The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 2.

‘Francisco’

A gleam of hope sent Vittore forward. Here was someone who, alone and on foot, must know the perils of travel, and might be kind-hearted; though, with Tomaso dead, what even pity could do for him he scarcely knew. Then again the boy’s heart failed him. Perhaps this was no more than some wandering robber. He paused, drew back, and the traveller came on not noticing him, his gaze fixed keenly on the distant city.

By the roadside some boulders, half-hidden in violets and golden with moss, offered a seat, and half-stumbling over them, the stranger abruptly withdrew his eyes from Milan and saw for the first time the boy who from a few paces off was timorously observing him.

He was a powerful man of gigantic size, clothed in coarse leather, undressed, patched, slashed, and travel-worn. His legs were bound with straw and thongs of skin, the feet encased in rough wooden shoes stuffed with grass.

A battered leathern cap covered his head, and from his shoulder hung a ragged scarlet cloak. A dagger and a sword were stuck in his belt, a leather pouch hung at his side. The man’s face and bearing belied his dress. He was not handsome, and a peculiar effect was given to his expression by the half-shut brown eyes, but he had a grave and stately bearing, and as he bestowed a searching gaze upon Vittore, the boy felt renewed encouragement.

‘Sir,’ cried the lad advancing, ‘I am in great distress. My cousin lies there dead, or dying. Help me to get him to some shelter.’

‘I am a stranger here,’ replied the traveller, ‘and have no shelter for myself tonight.’

His accent, like his bearing, again belied his dress. He spoke in the refined Tuscan tongue, the language of the better classes, and to Vittore, who was gently nurtured, more familiar than the rough dialect of Lombardy, which he and Tomaso could only barely comprehend.

‘But what I cart find for myself,’ he added, ‘thou art welcome to share. Where is thy cousin?’

Vittore pointed to the recumbent figure half-hidden in the bank; the man glanced across, then around him. The sun was almost set, a whole flock of delicate little pink clouds lay trembling over Milan, its noble outline already half in shadow.

‘It will be dark soon,’ he said, ‘and perchance —’ he broke off abruptly. ‘Thy cousin, didst thou say? — what has happened to him? Wounded in some roadside fray?’

He rose as he spoke and crossed over to the fallen boy. ‘And what are you two doing travelling alone?’ he demanded sternly. ‘Alas, messer, we were going to Verona.’

‘To Verona, by way of Milan?’

We had no choice. The company we travelled with wen bound hither, but three days ago we missed them, and came on here alone, lest perhaps they had preceded us. But for this accident we thought to pass the night in Milan — but now, what shall we do? And we hear that Verona has been taken!’

The stranger was bending over Tomaso, and Vittore did not see his face.

‘How did this happen?’ he asked presently, touching the mark upon Tomaso’s face. And Vittore told him.

The stranger was quiet a long breath.

‘So this is Visconti’s doing,’ he said at last. ‘Thy cousin is a brave lad.’

And he fell again into a silence which Vittore dared not break, while under the stranger’s care Tomaso opened his eyes, and feebly muttered and tried to rise. But the other bade him wait a while, and turned to Vittore again.

‘And which way did Visconti ride?’ he asked.

The boy pointed. ‘The peasants said it was toward Brescia.’

‘And he has not yet reentered Milan?’

‘No, messer.’ By now Vittore felt and showed respect.

‘Then we will not enter Milan either,’ said the stranger, ‘since Visconti has not.’

The boy gazed on him, struck by his tone, and Tomaso’s eyes, half-closing, reopened and fixed themselves upon the stranger’s face.

‘Messer, you hate Visconti?’ whispered Vittore.

The man laughed shortly. ‘There are many in Lombardy who hate Visconti,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I not less than others. Boy,’ he added, with sudden intensity, ‘I have only two things to live for: one is to tell Visconti to his face what one man’s hatred is.’

And leaving them half-terrified, he strode into the road, and shading his eyes looked long and searchingly away from Milan; but the dusk was settling fast, and there was not a soul in sight, not a sound.

Presently, with an air of relief, born of new-sprung resolution, the stranger returned to the expectant boys.

Revived by his tendance and by the cool evening air, Tomaso was helped upon his feet. Vittore clasped his hands in joy to see him move again.

‘Messer, how shall we thank thee!’ he exclaimed.

‘Call me Francisco,’ said the traveller. ‘Thou wert journeying to Verona, didst thou say? What kinsman hast thou there?’

‘My father,’ whispered Tomaso feebly, ‘Giorgio Ligozzi.’ Leaning against the stranger, indeed half-carried by him, Tomaso felt him start. ‘Thou knewest him, messer?’

