The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 21.

The Duke’s Return

Having succeeded so far, Valentine had little fear; it was now an almost easy matter for her to accomplish the remainder of her plan.

She had the palace keys in her possession, and they unlocked secret doors, and more than one hidden entry and private way, entries and ways she knew well, and yet otherwise could not have used.

Soon after the dawn that saw Carrara fall by the wayside, Isotta d’Este and Valentine slipped from the palace; aided by Costanza, and joined by Adrian in the long gallery, they passed through the secret door that led through winding passages to the old part of the building, and thence by another entrance almost beneath the walls themselves.

Valentine wore a page’s suit, her upper lip darkened, a heavy cloak, with a hood such as was worn in travelling, drawn about her, and by her side Visconti’s dagger.

Despite her anxiety, her passionate desire to frustrate her brother’s tyranny, her wild eagerness to be free and outside Milan, Valentine almost enjoyed the part that she was playing; she swaggered more than Adrian, and looked with some scorn on the weakness of Mastino’s wife, who wept with her happiness.

The thought of Gian’s rage and discomfiture was very sweet to Valentine, almost as sweet as the thought of Conrad in della Scala’s camp, and the happy life of freedom coming.

Rapidly they traversed the narrow street that led to the gate, Valentine erect and joyful, Isotta leaning on her arm, happy too, with a deeper happiness, but faint and bewildered from her long imprisonment, nervous and fearful of every sound.

Behind them strode Adrian, with eager eyes and swelling heart — the Lady Valentine had smiled on him!

But the lady’s thoughts were not on the page. With every step to freedom, Count Conrad’s blue eyes and merry laugh rose before her the more clearly, and she remembered that last time she had essayed escape, and he had near given her, for all he knew, his life. He was in della Scala’s camp.

But, hasten as she might, Isotta dragged her on yet faster. Her eagerness was pitiful to see; Valentine looked down at her white face and trembling lips, and with a sudden impulse stooped and kissed her.

It was still so early that the streets were empty, save at the gate where the soldiers clustered, but they took small heed, for the three looked no unusual figures.

‘Now the passports,’ whispered Valentine. ‘Adrian must show them, but do ye stand ready, Isotta, to answer if they question. I dare not, lest they know my face. Remember, Adrian, an escort meets us half a league away, and ’tis a quiet village that we travel to.’

Isotta d’Este steadied herself against the wall, and grasping Valentine’s hand, followed Adrian toward the soldiers on guard.

‘Stand to thy part now, Adrian,’ said Valentine; ‘remember ’tis our lives.’

A growing knot of men stood outside the guard-room; there seemed to be some great excitement; ringing orders, loud talk, increasing bustle. No one took heed of the three, nor even noticed them, and only after a delay at which Isotta’s heart sickened could Adrian find an officer to whom to show the passports.

He glanced them over hastily. ‘They seem to be in order,’ he said, then suddenly turned to the woman of the three: ‘What do ye do leaving Milan, mistress, when the country is in arms, with no escort save two boys?’

She hesitated, and Valentine stepped forward quietly.

‘Our father is sick,’ she said, ‘and ’tis a pressing question of inheritance. Our kinsfolk promise us an escort.’

The officer shrugged his shoulders.

”Tis your own lives,’ he said. ‘Later in the day ye can go. Not now. There is an army coming, and the Duke in front of it.’ Valentine stood still and calm.

‘Our father is very ill,’ she said; ‘if we are not in time, we may be beggared. Our passports were signed by the Duke himself. We demand to go.’

But the officer had hardly heard her. A fresh detachment, of soldiers had ridden up, and the man’s thoughts and eyes were engaged in half a dozen places.

Half mad, Isotta sprang forward, shaking off Valentine’s restraining hand.

‘We must pass, we must through this moment,’ she cried. ‘Let us through, and we’ll make it worth thy while.’

At the eagerness of her tone the officer turned, surprised. ‘Ye are very anxious,’ he said.

‘For the love of Heaven, a matter of life or death!’ said Isotta, and in her despair she would have knelt, only Valentine dragged her back beside her.

‘It is very serious,’ she said. ‘After the Duke has entered, we may leave?’ she asked. ‘Indeed, ye cannot stay us.’

