The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 20.

In the Duke’s Absence

‘My chance has come,’ said Valentine.

A day had passed since Visconti had ridden so wildly to the western gate, and as yet he had not returned.

The soldiers, weary and wounded, had reeled that night into the palace courtyards, de Lana at their head, expecting to find Visconti there before them. They had missed him in the wild fray — the Germans had been driven back from the walls without their prisoners — had not the Duke returned?

Neither then nor as yet, near a day after the sortie. Doubtless he, victorious as ever, was reconnoitring some stronghold of the enemy, or their encampments outside Milan.

Still, in the palace some were getting anxious; there was no word, no message. Who, in the Duke’s absence, ruled Milan?

The question suggested itself among others to Valentine Visconti.

She put it to herself.

‘I rule Milan, and I will give myself my freedom by it, whether Gian be alive or dead, returning now or never.’

It was late afternoon, and Valentine had formed her plan; with courage and skill she made no doubt of success. To enter her brother’s private room was the first step.

All day Valentine had plotted some means of accomplishing this.

The rooms were locked, and Gian wore the key around his neck.

The Visconti palace was part old, part new; the great circular tower in which Isotta was confined, the low heavy stone buildings that surrounded it were the only remaining portions of the ancient gothic castle.

The new building, bright in yellow and pink tiles, was supported on low, horse-shoe arches, and gave straightly on the courtyard in front and the gardens at the rear — the whole encircled by a great wall.

Detached from the palace, standing alone in the grounds, was a high, square brick tower, the highest building in Milan, and from the summit there floated night and day the banner of the Viper.

Along the second storey of the palace ran the open arcade of corridor, a wide and pleasant walk, paved with black and white stone, looking on the garden through the clustered columns that supported it, richly ornate with carvings.

A private entrance to Visconti’s rooms opened on to this corridor.

The banqueting hall gave upon it also, and to Valentine Visconti, standing between the arches looking from the fair garden back to the closed doors, a thought occurred.

In her wild intention to escape, she had only one ally, Adrian, her page, feeble and powerless at best, but devoted to her with an utter devotion that might be worth much.

Valentine had confided in him, since she must have help, if only the help of speech; and now, of a sudden, his use appeared.

She had withdrawn from the observation of her women and the court, in pretence of praying for her brother’s safety, and no one was with her.

‘Adrian!’ she called softly, ‘Adrian!’ She had privately bidden him follow her, and well she knew he was not far away. The boy came forward eagerly.

‘Hush!’ said Valentine. ‘Do not speak — listen — I have need of thee; wilt thou serve me even to the death, for it may be that?’

‘You know I do not heed death, lady,’ replied the page with glad pride. ‘Anything that may serve you will make me for ever happy.’

‘Follow me,’ said Valentine, and stepped on to the balcony. ‘Now walk behind, and as if I were not speaking to thee. There may be sharp eyes upon us in the garden.’

The sun, late as it was, fall between the pillars in strong bars of gold, and Valentine raised her ivory fan as if to shield her from the heat, but in reality to conceal the movement of her lips, in case there might be watchers.

‘I must procure an entrance to my brother’s rooms,’ she said, speaking low over her shoulder: ‘They are locked. No key will fit them. I cannot force the entrance in the palace. Still I must enter. You are listening, Adrian?’

‘With all my soul, lady!’

Valentine kept her eyes upon the garden; there was no one there to see. The tower was not as yet finished, and so uninhabited; the garden itself was empty; still Valentine kept her gaze before her and spoke without turning her head.

‘At any moment the Duke may return; or, if he does not, there will be sore confusion I cannot cope with; it must be done.’

They had traversed almost the whole length of the corridor, and Valentine suddenly stopped.

‘There, this door,’ said Valentine, ‘into the Duke’s rooms, Adrian,’ and she rested her hand against it as she spoke.

It was a folding door, opening in the middle, firmly bolted from the inside, and appeared as hopeless as the great entrance to the suite within the palace, though unguarded.