‘He was put high in favour at della Scala’s court, and sent for us to share his fortune,’ put in Vittore eagerly.

‘Ah,’ said Francisco, ‘della Scala’s court has perished. I am from Verona. I saw it burned.’

Tomaso’s head sank dizzily upon his helper’s shoulder. Vittore’s young heart swelled, then seemed to break within him. He choked back his sobs.

‘And della Scala — and my uncle: did they perish too?’

Who can tell?’ replied the stranger sternly. ‘Who shall say who perished or who not on such a night as that on which Verona fell?’

‘But della Scala’s wife, the Duchess, is yonder, prisoner in Milan.’

‘And that proves, thou thinkest, della Scala must be dead! Maybe; who knows? All the same, thou art a brave lad and a gallant for the thought.’

He paused to rest Tomaso on the boulders that had been his seat. ‘And for that speech of thine!‘I’ll tell thee something, boy. I am the Visconti’s foe. For the sake of della Scala, whom I knew, for the sake of Verona, where I lived, for the sake of something dearer to a man than life, I am sworn to hunt him down — and now, no more. We will see to shelter.’

Resting Tomaso’s head against his knee, Francisco turned a trained and searching gaze about him.

To the right, on some thickly wooded, slightly rising ground, could be discerned the unmistakable outline of a great wall, built to a monstrous height, no doubt the boundary of a villa of unusual size and magnificence. Beneath the wall, half-hidden by a grove of chestnuts, was the usual cluster of huts: the dwellings of the hinds and vassals of the villa’s noble owner. But no smoke trailed upward, nor did any sign of life strike upon the ear.

‘We will try those huts yonder,’ said Francisco. ‘They are far enough from the road for security, yet not too far to hamper any return hither. They seem deserted, but even if inhabited, they are scarce likely to refuse me shelter for a wounded boy.’

And Vittore, looking at his size and stern appearance, thankfully agreed with him. Almost carrying Tomaso, Francisco led the way, and quickly reached a footpath which, after many twistings, brought them out into a turf-grown opening around three sides of which the cottages were built. The fourth was the wall enclosing the grounds, and along it, bordering a ditch, ran a pleasant path which, as they subsequently discovered, led to a small stream, artificially extended, where it passed the villa, to a lake of some not inconsiderable size.

But, as Francisco had surmised, the whole place stood empty and deserted, though it could not have been long since the faggots had blazed on the open hearths. Signs of occupation were too recent.

The wayfarers gazed about them wonderingly. It was a place of charm. The fast-grown grass was thick with flowers; and a wooden bucket hung idly from its chain above the wooden runnel.

Supporting Tomaso, Francisco turned into the nearest hut, and noted it was better fashioned and better fitted than many of the like. A low doorway admitted into the long divisions of the space, each lit by small square openings in the walls. The light by now had faded, and save that it was empty of life, little else would have been discernible, but a portion of the roof had been broken away, as if by some pikeman’s reckless thrust, and through the gap some of the sweet spring dusk showed them faintly their surroundings. A few stools, a wooden table, roughly hewn, a broken earthenware bowl, and a rudely painted crucifix, half-torn from the wall, completed the furniture.

‘They fled in haste,’ said Francisco grimly. ‘Has Visconti been here too?’

‘See,’ cried Vittore, and he picked up from his feet a silver goblet.

The other turned from where he had laid Tomaso and took it from him eagerly.

The piece was heavily chased, bearing a raised shield wrought with the German eagle and lettering ‘C.S.’.

‘German,’ he said. ‘Plunder. Possibly from the villa. This may account for its desertion. Yes — no doubt: the owner of the villa has crossed Visconti’s path.’

And his teeth ground over the name as he set the goblet on the table, where it gleamed with a faint ghostly light.

‘Sleep,’ he said presently to Vittore. ‘Eat this and then sleep. Thou canst do so with safety.’

The boy, glancing up into his face, believed him, and was soon lost to everything in the deep sleep of utter weariness of mind and body. Francisco bent above Tomaso and gave him wine to swallow, and set water by his side. The youth caught the hand that tended him and kissed it.

‘I am grateful,’ he murmured. ‘Tomorrow I shall be well.’

‘Aye, get better,’ said Francisco. ‘Thou mayst be of some service if thou wilt. Nay,’ he added, checking Tomaso’s feeble but eager impulse, ‘I know not yet what I can do myself. But we have a cause in common,’ and he smiled faintly. ‘And now sleep. You sought della Scala’s court. I will not desert thee.