‘Aye, leave after the Duke has entered, but now, clear yourself away; my lord comes apace, some allies with him —’ and with a wave of his halberd he swept them back.

Valentine flushed at his tone, yet drew back, her hand on the page’s shoulder.

But Isotta struggled free and again rushed forward.

‘I will pass!’ she cried wildly. ‘I will! I have not got so far to be stopped now!’

‘Oh! thy madness!’ murmured Valentine.

But Isotta had rushed to the very gate itself, and was only forced back by the pikes at her breast.

The officer looked at the group with mistrust.

‘What is this?’ he said. ‘What means this passion?’

‘She is half distraught,’ said Valentine. ‘Beggary is no small matter, messer. We will be quiet, though, I promise you, until the Duke is past —’ And to Isotta at her side she whispered, holding her hand tight, ‘Thou wilt ruin all; control thyself.’

But the unfortunate Isotta was calm enough now; she followed Valentine without resistance.

And now Carrara’s army had reached the gates, and fell back to await Visconti. The whole city was in tumult, the streets filling with excited people; there was mad shouting, the clash of arms. ‘A Visconti! A Visconti!’

‘We shall be crushed to death,’ said Adrian. ‘I must find you shelter, lady,’ and he looked around eagerly.

The Duke — the Duke!’ and the great gates began to open. ‘It is useless!’ cried Valentine, ‘and as well die this way as another.’

‘There is a door here,’ said Isotta; and turning with difficulty, they saw indeed a door, deep set in the wall and closely shut.

In desperation, Adrian knocked loudly. ‘A Visconti!’ shouted the soldiers. ‘A Visconti!’

They were fast being hemmed in by the crowd, soldiers were pouring through the gates in companies, strange soldiers, the new allies; and as Valentine beheld them in strength and numbers, and heard them shout her brother’s name, she felt her last desperate throw was lost.

‘A Visconti!’

‘Knock on the door again,’ cried Isotta, ‘knock again.’ Cavalry was passing, going at a trot, so close the hoofs were almost in their faces, the foam flew over their mantles.

Then in wild confusion they pressed back against the door; passing close, a host of pennons waved from glittering spears, the tossing of the horses’ heads, the champing of their bits, a clamour of noises, deafening shouts, a hurry of the cavalcade, and then — suddenly a horse drawn up close to the Shrinking group in the shadow of the doorway, and a rider looking down at them.

Wild with terror, Isotta flung herself against the door, which yielded. Valentine looked up at the man who had stopped — saw her brother’s face.

‘Ah, my sister,’ he said between his teeth; and Valentine, scarce knowing what she did, fled after Isotta, the page behind, closing the door upon Visconti.

In the pleasant courtyard was a girl, dressed in scarlet, who rose, surprised at their disordered aspect.

”Tis only a moment gained,’ cried Valentine, hoarsely. ‘He will follow!’

Isotta turned to Graziosa in an agony. Tor the love of Heaven hide us — for the love of Heaven, from Visconti!’

‘Hide us!’ said Valentine bitterly. ‘Hide us from Visconti!’ And Graziosa thought of the secret passage.

‘I will help you,’ she said. ‘I and my father do not love Visconti —’

‘Quick, maiden,’ cried the page. ‘I see the spears are motionless outside. I will guard the door.’

‘They will kill thee,’ cried Isotta. ‘Thou art too young.’

But Valentine turned to the boy and gave him her beautiful hand. ‘Guard the door, gain us a moment, Adrian — for me,’ she said, and hurried across the sunny courtyard, followed by Graziosa and Isotta.

Tor me!’ repeated Adrian, and set himself before the door proudly, with flashing eyes and dagger drawn. He was only a boy, a page, she a princess, but he could set his life against her smile, and think himself well paid.

Graziosa, panting with excitement, hurried them into the house, and into the lower room from which the secret passage opened. The pleasant little home was still half dismantled from the recent attack of the Germans, the neat trimness of the cool chambers gone.

At their entrance Agnolo came forward in alarm, but at his daughter’s hurried explanation, turned willingly to the secret door he kept well concealed. For the little painter took no thought of what it must mean to shelter any from Visconti’s wrath.