Either side of it were deep-set, circular windows, ringed round and round with carving and ornamentation, placed too high to reach and too small to gain admission by.

The door itself was of wood, as firm and heavy as iron, clamped with gilded metal, and immovable to the touch. ‘Does it look hopeless?’ whispered Valentine.

Adrian would not have said so for his life.

‘You would force it?’ he asked eagerly.

‘Yes, hush!’ Valentine leaned through the low arch and looked into the garden; as before, all was quiet; the life and bustle of the palace came through the front today, awaiting news of the absent Duke.

She turned again with glistening eyes.

‘Yes, I would force it — and I will show you how, Adrian.’ Half-way up the door, deep set in the thin anti delicate foliage of the carving, were two circular windows, one in each panel.

‘Can you reach them?’ asked Valentine. ‘I am a hand too short.’

By means of standing on the base of one of the side pillars of the door, Adrian could easily touch the whole span of the glass.

‘Now, do I break it?’ whispered the page.

‘Yes,’ returned Visconti’s sister. ‘But wait, there may be some soldier on hidden guard.’

She looked around cautiously.

‘I see no one,’ she continued. ‘Now, only through this one arch canst thou be noticed from the garden, and there I will stand, with my open fan; now quick — thy dagger handle.’

She turned her back to him and raised her hand against the stonework of the arch, her mantle so falling over her arm that anyone, looking thither, could have seen nothing save her figure.

Adrian leaned forward and struck the glass a violent blow with the handle of his dagger; it was hard, and resisted, but at a second blow shivered. The page tore away the metal framework, and slipping his arm through, thrust back the first bolt. But it was fastened in three places, and the other two were not so easy. Straining up to his full height, the page forced half his body through the broken window and succeeded in slipping back the second bolt; the third was almost at the bottom of the tall door, nor was the opening he had forced large enough for him to do more than admit his arm and shoulder through. He still held his dagger in his hand, and grasping it at the end of the blade, struck violently downward at the bolt head with the handle. It did not move the first time, nor the second, nor the-third; but at the fourth blow it suddenly shot back and the door was open. Adrian struggled through the window, backward, on to his feet, his hand and arm torn in several places, dizzy with the strain.

Valentine turned with a glad cry.

‘Now stand thou in the archway,’ she said; ‘and close the door behind me and keep watch; our one need is haste!’

The page pushed the despoiled door open and Valentine sped through, closing it carefully after her; the broken window would not be noticed from the garden, but an open door might. The space she entered seemed so dark after the bright glare outside that at first she could see nothing.

But soon the light sufficed to show Valentine this was not the room she wanted.

It was gorgeously decorated, frescoes covered the walls, the ceiling was richly gilt and painted, the floor glass mosaic, the furniture florid and ornate.

Valentine glanced around hurriedly: at one end was a door, and trying it, she found it opened easily, leading into another splendid apartment — still not containing what she sought.

Hastening on through a door, not only unlocked, but standing ajar, she found herself in a small, sombre room, hung with purple and gold; its principal furniture the secretary’s table, Visconti’s chair, and the imposing black carved bureau.

This was the room she wanted; and on the bureau, flung down in haste, a bunch of keys.

Valentine seized them with trembling hands; they were the keys of the drawers, and one by one she flung them open, so possessed with excitement she could hardly stand. Gian was not in the palace, yet she seemed to feel his eyes upon her; to hear his step; catch his low whisper of her name; feel his touch upon her shoulder.

In one drawer were the parchment passports, some of them, for convenience, already signed with Visconti’s name. Hastily Valentine thrust three into the bosom of her dress. But where were the palace keys?

She turned over the drawers in reckless haste; she found Visconti’s seal and one of his signet rings, and slipped them both into her gown — still she could not find the keys. The Duke’s pass-keys that unlocked every door.

The seal and the parchment were much — but the keys would be everything. They were not within the bureau; she rifled it once again — no, they were not there.

She turned away in vexation, and stood a second irresolute.

These rooms, deserted, yet so full of their owner, were terrifying. Valentine was sick with fear — still, she must have those keys.