Taking his tattered cloak from his shoulders, he laid it over him, and Tomaso lay back on the ready spread couch of heather, and watched peacefully.

There was no light in the hut, but the moonshine began to show across the open doorway. Francisco pulled a stool to the table, and sitting, drew out his dagger and carefully examined it, then laid it ready. He felt in his wallet as if to reassure himself of something, and then Tomaso saw him slip something on his hand — it gleamed: a ring!

Who is he?’ thought the youth, not sure he gazed upon reality. ‘Who is he?’

Then he dozed unwittingly, and, waking with a start, saw the moonlight streaming through the broken roof, the faint stars, and near him Vittore sleeping. The goblet still shone upon the crazy table, but the hut door had been closed and, save for themselves, the place was empty.

Francisco stepped out into the spring night, fire beating at his temples: Visconti was abroad!

The moon, half-shrouded in a misty vapour, was rising above the fragrant chestnuts, and brilliant in the semi-dark, like flame behind a veil, the clumps of wallflowers gave out intoxicating scent.

Franciscco noticed them, and thought grimly they were the colour of blood just dry.

The spell of the moon and of the hour lay on everything; a weird ghostliness seemed to step among the trees; a sighing came from the great bushes in the garden of the villa: ’Visconti is abroad!‘

Francisco touched his dagger and went forward. Across his path two white moths fluttered, white by day, now silver purple, illusive and mysterious. To the man’s fevered mood they seemed an omen; souls of the dead allowed to take farewell of earth; and with straining eyes he watched them float away and up, and out of sight. Who had perchance just died?

Francisco’s giant sinews tightened. He went forward swiftly to the road, and strained his eyes and ears along its silvery length.

Nothing to be heard! Nothing to be seen! Had he, lost his chance, had the Duke reentered Milan? Or had he gone too far to return that night? He sat upon the boulders where he had rested previously, his face turned toward Brescia, his hand upon his dagger.

The soft air was strengthening into a gentle wind; the poplar leaves were dancing, and darkening clouds began to drive across the ‘moon. But the man heeded nothing the changing; light or dark, what matter once Visconti had crossed his path? Long he waited. Not a sound save the dancing of the leaves, the rising wind, the soft noises of the night. At length Francisco leaped to his feet, and his breath came short and fast. He could hear something. The wind was against him. He lay down; he put his ear to the ground; then he leaped to his feet again, transformed. It was unmistakable, though still far off; the thud of horse’s flying feet.

Francisco waited.

With each second the wind rose; the clouds raced and gathered, and darkened half the sky, and the man, straining every nerve, thought at first it was the wind he heard mingling with the trample of the oncoming hoofs. Then he knew it for screams of fury and wild shouting. ‘It is the Visconti,’ he said, and involuntarily his tense arm sank and his muscles loosened; those mad shrieks could freeze the marrow.

Nearer came the onset, trampling horse and yelling rider; and Francisco set himself anew.

‘He rides with his own soul for company,’ he muttered grimly. Now the furious cries came clearly, terrible, inhuman; and in another moment, horse and rider were in view.

‘Yes, Visconti.’

Standing in the stirrups, he lashed at the foaming horse in a blind rage and horror. His cap was gone, and hair and cloak were blown about him. He shouted wildly, cursed, and shrieked.

For a breath Francisco paused. This could be no human rider; well was it known in Lombardy that the Visconti trafficked with the fiend, and this must be he; and the man shrank and turned his eyes, lest he should see his damning face.

But the next instant his courage and his purpose had returned. The horse was upon him. Swift as thought, Francisco leaped and clutched the bridle in a hand of steel.

But the mad impetus defeated him. He was dragged forward like a reed; only his own great strength for the moment saved him. And now his wild shouts were added to the rider’s. He struck upward with his dagger; he tore blindly.

‘Do you not know me, Visconti?’ he called. ‘Do you not know me?’

But his dagger was dashed from him. The horse’s foam blinded him as it sprang desperately on. He heard Visconti’s demon scream, and as the earth whirled round with him, caught one fleeting glimpse of the white, distorted, hated face — then, he was prone upon the ground, and Visconti, spurring on his way, looked back upon him with triumphant yells.

‘Fly fly!’ he screamed, ‘they are after us, but we escape them. Fly!’

The dawn was showing when Francisco, spent with the passion of failure rather than from any hurt, came slowly back and picked his dagger from the road. Not far from it he saw a parchment roll tossed from Visconti’s doublet in that frantic forward lunge — Visconti who had safely disappeared within the walls of Milan!

Francisco picked up the roll.

It was inscribed with poetry and patched with blood.

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