‘Quick!’ cried Valentine imperiously. ‘How long can one page keep that door?’

‘The poor boy!’ moaned Isotta, hanging half lifeless upon Valentine’s arm. ‘Unhappy boy — they will kill him!’

Valentine looked at her with scorn.

‘Canst thou think of a page now?’ she cried. ‘Think of della Scala. Quick!’

But the door would not yield, and while Agnolo struggled with the spring, a crash was heard, a cry, the ring of armour and the tramp of feet.

‘The door is down,’ said Valentine. ‘We are lost.’

‘I cannot move the spring,’ cried Agnolo.

‘Quick! quick!’ shrieked Graziosa, but even as she spoke, the chamber door burst open and a man stepped in; there were others at his heels, but he entered alone.

Agnolo, starting back, dropped his concealments into place and trembled for his secret and these poor folk who had not escaped Visconti.

The man who entered was in black, it was all that could be seen in the dark, disordered chamber, but Valentine needed no light to tell her who it was. Isotta sank to the ground, shrieking wildly.

‘Oh, Father, Father!’ cried Graziosa, agonized, ‘save them!’ The newcomer laid his hand on Valentine’s shoulder, she standing calm and erect, and turned his face to Graziosa.

‘From me?’ he said, and his voice was very sweet. ‘From me, Graziosa?’

‘Ambrogio! Ambrogio!’ cried the girl. ‘What do you here?’ Valentine would have spoken scornfully, but Visconti turned his eyes on her, and she dared not. The courtyard was full of armed men.

‘Ambrogio!’ repeated the painter in dismay. ‘What does this mean?’

Visconti laughed pleasantly, but his hand tightened on his sister’s shoulder.

‘It means thy daughter hath found a lover worthy of her in Visconti.’

Visconti As in a flash the little painter saw explained a thousand things that had perplexed him. Visconti! His quickly working brain had grasped it and summed it up before Graziosa could even realize she heard aright. She stared there silent, with a piteous look upon her face. Visconti turned to his prisoners.

‘Take Isotta d’Este back to her prison,’ he said, curtly, and a group of soldiers advanced.

Isotta clung to Valentine in an agony.

‘At last!’ said Visconti, in her ear, ‘at last thy calm fails thee!’ And then he stood aside watching, while she implored in turn Valentine and Agnolo to save her, in incoherent words of anguish.

‘I cannot bear it!’ she cried. ‘I have borne it too long! O God, have pity on me! Have pity on me, I have not the courage to face it again. I have not the courage!’

Visconti turned to her in a savage triumph of hate he scarcely troubled to conceal.

‘Find thy courage again, where thou found’st it before,’ he said. ‘Thy husband is not dead, although he leaves thee to pine in prison. He may remember thee even yet.’

Isotta sprang up at the taunt, wild-eyed.

‘Keep thy face away from me!’ she shrieked. ‘Ye have slain him! Kill me too!’

Then, seeing resistance useless, and those who would have saved her helpless, della Scala’s unhappy wife surrendered quietly; only as she crossed the courtyard with her guard, and saw the tree-tops wave above the walls and the sky that was outside Milan, a cry rose that made the hardened soldiers wince.

‘Mastino! Oh, Mastino!’

Visconti watched her out of sight, then turned again to Graziosa, his hand still on his sister’s shoulder.

‘Graziosa,’ he murmured.

But the girl made no answer; she was huddled on the bench that ran along the wall, looking out with frightened eyes.

As he spoke she shuddered, and crouched closer to the wall.

But Agnolo answered, and Visconti, serene in his pride, did not notice the painter’s tone.

‘My daughter is dazed with her surprise, lord, as who would not be? Graziosa, speak to the Duke, speak to thy Ambrogio,’ and he gripped her hand fiercely. But Graziosa rose at his touch, and snatching her hand away, fled from the room, with one wild look toward Visconti.

‘Ye see, my lord, she is bewildered, she can scarce believe it true 2

‘It matters not for now,’ said Visconti. ‘Thy daughter loves me, painter, and none the less, I doubt not, that I am Duke of Milan; and she shall be my duchess, as I have vowed.’

‘Truly the honour is more, I think; than she can bear,’ and Agnolo bowed to the ground.