Hastily she turned over every article in the room, left as Visconti had left them — books, papers, ornaments.

There were no keys there.

She looked into the antechamber, that was bare and empty; she knew it too well to suppose what she sought could be hidden there.

In desperation she retraced her steps and stood again within the second room. An impulse made her lift the arras, and she beheld another door; and another still; they were either side Visconti’s empty seat. She tried one: it opened immediately on a black marble stairway, and she closed it again with a thrill.

Frantically, she opened the other door; held to her courage desperately, and crossed the threshold. The room was panelled in black and scarlet, floor and ceiling inlaid with gold and black.

A great mirror hung opposite the door; either side a table, covered with a collection of articles left in utter confusion. Valentine turned them over in frantic haste; there were laces and rings, jewels and curios, gloves, and strangely carved bottles. She handled the last carefully — she knew not what they might’ contain.

Still there were no keys.

Valentine, fast losing nerve, felt that she had been in these rooms for hours, the silence and suggestion oppressed her till she could have screamed — but she had risked too much to retreat.

There was an inlaid bureau, and a coffer beneath it; she opened the bureau and sought again; rings, dagger, treasures from della Scala’s collections, uncut gems, powders, scents, rosaries, charms, missals — only no hint of what she looked for.

On top of the coffer was a roll of drawings, the plans of the new church, several parchments, petitions, specimens of marble from the new quarries, carvings, mail gauntlets — Valentine swept them off on to the floor, and then threw the coffer open.

It was full of-clothes — upon the velvet of the topmost mantle lay the small bunch of master-keys.

Valentine grasped it, and hid it in the little pocket at her side.

She had all she needed now, and was turning in relief to go, when, struck by another thought, she bent again over the coffer, lifted the contents out on to the floor.

Visconti’s doublets were mostly too splendid for her purpose, but she seized the plainest, wrapped it in her mantle, snatched one of his daggers from the table. Then making rapidly through the rifled room, with a breathless prayer of gratitude for safety, she stealthily pushed open the door on to the balcony, and saw the sunlight and her page’s eager face.

‘Shut the door,’ she whispered. ‘Climb up and shut the top bolt.’

The boy obeyed.

‘No one has been?’

‘No, lady; you have been quick.’

‘Quick!’ gasped Valentine. ‘I thought I had been years.’

She unclasped her mantle and gave it to the boy. ‘Take that back to my room — say I was too hot — give it to Costanza — she alone is in my confidence, as thou knowest; let no one stop thee — and listen — by tomorrow we shall be outside the gates’

The page turned away with her mantle on his arm, and Valentine leaned against the wall, and with her hand upon her heart, took a moment to steady herself; then with excited eyes, but even steps, she too walked slowly along the balcony toward the banqueting hall.

‘The Duke has not returned,’ said de Lana.

He spoke a little anxiously, arid looked around at the others who filled the council chamber, a few nobles, and the principal captains of the army and the mercenaries who defended Milan.

‘Meanwhile, from whom do I take my orders? Who commands in Milan?’

‘I cannot answer you, my lord,’ said Giannotto. ‘The Duke left no orders, at least with me.’

‘The Duke expected not to be gone so long,’ said Martin della

Torre. ‘And ill it will be for him if he stays too long.’

‘Meanwhile,’ cried de Lana again, ‘to whom are we to look?’ The two pages announced the Lady Valentine.

The men glanced at one another.

‘The Lady Valentine,’ repeated Giannotto to de Lana. ‘She may tell us what to do.’

Not that he did not well know what terms of jeopardy she stood on with the Duke — but it was a shifting of responsibility that he welcomed.

All in the room rose to their feet to greet Valentine.

She was leaning on Orleans’ arm, Adrian and her women following.

She looked regal, glorious. There was a fine colour in her cheeks.

De Lana kissed her hand. She did not wait for him to speak, her eyes wandered over the assembled faces.

‘I have not come before, my lords,’ she said, ‘because I thought the Duke might at any moment be again among us; but now, hearing you were gathered here and that there was some question of the Duke’s pleasure in his absence as to who should issue orders for him, I am come to answer it in person.’

