The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 15.

A Prisoner from Milan

Mastino della Scala was proving himself. He had come to within fifteen miles of Milan.

Verona was his again; that was in itself enough to justify his allies’ confidence.

Of them Julia Gonzaga’s force and Ippolito d’Este’s army lay at Brescia, ready at any moment to advance.

Della Scala’s position lay nearer Milan, and by far the larger half of his support was Carrara, Duke of Padua’s contingent, led by the Duke in person.

Between the two forces, a quarter of a mile outside della Scala’s camp, was the castle of Brescia, at one time an occasional residence of Barnabas, Visconti’s father, and now a gloomy fortress, with an evil reputation; for Barnabas, driven from Milan by his son, had died there — with his wife — of fever it was said. In a gorgeous tent in the midst of della Scala’s camp sat Conrad von Schulembourg and the younger d’Este.

It was the slumbrous hour after noon, the air heavy with an approaching storm, and Conrad lounged languidly on a low divan, playing with his dagger. The war, although success had fallen to his leader, had already begun to weary this indolent cavalier, and even the sight of Milan in the distance, where Valentine was imprisoned, could not keep him from whining at the hardness of his fate. A parchment lay near him on the seat, and from time to time he made some pretence of looking at it: pretence only.

In della Scala’s force Conrad held third command under the Duke of Padua, who was immediately under Mastino; but Conrad’s post was largely a sinecure, for though in the battle the Count’s gallant courage roused della Scala’s warmest praise, he recognized that his capacity for generalship was small.

None the less della Scala trusted him completely. His heart full of his one object, elated by his successes, eagerly keeping his allies together, della Scala had small leisure to notice Conrad’s stifled yawns when the council of war was held, or the fact that he gave more thought to playing cards and chess with Vincenzo than to the discipline and efficiency of the men under his orders. For the fiftieth time he put the parchment down and turned to Vincenzo, who lay along the floor, eating nuts and hurling the shells at the legs of the sentry visible through the flaps set wide back for coolness. To make the soldier jump at a telling shot was more just then to Vincenzo than the taking of Milan.

‘I would there were someone else to read these despatches,’ said Conrad. ‘I love not this part of soldiering. When, think you, will there be another city to be taken, Vincenzo?’

‘There was fighting yesterday outside Milan,’ returned the boy. ‘Thou shouldst have gone.’

‘I asked the Prince to let me, but as usual I was bade stay at my post.’ And Conrad rose with a sigh of outraged virtue and adjusted the points of his rose-coloured doublet.

‘Asked the Prince mocked Vincenzo; ‘thou shouldst have gone without asking him.’

‘A dash on the walls,’ said Conrad, ‘that is what we need, not this idleness and skirmishing. I long to grasp my sword and fly to my Lady Valentine’s rescue — but the Prince —’

‘Tell me not,’ said Vincenzo. ‘I know Mastino always counsels prudence, and I am weary of it.’

‘The Prince knows more of it than we, doubtless,’ admitted Conrad. ‘Nevertheless these parchments may wait while I have a game of chess with thee.’

‘May they, Count Conrad? And is chess thy notion truly?’ said Mastino’s voice without, and unannounced he entered the tent, followed by Tomaso’s father, Giorgio Ligozzi.

He was from head to foot in armour.

His eyes fell on Vincenzo, and his face darkened.

‘For shame, Vincenzo,’ he said with scorn. ‘Thou art no longer a child, to indulge in these page’s tricks, and must I marvel Count Conrad should allow thee such licence.’

Vincenzo rose sullenly.

‘Leave us,’ continued della Scala with angry eyes. ‘And learn from yonder soldiers to play the man, and wear a leathern jacket with more grace than a silken doublet. I am ashamed of thee, Vincenzo.’

D’Este’s beautiful face flushed crimson.

’Tis not always the leathern jacket comes out best at time of need, my lord,’ he said defiantly. ‘Try me in it in a fight.’ Della Scala’s glance softened; he laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder gently.

‘Thou art a d’Este and my brother, Vincenzo. I do not fear thy behaviour in battle, only learn the harder part — to beat thyself while waiting.’

Vincenzo was melted, but not caring to show it before Conrad, left the tent without reply.

‘He hath the makings of a soldier in him for all his wilfulness. I pray you pardon his present idleness, my lord, and hold me as the cause,’ said Conrad. ‘I should have roused him sooner.’

Mastino glanced around. It was the first time he had entered the German’s abode, and the lavishness of its appointments was not to his taste.

‘This is an hour of great need, Count,’ he said gravely. ‘The downfall of Visconti cannot mean to you what it does to me — it cannot mean so much to any man — but am I not right in thinking it means all to you to see the Lady Valentine Visconti free?’

‘All! All I care for under heaven. By all the saints, Prince, I will give my right arm to serve your cause, since it serves her,’ cried Conrad.

Della Scala’s brown eyes observed him keenly.

‘I will ask a service of you, Count,’ he said; ‘not thy right hand, nor any feat of knight-errantry, but something full as difficult to render.’

‘Even if it be living on roots in a dungeon, I will do it!’

And, excited at the thought of some adventure, Count Conrad waited expectantly, his hand upon his sword.

The Prince smiled sadly.

‘I fear it is a harder task than that, Count Conrad, and so distasteful that I would not burden you with it were there any other worthy to entrust with it,’ he said. ‘But all the men here are mercenaries — Captain Vanvitelli is a boor; Ligozzi goes with me to Brescia, whither I am instantly bound to confer with Ferrara.’

‘Prince, I am proud to execute your commands,’ interrupted Conrad eagerly.

Della Scala turned to Ligozzi, who stood silent behind him.

