’ he said. ‘Meanwhile, I will work on my St Catherine’s robe.’

And he seated himself on a low stool before the easel, Graziosa placing herself on the floor at his feet.

Agnolo scrutinized the St Michael once more, but finally drew the curtain again along the rod, for his day’s work was over. Settling himself in the window-seat, for a while he contentedly watched the other two; but not for long could the little painter keep his tongue still, and Ambrogio’s visits were a fine opportunity for voluble talk, for the young man lived in Como, and was he not now shut up in the convent of St Joseph, five miles away, painting an altar-piece for avaricious monks who grudged him even these occasional visits into Milan? What could he know of the city’s news?

‘We had a fine procession this morning, Ambrogio,’ he said. ‘The Duke of Orleans’ retinue went by, a gay sight. We hoped to see the Duke ride out to meet him, but my lord Gian Visconti keeps himself close. For all we live so near the gate, I have never seen him, or only in his helmet; and yet ’tis said he cares a good deal for sculpture and for painting, and will make a fine thing of this grand new church he’s building. I would love to see what a tyrant and a painter both may look like.’

Ambrogio, bending over his painting, returned no answer; but that made small difference to the talkative little man, who continued.

‘He came not, however, so we contented ourselves with the French prince, who is to marry the Lady Valentine. Graziosa did not care for him; I thought him well-looking enough.’

‘His air was not a gay one, and he seems foolish,’ said Graziosa; ‘and since he is not marrying for love, I am sorry for the Lady Valentine.’

‘Thou art always sorrowing for someone,’ said her father. ‘A princess never marries for love.’

‘Then I am glad I am no princess,’ smiled Graziosa, looking up at her betrothed.

Ambrogio raised her hand to his lips and kissed it in silence. Agnolo continued his recitals, refreshing himself every now and again with renewed glances from the window.

‘A splendid view we have here, only some processions are not so pleasant as the one that passed today. There was one in particular — some weeks ago — we stayed in the back of the house that day. The old Visconti rode to Brescia, the soldiers said, his son behind him! Ah, for that day’s work the Duke is a lost soul, Ambrogio.’

There was a silence after this; the painter kept his eyes on the darkening sky.

Ambrogio dropped his brush and rose with a pale face. ‘I can paint no more,’ he said. ‘I am weary.’

His daughter’s lover sometimes puzzled Agnolo. His history, as he had told it to them, was a very plain one, his career straightforward, but Ambrogio’s manner strangely varied: sometimes authoritative, strangely cold and haughty for a poor painter; strident sometimes, curious and overawing. But to Graziosa he was always tender, and she saw nothing now but his pale face.

‘No wonder thou art weary,’ she said tenderly. ”Tis a long way from St Joseph, thy hand pains thee, and thou hast had no food.’

Ambrogio stooped and kissed her upon her upturned face.

‘And I cannot stay for it even to take it from thy hands,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I meant not to stay at all, and only came to give thee thy bracelet, sweet; but soon, soon the altar-piece will be finished, and I come never to return.’

‘Finished,’ murmured the girl, her head against his arm. ‘When?’

‘By midsummer, Graziosa. Is the time so long to thee too?’

‘I am so happy, Ambrogio, it does not seem possible I could be happier; still, I think I shall be when thy altar-piece is finished.’

Ambrogio looked at his painting longingly.

‘If I could only stay,’ he said, and kissed her again.

‘Surely it is still early, even for St Joseph?’ said Agnolo. Ambrogio glanced out into the dusky street, where several gaily attired horsemen were riding.

‘The Prior begged my early return,’ he said. ‘And so farewell, my father, for a little while, farewell!’

‘Well, if it must be, it must,’ said Vistarnini cheerfully, ‘thou wilt never fail for lack of industry. Still, Graziosa, even if thy lover goes, there is something left to amuse us. This evening the nobles ride in to attend the feast Visconti gives tonight to the French Duke. ’Twill be a noble feast, yet I doubt if the Lady Valentine be as happy as thou art, Graziosa.’

But his daughter returned no answer, for she was not there, but at the top of the dark stairway. She was saying farewell to her betrothed; and when Agnolo turned from the window, she was leaning on his arm across the courtyard; for a last word at the gate.

‘When comest thou again?’ she whispered.

‘Thy father jeers me for my industry, yet heaven knows what it costs me to leave thee, sweet. In two days’ time I will again be with thee.’

They were at the door, but still he lingered, gazing on her gentle face.

‘Farewell,’ he said at last, with a smile. ‘For two days, my beautiful Graziosa.’ He took her face between his hands and kissed her.

‘Farewell,’ she smiled, and with a sudden effort he was gone.

But once well clear of the house, Graziosa’s lover paused as if undecided, then drew his hood, and wrapped himself closely in his mantle and walked rapidly into the city, keeping close to the wall. After some time he drew the bandage from his hand and flung it aside.

His left hand was as whole as his right.

Again he walked on rapidly, until, at the corner of a quiet street, a man with bent shoulders and dressed in black stepped from the shadow of a building.

It was Giannotto.

‘News, Giannotto?’ asked Graziosa’s lover in a whisper.

‘I am waiting for you, my lord, to tell you they are growing impatient. Your absence is causing surprise.’

Two horsemen passed, and Ambrogio drew his mantle closer around him.

‘No one has seen thee Waiting here?’ he asked.

‘No, my lord, I am too careful’

”Tis well,’ said the other. ‘Lead on toward the palace, Giannotto. I will follow.’

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