‘I have won a wife for myself — a wife who loves me for myself alone.’

‘And she loves thee for what thou art not,’ cried Valentine aloud.

But Visconti took no heed of her.

‘Think of thy daughter as a precious charge, Agnolo,’ he continued. ‘Meanwhile I leave one of my captains here on guard. That last attack on thee and thine came near costing me too dear.’

‘My daughter —’ began the painter, but Visconti interrupted him:

‘Thy daughter will be my wife, painter; remember it, and heed her safety. And thou, Valentine, come with me, and I will tell thee in private how Count Conrad’s folly lost della Scala thy dear brother, and gave me the day — and an army.’ He turned to go; Agnolo made an impulsive movement forward, but checked himself.

‘Tell Graziosa,’ said Visconti, ‘she is my duchess on the day my sister weds the Duke of Orleans.’

Visconti crossed the courtyard; the soldiers closed around him and his captive; Agnolo sprang forward, and drawing the little dagger he wore, hurled it after him.

It fell unheard, unseen, amid the trampling feet.

‘Your hand — hurts me,’ gasped Valentine, suddenly very white and trembling.

A soldier was pulling Adrian’s dead body from the gate to allow of the Duke’s passing, and she, dragged in his grasp, had almost stepped on him. This was what it had ended in-Adrian had flung away his life for nothing.

Visconti’s voice broke upon her.

‘Take this cloak to hide thy garb; I could not have Milan see thee thus — even if thou hast lost all shame.’

A ring of soldiers kept the crowd back, all the crowd the narrow streets permitted. The high morning sun sparkled on their halberds, spears, and armour; the dazzle of scarlet and gold from their trappings was blinding in its confusion, and Valentine hid her eyes — from that and the dead boy’s face.

‘A Visconti! A Visconti!’ came the shout. The horses of the Paduans were champing impatiently, Visconti’s charger reared between its holders-in.

‘Now, where is my lord?’ cried de Lana, riding up breathless through the noise and glitter. ‘I have been outwitted —’

‘Hush!’ said Visconti softly. ‘I am here, de Lana — and so is she who outwitted thee,’ and he’ pointed to the cloaked figure beside him. ‘Take her ahead in secrecy, and swiftly, to the palace.’

The command and the movement were lost in the confusion. The horsemen were forming up behind Visconti, the walls and street crowded; from every distant window and housetop shouting spectators gazed on the gorgeous scene below.

Visconti drew his sword, and held its glittering cross high up against the sapphire sky.

‘Now glory be to God, His angels, and Sant’Apollinare, my patron saint, that I am entered into my city again; and for my most miraculous escape, there shall be an altar of jasper and serpentine in the Lord’s new church — and therein hear my vow!’

He lowered his sword and kissed the hilt, then turning in his saddle to the men who had followed him as their new leader: ‘Have I not led you well, Paduans,’ he cried, ‘safe into the fairest city of Lombardy? Do you repent you of following a Visconti through the proud gates of Milan — Milan that I have made more beautiful than Ravenna, and stronger than Rome? I am your leader now, knights of Padua, and Gian Visconti never yet led to aught but victory or turned against’ a foe he did not crush! Once already have I trampled della Scala to the dust, and ridden through nine wide cities of his, and spoiled his palaces to pay my soldiers, with pay that men would die to win!

‘I do not pay with ducats, Paduans, or measure my rewards with coin; follow me, and I will give you cities for your plunder, and nobles to hold for ransom. Like to the thunder will I circle Lombardy, and city after city shall surrender me its keys, and the meanest soldier in my train shall gain him fame and riches from my spreading greatness such as kings might envy! Now, who but a faint heart would follow della Scala, who lost into my hands his very wife? So long as there is a Visconti, he rules in Italy!’

Shout after shout, deafening, triumphant, greeted his words, the very air filled with the spirit of victory, the madness of triumph, the glamour of gold, the flash of scarlet, the high glitter of spears, that waved to and fro, the mad plunging of a thousand horses blinded with the dazzle of the sun; and from the throats of the thronging army, from the throats of the thronging citizens, one wild cry arose: ‘Visconti! Visconti! Sant’ Apollinare! Visconti and Milan! The Duke rides the city!’

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