The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 14.

The Tumult at the Western Gate

Mastino della Scala with his army lay at Serio, a hamlet boasting a small eminence crowned with a strongly built but insignificant castle. Some ten miles farther on Brescia was held by Julia Gonzaga’s army. Only a few weeks had passed since della Scala, falling first on Verona and taking it, had marched on Milan and almost snatched it from Visconti’s unsuspecting hold. But the alarm given at Valentine’s wedding-feast had come in time. With almost superhuman energy, in two hours’ time Visconti armed the walls and put the city in defence. To surprise a victory was impossible. Still, the Duke of Verona’s army was only some fifteen miles from the walls, and day by day drew nearer.

Visconti, from the height of proud security, was suddenly, by one move, placed in a position dangerous indeed. The towns and domains behind Milan, from that city to Turin, were still his, as were Pavia and Piacenza, but from Brescia to Verona, and from Modena to Lombardy, save for a few scattered towns and forts held desperately by Visconti’s men, the whole was in the hands of della Scala and his allies. Still Milan was not in a state of siege: men and supplies hurried in from Novara, Vercelli, and other towns in the Visconti’s dominions, and powerful aid was coming to the Duke of Milan’s assistance from the Empire.

Yet in Visconti’s eyes this aid, needful as it was, was dearly bought, for Charles IV, though an ignoble ruler and laughed at by his subjects, was of an honourable, open disposition, and related by marriage to the Estes, and the one condition on which he was dispatching to Visconti’s service his soldiers stationed in Switzerland and on the borders, was that Isotta d’Este should be untouched.

In the bitterness of his rage, Visconti wished he had already slain her; now, in truth, he dare not. It was no question now of gratifying an ambition, it was simple fear of losing his own throne, fear of being in his turn reduced to what he had reduced della Scala, that made him respect the wishes of the Empire, and the feeling of the French who thronged his court.

And the thought that he could not play the best card tyrant ever held was rendered doubly bitter by the fact that della Scala knew him to be helpless and Isotta safe.

Scheming in his crafty soul for means to outwit Mastino, Visconti thought of Giacomo Carrara, who held Padua, Treviso, Cremona, Vicenza. He was della Scala’s ally, but a man of no upright soul.

‘Could I gain him,’ thought Visconti, in his musings, ‘I could stand without the Empire, without France, and use my captive as I please and not as they dictate.’

To the Estes and Julia Gonzaga he gave no thought; well he knew they were not likely to desert Mastino — but Carrara — Meanwhile, he threw his whole strength against the opposing army, keeping it at bay, gaining time — and planning.

But Mastino della Scala’s object was not to lose time in idle skirmishes. Brilliant success had fallen to his share, not one reverse had marred his short campaign and it is not the policy of the victor to dally with time, rather to seize the chances each day offers, while yet fortune smiles on him.

But well della Scala knew that neither honour, nor pity, nor shame, but fear alone, would restrain Gian Maria Visconti from venting his hatred on Isotta d’Este.

Still, he kept up a stout heart. Visconti dare not! To make assurance doubly sure, he used all his influence at the court of Rome to procure the aid of the Church against the Duke of Milan.

Many a time had he rendered powerful help to the Pope, and, as his present position stood, might do so yet again; and the result of his appeal was a grave embassy from the Pope to Visconti, threatening him with excommunication and the sword of the Church should he dare to touch Isotta d’Este.

For the first, Visconti cared little; twice had the Church thrown him out, and each time had he laughed at it and emerged triumphant; but now his position was more perilous than it had ever been since he mounted the throne of Milan, and he dare not treat this mandate of the Church as he had done ‘the others. The Pope’s temporal power too was great; were that once turned against him, even with the Empire’s aid he could hardly stand; so Visconti answered them with fair words, pledging his honour for the Duchess of Verona’s life.

One bright summer morning, Visconti sat at the open window of his palace, thinking.

At the other end of the room the Duke of Orleans and Tisio were playing at chess; between these two, during the Duke’s enforced stay in Milan, a friendship had sprung up, and Visconti, weary of his foolish guest, was well pleased a foolish brother should take him off his hands.

The Frenchman was prepared at once to carry out the contract, marry Valentine, and depart for France, but this Visconti’s pride would not permit. The Duke of Orleans had witnessed a reverse, he should behold a triumph. Valentine should leave Italy as befitted his sister, not fly from it as a fugitive; and the French prince, who in a few weeks had yielded to Gian’s influence and learned both to fear and obey Visconti, assented meekly to delay, and whiled away the time as best he might.

