The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 18.

Giacomo Carrara’s Reward

The dawn was breaking, the sky streaked and barred with cold grey light, and along the winding road to Milan rode the Visconti and Carrara, the army before them.

It had been accomplished, without demur, openly and completely; behind them they left the Veronese and Mantuan troops, over whom Giacomo had no command — and Count Conrad, laughing in his folly.

Quite near to them lay Milan — and Visconti rode in silence, wondering what had befallen in the city; wondering, and fearing Valentine had revealed too much of his own spirit; he was afraid of her.

Along the distant horizon the grey walls of the city began to be visible across the flat plain, and Visconti’s eyes lit at sight of his city, and he turned to Carrara impulsively.

‘Give me a sword, Carrara,’ he said. ”Tis not fitting I should enter Milan weaponless.’

‘The Milanese will so rejoice to see you, my lord,’ returned Padua, ‘they will never notice —’

‘That I come as a prisoner?’ flashed Visconti, but the next moment he laughed and urged on his horse. ‘But what care I how, so long as I do reenter Milan? Now, with you as my ally, Carrara, I can crush della Scala without France or the Empire; and together, as ye say, we will rule Lombardy.

Carrara rode abreast of him, glancing at him keenly.

‘Even now he will try to outwit me,’ he thought, and resolved he would not be outdone in cunning for the lack of care.

‘How came it you were captured?’ he added, ‘and in this guise?’

‘The chances of war,’ laughed Visconti. ‘Foolishly I went myself to defend the gates, and pursued della Scala’s men too far.’

But this candour did not deceive Carrara. ‘Foolish indeed he smiled. ‘Your hurry excelled your prudence, lord.’ And he wondered what was the truth.

‘You have cause to thank heaven no one knew you,’ he continued.

‘They were German boors,’ answered Visconti, ‘Count Conrad’s men, and there was nothing to tell my degree. Yet, had they looked a little closer, they might have found one thing that would have told them I was different from what I seemed — these.’

And he drew out of his doublet the turquoise gloves.

Even in that cold, faint light they showed brilliant and beautiful, and Carrara gazed at them in wonder.

‘As I was summoned,’ continued Visconti, dreamily, ‘I was looking at them. Are they not beautiful, Carrara? Two years they took to make, and cost more than I care to tell. Each turquoise is flawless, and set by Antonio Fressi himself.’

‘And is this a gift for someone?’ asked Carrara, and he looked keenly into Visconti’s face.

‘It was one of my bridal gifts to the Duke of Orleans. I must honour him, Carrara, although I love him not,’ said Visconti simply. ‘But now I will offer it to one to whom I owe my life. Take the gloves, a gift from me, Giacomo.’ And he turned in the saddle and held them with a winning smile to Carrara, who, mistrustful, looked at him doubtingly and keenly.

‘Thou wilt not refuse my gift?’ and Visconti looked at him proudly. ‘Let it seal our bargain, Carrara. Take it, for the sake of the goodwill with which it is offered.’

Carrara’s ruling quality was prudence, and all Visconti’s seeming guilelessness did not deceive him; still, he hesitated, considering where the trap lay.

Then, as he glanced down at the gloves, his eyes caught the gleam on the hilt of his dagger, and a thought struck him.

‘He means to make me put them on,’ he thought, ‘and snatch the sword meanwhile’; and he smiled to think Visconti could be so simple.

‘I thank thee for thy gift, Visconti, and for the goodwill that offers it,’ he said, with an ingenuousness equal to Visconti’s, and reaching out his hand, he took the gloves, meaning to have the gift and outwit Visconti also.

Gian’s manner had lost its gloom and wildness, he seemed light of heart and in a pleasant mood.

‘They are riding-gloves,’ he cried. ‘Wear them into Milan, Carrara.’

‘Ah,’ thought Giacomo, ‘I see the plot. Thou wouldst snatch a weapon while my hands were busy,’ and, priding himself on his cunning, he deftly slipped them on his hands, keeping his elbow on his sword-hilt and his watchful eyes upon Visconti.

‘A beautiful dawn,’ said Gian softly, seeming to take no heed of Carrara’s clever manoeuvring; his eyes were fixed on the sunrise behind Milan. ‘All pearl and silver, blushing into life anon; about the time when I shall enter Milan.’