She drew nearer the head of the table, Orleans dropping a step behind.

‘My lords, the Duke left me in power; in any absence he may make, enforced or at his pleasure, I rule in Milan.’

‘You, lady!’ cried Giannotto, the words forced from him in his great surprise.

‘I,’ answered Valentine. ‘Though I am no man — I am a Visconti. Has not the Duke left me in charge before, de Lana?’ She turned to the captain as she spoke.

‘In the late war with Florence — yes, lady.’

Valentine smiled.

‘Still, I need not ask you to believe me on that only — lest any should be doubtful, I have proofs.’

‘Methinks they are needed before we take the law from thee, lady,’ said Martin della Torre, roughly.

Valentine looked at him. ‘What is this, Lord della Torre?’ And she laid Visconti’s signet ring and seal upon the table. Giannotto choked his wonder back.

‘Does the Duke give these to any save those he trusts — and these?’ She showed the keys lying on her open hand: the key of the armoury, the treasury, the prisons: the master-keys of the whole palace.

‘He gave them to me — when, Adrian?’

‘Yesterday morning, lady.’

‘Yesterday morning. Had he not left too hastily even for speech, he would have made it public; doubtless he thought you would accept my word — and these proofs’

There was silence.

‘Are you convinced, lords?’ asked Valentine.

‘I am,’ said Giannotto, bowing to hide the twinkle in his ugly eyes; and the others, each according to his fashion, murmured an assent.

‘And now I will take upon me my brother’s duties,’ continued Valentine. ‘For you, de Lana, I have no commands; only look well to the arming of the walls, let not my brother say we were idle in his absence; I would have the soldiers in readiness to guard against a surprise — and meanwhile I ask your company.’ De Lana bowed.

‘On a visit to della Scala’s wife. She is a priceless hostage, and ill would it suit with our safety even if aught befell her.’

‘You would visit her yourself, lady?’

‘Aye, myself, since with me lies the power and so the responsibility, and I would not shirk it. Lords,’ she continued generally, ‘we can do little else but wait — only hold yourselves in readiness — for the Duke’s sake and the honour and security of Milan!’

She put her hand on Orleans’ arm again and left the room, followed by de Lana and Giannotto.

‘Now, I had almost forgot, my lord,’ she said, pausing with a smile. ‘My page, his sister and his brother, would leave Milan tomorrow for Brescia — what for, Adrian? Indeed, I have forgot — but I have the Duke’s permission, and would only ask your countersign upon this passport.’

She spread before the captain a parchment bearing Visconti’s signature.

‘This is no time to be leaving Milan, boy,’ said de Lana. ‘Our father is sore sick at Brescia,’ returned Adrian. ‘Dying, my lord.’

De Lana smiled.

‘A long and dangerous journey to make for a sick father.’

‘There is money in the matter for these children, and it is my pleasure,’ said Valentine.

De Lana bent over the parchment, and affixed his name, and in that second, Valentine glancing at Giannotto, their eyes met and the secretary understood. He had meant to hasten to Visconti’s rooms; he meant not to now. De Lana gave the parchment back, and Valentine handed it to Adrian.

‘And now, Lord Orleans, will you come with us to Isotta’s prison?’

‘Truly,’ said de Lana, ‘the lady is as firmly guarded as at any time. I have looked to that.’

‘Desperation is a great sharpener of the wits, my lord,’ smiled Valentine Visconti. ‘When life and liberty are at stake, the weakest will venture — and accomplish much.’

‘Indeed, I think with the lady,’ put in Giannotto, ‘that too much zeal cannot be shown for anything so near to the Duke’s heart as this.’

De Lana shrugged.

We will go, lady.’

Half an hour later Giannotto and the captain waited in the guard-room of Isotta’s prison.

Valentine, one of her women, and the page, had entered the prison itself. The Duke’s signet had passed through all the formidable barriers. It was late, almost dark.

‘This shows a malice in the lady I do not like,’ said de Lana. ‘What need she to triumph over her brother’s victim?’