Visconti sat so motionless and silent that the chess-players were forgetful of his presence, and their voices rose high.

‘My move,’ said Tisio gleefully. ‘See, the rook takes your knight.’

‘Your rook could take my kight,’ returned Orleans, ‘if it were your move, but as it is mine —’

‘You are not watching the game,’ was the angry rejoinder.

‘Your pardon, my move,’ said the Frenchman calmly, and, with a smile on his vacant face, he swept up one of Tisio’s men.

‘My move — and — mate, M’sieu.’

With a cry of childish rage, Tisio snatched at the board, spilling the men on to the floor.

‘I love not to play with you,’ he cried. ‘I would Count Conrad were here, he was the one to play with.’

Orleans laughed.

‘Because he always let you win, M’sieu?’ he said.

Tisio began to whimper with annoyance, calling loudly on Valentine.

Visconti, aroused, drew the curtains aside, and stepped forward.

Orleans was, at his appearance, a little flurried. It was impossible for his weak brain to meet those eyes and not feel flurried.

‘Tisio and I are fallen out again,’ he said feebly.

Visconti looked at him coldly.

‘I would remind you, my lord, Tisio, though an infant, is my brother.’

‘Gian!’ cried Tisio, suddenly noticing him. ‘Gian, it was my move!’

‘Whether it was thy move or no, it does not please me thou shouldst be annoyed — remember it, my Lord Duke’; and he turned into his inner room. As he closed the door, his long brooding showed in his face. It was lined and anxious. The position was a dizzy one: a perilous one: his dark dress concealed the gleam of chain armour.

His enemies were many, and some powerful, and Visconti took no chances.

At his side hung a dagger, long and sharp, and his fingers were often on the hilt in readiness. At his old place sat Giannotto. ‘I have decided,’ said Visconti. ‘I will attempt Carrara.’

‘You think he is to be bought, my lord?’

‘I think he is to be bought,’ responded Visconti. ‘At any rate we will try. He and his force are with della Scala?’

‘And fifteen miles outside our walls,’ said Giannotto; then at the look on the Duke’s face, he was sorry he had spoken, and shrank together.

‘Read what is on the parchment,’ said Visconti; and the secretary, glad to have been let off so easily, unwrapped the roll. Therein Visconti’s bribe was plainly set forth:

The town of Cologna, near to Padua, and well fortified, the protection and close alliance of Milan, and the service of ten thousand trained mercenaries, together with the right to trade free of toll in Visconti’s dominions —

‘And a pair of turquoise gloves,’ added Visconti, with a change of tone.

Giannotto glanced up.

‘Are they not worth three hundred ducats?’ said Visconti, smiling. ‘Did not the Pope and Emperor both wish to buy them, and fail?’

Giannotto bowed his head over again and studied the scrip in silence.

Visconti watched him keenly.

He thought, ‘I know he would betray me for a ducat — if I were not Visconti.’

He turned to the narrow window, and looked out on to the city spreading beneath him.

‘The Empire,’ he muttered to himself. ‘The Empire and the French — I will awe them and humour them while I must — but let me once gain Carrara — as I shall — I can dispense with them and deal with della Scala as I list.’

He turned from the window to Giannotto, and his face had lost its lines.

‘Well?’ he asked. ‘What think you?’

‘This is a master-stroke of temptation, my lord. You have always found craft a good servant.’

‘It would not serve me well in thee,’ said Visconti with a sudden glance. Now, see to it that parchment is dispatched, Giannotto, by a trusty messenger, and with no delay.’

‘I will give it to Ricardo with my own hands, my lord,’ said Giannotto. ‘He is the best man we have since Filippo was wounded this morning in a skirmish by the western gate.

‘The western gate?’ Visconti looked up quickly.

‘It was not worth while bringing to your notice, my lord. A band of the enemy’s soldiers have been skirmishing there.’

‘They were beaten off without harm to anyone within the gates?’

‘The gates were not forced, nor anyone injured — or I should have acquainted you, my lord,’ and he waited for possibly some mark of appreciation; but the Duke motioned curtly to the roll he held, and Giannotto crept out with bowed shoulders. As the tapestry fell into place behind him, Visconti approached the black bureau between the windows, and unlocked one of the long drawers.

In its dusky recess lay a gold box, and Visconti took it out, handling it carefully.

The light fell in a straight shaft from the narrow window on the delicate chasing of the casket as Visconti placed it on the table, and as he turned the key and the lid flew back, it gleamed on the emeralds and diamonds of an elaborate coronet, exquisitely enamelled and pointed.