And he fixed his eyes on Giacomo with a strange expression. ‘When we shall enter Milan,’ corrected Carrara. ‘The sun will be fairly high: these marches are toilsome.’ And he glanced down proudly at the beautiful gauntlets on his hands, calculating what the pearls and turquoises might be worth, picked off, and vain at having outwitted Visconti.

‘The promise of the day!’ said Visconti, dreamily and sadly. Hath it ever struck thee how that promise never is fulfilled? Day after day, since the world began, something in the mystery of the dawn is promised — something the sunset smiles to see unfulfilled — something men have been ever cheated of — something men will never know — the promise of the dawn!’

The road began now to be fringed with poplars, and in the faint light the colours of the wayside flowers were visible. They rode awhile in silence. Carrara looked back at the small rearguard in the distance, and before him along the road to his army blackening the plain, and then again at Visconti.

‘Either he is always mad or —’

With a sharp exclamation he fell forward on his horse’s neck, but recovered himself instantly. Visconti turned to him, still with that far-away look in his eyes.

‘The road is stony,’ he said. ‘Thy horse stumbled?’

‘Fool or devil?’ Carrara was still wondering, and, looking at Visconti’s face, he almost thought him a fool.

‘You and I,’ cried Visconti, with a sudden change, ‘together, Carrara! Lords of Lombardy!’

And he struck his horse into a gallop so unexpectedly that Carrara had difficulty to keep abreast with him.

‘I have been so long away!’ he cried. ‘Haste! I long to be in my city again. Valentine — and others — will be grieving. Haste!’

And he still urged his horse.

Carrara, galloping at his side, suddenly reeled in the saddle, with a cry of anguish.

‘Faster!’ cried Visconti. ‘Faster!’

With an effort Carrara kept his horse to the pace, but his face was deathly, his lips set. Visconti never looked at him; his gaze was toward Milan and the sunrise.

Suddenly Carrara cried aloud. ‘Not so fast, Visconti, not so fast!’

But Gian flew along the level road.

‘Milan he cried, ‘on to Milan!’

Carrara swayed forward to grasp Visconti’s cloak, but he shook him off with a laugh.

‘What ails you, Carrara? The army waits, you must ride faster still if you mean to ride into Milan today with me.’

But Carrara was clutching at the neck of his doublet with staring eyes.

‘My heart!’ he gasped. ‘I suffocate — ah —!’

And he rode on blindly.

‘Your heart?’ laughed Visconti, drawing rein a little. ‘Do your treacheries stop its beating? You suffocate? Do your lies choke you?’

A cry of mortal agony broke from the unhappy Carrara. ‘Stop!’ he gasped; ‘I am-dying — stop —’

Then his glazing eyes fell on the brilliant blue gloves he wore, and he sat upright with a scream of rage.

‘The gloves! the gloves!’ And with his remaining strength he tried to tear them off. ‘O fool! A Visconti! . . . I might — have known —’

Frantically he pulled at them, while Visconti, now moving almost at a walk, looked dreamily ahead at the fast nearing city. ‘Fiend!’ cried Carrara wildly. ‘Fiend!’

And he lurched forward, falling heavily on to the road, where he lay, convulsed, the turquoise gloves still on his hands.

Gian Maria drew rein now, and looked down at him, his face no longer indifferent, as he gazed into the white and contorted countenance of the dying man.

‘“Whom did you murder here, Visconti?”’ he quoted.

‘“Whoever it be, do not fear him now, since he is dead”; and I answered, did I not, that I feared neither him nor you? And now, Carrara, thou mayst tell him what I said, him whom I murdered in that room we passed’

Giacomo, writhing on the ground, looked up at him with hate equal to his own, and feebly still tried to pull off the turquoise gloves.

Visconti, leaning low from the saddle, gripped his sword and thrust it through his belt.

‘I shall not ride into Milan swordless,’ he said; ‘thou might’st have spared thy caution, Carrara: I shall ride into Milan with thy army, thy towns, and thy sword; and I have bought them — with a pair of turquoise gloves.’

He looked curiously at Carrara, who suddenly sat upright; the cold light fell on his face, his starting eyes looked straight into Visconti’s.

‘Thou are not human, Visconti,’ he whispered. ‘Yet, remember, even devils meet their punishment, and there will be the bitterest of all for such as thou art — failure.’ And he fell back again among the flowers, where he lay, white and still.

Visconti looked back at the advancing rearguard, waved to it, pointing downward, and then before him to Milan, brilliant in the sunrise.

From its turrets still floated the banner of the Viper.

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