‘She is a Visconti,’ returned the secretary. ‘She has something of the Duke’s temper and his strangeness — there may be in it curiosity also.’

‘Curiosity?’

‘To behold for herself if Isotta d’Este be as fair as she is — to spy into her brother’s treatment of his prisoners.’

‘Have you seen the lady, my lord?’

‘I? Never,’ replied de Lana. ‘Nor do I greatly care to.’ Giannotto made no reply; he felt unusually placid and content. He saw plainly enough that Valentine was outwitting her brother, and as he hated the Duke and admired his sister, he would help her with all his power as long as he ran no risks. Visconti had not left him in charge — and for asking no untimely questions, Valentine would reward him well.

With some excitement he awaited her return.

‘She is a long time,’ said de Lana impatiently.

‘She has her brother’s daring,’ thought Giannotto. ‘And yet — she would hardly dare that — hardly.’

The door of Isotta’s prison was opened and Valentine came out, followed by her attendants — dark-cloaked figures keeping in the shadow. Adrian closed and bolted the door behind them as she slowly stepped down into the room.

‘The prisoner is sick,’ said Valentine. ‘Not dangerously so, I hope; we would not have her die in my brother’s absence. She has fallen asleep and must not be disturbed. Where is her woman?’

Luisa shuffled forward.

‘You will not rouse your prisoner until my return with a physician,’ she continued. ‘She sleeps. I will return or send; till then let no one pass those doors, nor you yourself.’

The page and Valentine’s two women still stood on the steps in the shadow.

‘Come,’ said Valentine suddenly. ‘Much as I am relieved to see my brother’s hostage in such security, this is gloomy, dark — come, Costanza.’

The two ladies moved forward, one weeping sadly, keeping her hands to her face.

The poor lady hath unnerved her,’ said Valentine with a sharp word of reproof, and she crossed to Orleans.

‘Now it seems to me,’ said de Lana to Giannotto, ‘that only one lady entered with the Princess.’

‘Your eyes deceived you,’ smiled Giannotto. ‘I am trained to watch; I saw two enter.’ De Lana was silent. The two ladies had joined the few others left by the outer door, the soldier kept his eyes upon the one who wept.

Valentine was talking gaily to Orleans, and led the way across the garden. ‘On your life I charge you to guard the prisoner,’ she said to the captain and the soldiers. ‘She means more to the Duke than his own life almost — more certainly than any other,’ she added meaningly.

De Lana, watching keenly, still kept his eyes, as they crossed the garden, upon that second lady, who puzzled him, and with a soldier’s indiscretion he whispered his fears to Giannotto.

‘My Lady Valentine,’ said the secretary smiling, ‘my lord here thinks you entered the prison with one lady and came out with two!’

Valentine laughed.

‘And who, think you, was my second woman, then, lord? Isotta d’Este? Nay, I will satisfy you.’

‘Indeed, lady,’ began de Lana hastily, but Valentine cut him short.

‘Come here, Costanza.’

The girl came forward.

‘Now hold the torch higher, Adrian,’ laughed Valentine. The light fell on Costanza’s face.

‘Is that Isotta d’Este, Giannotto?’ she asked.

‘Nay,’ smiled the secretary.

‘Now, Giulietta, come hither thou,’ said Valentine.

The other lady stepped forward and threw back her hood. ‘Now, my lord, Giannotto shall satisfy you — is this Isotta d’Este?’

The secretary did not flinch.

‘My lord,’ he said, ‘you must know della Scala’s wife well enough, if by hearsay only. Look yourself. This is not she.’ They moved on again, de Lana uneasily convinced.

‘Ma foi,’ said the silent Orleans suddenly. ‘It is growing very damp. These Italian nights are most unhealthy.’ And so they passed into the palace.

That night a light tap was heard by Giannotto, sitting in his room, and Adrian entered and put two emerald earrings and a bag of ducats on the table.

‘For a lapse of memory,’ he whispered, and went as softly and as swiftly as he had come.

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