Every inch was covered with precious stones: each point tapering into delicate tracery of gold, as fine as lace.

Visconti drew a chair to the table, and leaned back in it, his eyes upon the jewels; so absorbed was he, he did not heed the opening door nor Tisio’s entrance.

And Tisio scarcely saw his brother, for joy at the little coronet, so brilliant in the sun’s straight ray.

‘How dost thou come here, Tisio?’ asked his brother, startled; but at sight of Tisio’s vacant, foolish face, he sank back, and noticing his joy, he smiled — for Tisio was crazed, and remembered nothing of even the things that gave him pleasure. ‘Dost thou like it?’ he continued, gratified at the delight in his brother’s eyes. ‘Thy taste in goldsmiths’ work is good, Tisio.’

”Tis beautiful, Gian, wondrous beautiful cried Tisio in rapt admiration.

‘I bought it with the price of half a city,’ said Gian. ‘And hold it cheap,’

The words had no meaning for Tisio, as his brother knew: he only voiced his own pride in the lovely bauble.

‘And wilt thou wear it?’ asked Tisio.

The Duke laughed good-humouredly.

‘Not Tisio; still soon — when della Scala’s crushed — thou shalt see it worn by someone — someone whose face will outshine these stones, Tisio.’

‘Whose will it be?’ asked his brother childishly.

‘A lady, Tisio; and when this coronet is on her head, she will be Visconti’s wife and the Duchess of Milan!’

He paused on the word, and looked at Tisio; but there was no wonder in his brother’s eyes, his gaze held by the flashing stones.

‘Now, by Saint Mark!’ cried Visconti suddenly. ‘This is no time to be maundering with a toy and an idiot.’

He put the little coronet back and locked the casket.

‘How comest thou to be alone, Tisio? Where is thy page?’

As he spoke he returned the casket to the bureau. Tisio, in eager curiosity, looked over his shoulders into the open drawer. There lay the turquoise-coloured gloves.

‘Oh!’ cried Tisio joyously. ‘The beautiful, beautiful gloves!’ And before Gian could stop him, he had caught them up. Visconti snatched them from him; at the same moment came a clamouring upon the door. It was Giannotto knocking lustily. ‘Now, who beats down the door?’ cried the Duke, and waiting for no further summons, Giannotto entered. The Duke, starting, thrust the turquoise gloves into his doublet.

‘What is it now, Giannotto? Did I not say that I was coming?’

‘My lord, it presses. De Lana would see you — there has been fierce fighting outside the walls — the army clamours for you —’

‘Lead the way,’ said Visconti shortly; and, preceded by his secretary, he returned hastily towards his council chamber.

The anteroom, brilliant in pink stone and gold, the great hall itself, flaring in painted walls and dazzling stained-glass windows, were full of people — courtiers, soldiers, artists, and craftsmen.

Gian Visconti kept neither the open court nor the free table of his father; he was neither lavish in his hospitality, save when it suited his own ends, nor liberal in his rewards; still he loved, encouraged, and jealously exacted the homage of all artists. Woe be to the painter or poet who took his painting or poetry to any other in Milan save the Duke himself!

There were many there today, eager-eyed among the throng, among them the German architect of the glorious new church; but today Visconti passed unheeding through them. The city was at war.

He stepped into the council chamber unannounced, followed solely by Giannotto.

The great gilt ornate room was full of Milanese and foreigners, allies or guests of Visconti.

‘You look grave, my lords,’ cried Visconti, his grey eyes wide, ‘and fearful. I had not thought you of so poor a courage. Yet, since you are so faint of heart, I come to tell you from my own lips that I ride against Verona today! Have you forgotten, my lords, that a Visconti still rules Milan?’

There was no answer from the splendid throng; they had complained much of late — but not to his face.

‘Have you no thanks, for so much comfort?’ laughed Visconti. ‘Let all those who may care to follow make them ready, and let those who care not — stay to make us welcome from a victory. Come, de Lana.’

He turned away with his hand on his favourite captain’s arm. To a man the crowded assembly flocked to follow.

‘Ah!’ Visconti turned again.

‘A crushed foe is scarcely to be feared! Have I not set my standard in the market-place of Verona? Have I not dragged a hostage from della Scala’s palace? Lords of Milan, am I not Visconti?’

With one voice they broke into loud shouts.

‘To the city walls! To the city walls! Down with della Scala! To the city walls!’