‘See that no one listens, he said; and as Ligozzi disappeared and Mastino drew nearer to him, the Count fell back, impressed by the eagerness of the noble face.

But the Prince took him by the hand affectionately.

‘Dost thou remember the huts outside thy villa, Conrad — and Francisco who rescued thee? I am giving thee a trust. For his sake wilt thou be faithful?’

‘To the death!’ cried Conrad. ‘Prince, I will be faithful to the death!’

‘Count,’ said Mastino earnestly, ‘I return from Brescia tomorrow, bringing d’Este up with me to join in an assault on Milan that will make the city ours, I trust, within a week. Of necessity I leave Carrara for these hours in command — almost all the men are his providing — but,’ his voice sank still lower, ‘I do not completely trust him — I doubt his loyalty. I have misgivings as to the use he may make of my absence, therefore,’ he paused and laid his hand on Conrad’s shoulder, ‘I leave you, Count von Schulembourg, privately in charge. Watch him — never leave him out of your sight till my return.’

‘Good! I understand! I swear!’ cried Conrad again. Mastino della Scala looked into his eyes.

‘I trust thee,’ he said simply. ‘Thou knowest how my wife’s safety lies on my soul — and if Carrara play false, we are well-nigh ruined. These weeks have I had him under Ligozzi’s eyes, day and night, and now thou must take his place.’ Conrad kissed Mastino’s hand in silence, his emotional nature overcome to tears.

‘Come, my lord, the time wears,’ said Ligozzi, and della Scala turned to leave.

At the entrance he looked back.

‘Remember, I trust thee, and thee solely, Conrad,’ he said. As he dropped the flap behind him, he turned to Ligozzi.

‘Will he be worthy of it, Ligozzi?’ he said. ‘But I must perforce trust him when there is no other.’

Outside the Duke’s tent, his escort was in readiness to start, and his white horse waiting, held by Tomaso.

‘After all, my lord,’ whispered Ligozzi, ‘Carrara may not be false.’

Mastino shook his head. ‘He only awaits the opening,’ he said.

‘What does console me,’ he added, ‘is that I shall be back tomorrow.’ And he looked toward Milan as he spoke. ‘Ligozzi,’ he continued wistfully, ‘how long the time seems since I saw her. The last words I heard her speak are for ever in my ears: “While thou livest I fear nothing”; and I live, Ligozzi. Sometimes I am ashamed of it!’

‘You live to free her, my lord,’ said Ligozzi softly.

Mastino mounted in silence. ‘Yes, I live for that,’ he said, after a pause.

He turned and saw Tomaso watching him.

‘Yes, thou shalt come with us,’ he smiled; ‘only mount in haste. The time wears on.’

At this moment, foremost among a little group of horsemen, Carrara cantered toward him, black-eyed, smiling, richly dressed, a plumed cap between his smooth white fingers.

‘Farewell, Carrara,’ said Mastino. ‘Count von Schulembourg is second in command. I leave all to your discretion, subject to my orders already given.’

Giacomo bowed, but made no reply other than his smiling eyes. His meditated treasons were ripe for execution, and he could scarce contain himself at the good fortune of it; Visconti’s messenger had reached him the same day that della Scala rode away. There remained only Conrad.

‘Till tomorrow at noon,’ murmured Carrara, repeating della Scala’s last words, as he watched him ride away. ‘An attack on Milan, in less than a week! You are mad for a woman’s silly face — in less than a week I shall have joined Visconti.’

Visconti understood the art of bribery, and knew whom to bribe. Carrara, only waiting in the hope of it, had caught eagerly at the bait, and by the returning messenger had agreed to join Visconti and leave della Scala shorn of more than half his forces. And Mastino, by his absence, had made it child’s play. As Carrara returned now to his own tent, thinking and scheming, a captain of mercenaries galloped up.

‘The prisoners, my lord, captured by some of Count von Schulembourg’s men, in the scuffle outside Milan yesterday, are being brought into the camp — is it to you or to him we bring them?’

Carrara fingered his bridle.

‘Take them to the castle,’ he said at last. ‘I myself will see them presently.’

He glanced over his shoulder at Count Conrad’s tent. The embroidered entrance was dosed, the black and yellow eagles fluttered idly over it — there was no sign of the young German. The Duke of Padua smiled.

‘Are those the prisoners?’ he asked, pointing to a little group of soldiers guarding a few men.

‘Yes, my lord. We had almost forced the gates — when a band rushed out and there was a desperate struggle; we were driven back, and these fellows, in the heat of the victory, followed too far. Then we turned and had them, and brought them in for ransom. They seemed worth it.’

‘I will go and view them,’ said Carrara suddenly, and he cantered his horse toward the little group.

The noise of the prisoners’ arrival was spreading, still there was no sign of Count Conrad, and again the treacherous Carrara smiled. But in a moment more the smile had faded. He noticed among the prisoners a face he surely knew.

Prudence was Giacomo Carrara’s ruling quality, and helped him now to keep his wits.

‘That fellow yonder,’ he said, pointing, ‘he with the red hair — who is he? Has he told his quality?’

”Twas he who led the chase,’ was the answer, ‘screaming like a madman. He is the squire of some nobleman, and gave out he thought we had his master captive.’

Carrara breathed heavily.

‘I know something of him, unless I much mistake; a dangerous rogue and spy — place him apart, well guarded — in a separate compartment. Pinion him. Tonight we will put him to the question.’

And again he glanced toward the German’s tent. Conrad had not appeared, and the prisoners wound away out of sight into what was once Barnabas Visconti’s summer residence, and where Barnabas Visconti not long since had died.

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