And while the cry still sounded, before the enthusiasm could abate, Visconti, armed and mounted, rode at the head of some thousand mercenaries and Milanese to the farthest rampart of the city.

Orleans had not volunteered. The French duke remained in the well-guarded palace, of which the Lady Valentine was left the governor during the Duke’s absence, an office she had often filled before quarrels had sprung up between her and her brother, and while he held Milan against his father and she was his counsellor and ally.

For a few brief hours, power again was hers, for Visconti had not weakened her authority yet — outwardly at least. She could do nothing.

She thought of her helplessness with bitterness. All day long she set herself to revolving schemes of escape — some way whereby to avail herself of the confusion into which Milan had been thrown — some means to outwit her brother.

She could not rest for her anxious thoughts. The Visconti palace was near the walls, and Valentine, stepping on to the open balcony, looked through the clustered pillars over the flat house-roofs to the distant country where the advancing army lay.

The air was heavy. From the street came the sound of tumult, noise, and hurry: the walls were manned.

‘There is to be some fighting,’ murmured Valentine.

She shaded her eyes from the sun that, beating on the red brickwork of the palace, gave back a blinding glare.

‘Oh, may God grant that victory may fall,’ she murmured, ‘where Count Conrad draws his sword!’

It was evening before Visconti returned, weary from his survey of his men, victorious after a fierce skirmish with some of Verona’s mercenaries, led by Mastino’s trusted Captain Roccia.

The palace that till then had lain so quiet was suddenly a wild confusion, a babel of noises, shouts, and trampling of horses.

Strange, flaring lights were thrown across the courtyard; the torches flung ragged, straggling rays upon the sides of the palace, falling grotesquely on the griffins that grinned either side the arched door, falling across the long rows of straight windows, and, for a second, on Valentine Visconti’s pale face, looking eagerly below.

‘Dogs of Veronese!’ cried Visconti, turning his blazing eyes toward the prisoners. ‘They have cost us a wild hour!’

And he had been in the thick of it; his rich armour was dented, the embroidered surtout torn to rags: Visconti’s blood was up. In a fight, even the Torriani could not say he lacked anything save prudence.

Without alighting, he took from his head his ponderous helmet with the viper crest, and gave it to his page.

‘We have given Roccia a taste of our quality!’ he laughed, and pulled his gauntlets off. ‘Where is Giannotto?’

‘I am here, lord,’ said Giannotto.

He stood at the Duke’s saddle, looking around him in confusion.

‘What news, Giannotto?’ cried Visconti. ‘Thy pallid face seems too ready to welcome me. Let me dismount.’

‘Hear me first,’ entreated the secretary, ‘before you dismount — before anything — lord!’

‘Quick with thy news then — stand back, de Lana, I must hear this rogue.’

Giannotto drew closer.

‘My lord, at noon today, Rinalta, the Tuscan captain, rode in. While Roccia was engaging you, some mercenaries forced one of the gates, and before they could be driven back, a house was broken into, some prisoners made —’

The Duke fixed his widening eyes upon the speaker, and Giannotto shrank.

‘What gate?’ he asked. ‘What house? What prisoners?’

‘The western gate, lord, and Agnolo Vistarnini’s house!’

With a sound of fury Visconti struck at his secretary violently, with the ends of his bridle.

‘And I was not told before!’

‘It was held too small a fray, lord,’ said the secretary. ‘Could I tell Lady Valentine one gate was more to you than another? I besought her to send to you — I besought them all — could I tell them why?’

Even as he spoke de Lana rode up resolutely.

‘More men are needed at the western gate,’ he said; ‘the Germans have returned. I will lead them.’

‘No!’ cried Visconti; ‘I, de Lana.’

The soldier looked surprised.

‘You, lord? There is no need —’

‘It is my will,’ Visconti answered fiercely. ‘At once, to the western gate!’

At his cry the soldiers flung themselves again into the saddle, and those who still sat their horses gathered up their reins.

‘Your helmet, lord,’ cried the startled squire; but Visconti swept him aside and rushed bareheaded forward, de Lana and his troop of horsemen after him in a wild riot of sound and light.

Giannotto stood bewildered in the doorway; nothing left of the wild tumult that had filled spaces save echoing shouts and trampling hoofs.

‘Visconti is mad,’ he thought has ridden off almost unarmed! Now — I wonder what may happen before he return from the western gate — the night is dark and — dangerous.’

And with a thoughtful glance up at the cloudy sky, Giannotto slowly withdrew.

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