The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 23.

For Love of Ambrogio

It was early morning of the second day since Ligozzi had discovered the secret passage, and Milan lay peaceful, for in those two days there had been no fighting; but the calm was the lull before the storm.

Agnolo Vistarnini stood in front of the secret door, with shining eys. The spring had just slipped back behind Tomaso, the last arrangements had been made; tonight della Scala should enter Milan — and he, Agnolo, would be the means.

Agnolo looked across the courtyard now in shadow to where a soldier kept his guard. The guard was the Duke’s orders, and to the painter’s face the soldiery showed all respect; yet well Agnolo knew they laughed at Visconti’s whim, and shrugged their shoulders at the pale-faced girl who was to be Duchess of Milan. And the painter had heard their talk among themselves.

‘It was likely enough for the Duke to amuse himself in disguise,’ they said, ‘but to marry a painter’s daughter!’

‘It were more reasonable had he dowered her to wed another, and yet ’tis of a piece with all his madness!’

‘I would sooner see her dead,’ thought the little painter, ‘than Duchess of Milan, the Visconti’s wife.’

The white agonized face of Isotta rose before him, the fierce rebellious hate that marred Valentine Visconti’s beauty, and Visconti’s own expression as he stooped to mock a woman in his power; the gallant heart of the little painter throbbed with wrath and honest fury against the tyrant who played with hearts, who thought the offer of a crown he had usurped atoned for crimes as black as hell.

‘Tonight, tonight!’ he murmured to himself as he mounted the stair to seek for his daughter. ‘Tonight we shall both avenge the use of us to please a whim.’

He entered his studio; it was empty, the two pictures stood with their backs to the room. Agnolo looked at them grimly. How often had Visconti sat painting that St Catherine, unarmed! How easy then to have struck him low! What would Lombardy have said!

‘Graziosa!’ he called. He was eager to tell her Tomaso had been again.

He never doubted for a moment that her love had turned, as his had done, to a passion of outraged pride.

‘Graziosa!’

But no answer came, and Agnolo mounted the stair and entered her little chamber in the turret. It was circular, lit by three long windows, and now ablaze with the morning sun.

The walls were hung with painted linen, faded browns, and in each window stood a rough stone jar of lilies, drooping neglected in the sun.

Seated on the floor near one of them was Graziosa, her face buried in her hands, but at her father’s entrance she raised her head and looked out of the window.

‘Graziosa,’ said Agnolo, and there was a boyish triumph in his voice, ‘Visconti dies tonight.’

She did not move.

‘Tonight della Scala enters Milan; there is no chance of failure.’

‘None?’ she asked. Her voice was dull.

‘None! Ah, Graziosa, Visconti roused more dangerous foes than he reckoned on when he played with me and thee.’

The girl moved impatiently; her father’s words jarred on her senses.

‘Father, I am tired,’ she said wearily, ‘and my heart is very sore —’

‘Never fear, my daughter; tonight, tonight!’

Graziosa turned to him; her face was white and strained.

‘But if — he — the Duke — should not be-be slain?’ she said. ‘He has a new army here in Milan.’

‘Aye, but a surprise at dead of night is worth two armies to the others. The palace is near; Visconti will be in their hands even while he sleeps —’

‘In della Scala’s hands —’ she breathed. ‘That means, indeed — he — O God, it means Ambrogio dies!’

The last words were breathed so low Agnolo did not hear them, but he saw the pain on his daughter’s face and came gently to her side.

‘Forgive me if I pain thee, my dearest. God knows, if I speak lightly ’tis but to hide a bitter grief —’

But Graziosa interrupted him with a passionate cry and seizing his hands covered them with kisses.

‘Take no heed of me!’ she cried. ‘I am half distraught — soon I shall be better.’

‘After tonight there will be a shadow gone from off us, Graziosa, and not from off us alone.’

‘There is no chance of failure?’ asked the girl again.

‘Comfort thyself — none.’

Graziosa said no more, and Agnolo turned to leave, for there were the soldiers still to hoodwink, but at the door his daughter called him.

‘At what hour do della Scala’s men enter?’ she asked, in a low voice, her head still turned away.

‘One hour after midnight,’ returned the little painter. ‘Della Scala leads them?’

‘Della Scala himself,’ said Agnolo, proudly. ‘He is a noble prince.’

His daughter made no answer; long after the little painter had left her alone again she sat there listless in the sunny, silent chamber, listless, with her white face, leaning back against the window frame.

‘There is no possibility of failure.’ The words beat upon her heart till she thought it would break.

‘Tomorrow he will be dead!’

She sprang to her feet with sudden energy; the sun was rising high — the time was short.

It was silent, maddeningly silent; Graziosa grew afraid of it — the silence and the sun; she wished she were dead; it came to her to kill herself, yet full well she knew that she had not the courage.

She twisted her damp, cold hands together; she wondered if she shut her eyes and leaped from the window she might die without knowing it, and nerving herself looked out.

But the stone courtyard seemed far away, hard and cruel, and she winced back again.

In her own heart she knew she was a coward, and wept to think it was so — wept to think she could not rise to act, in any way to act.

There was no tinge of greatness in Graziosa’s soul; she would have gone through life, if unmolested, merry, gentle, sweetness and happiness itself, content always to stand aside for others, eager to do little kindnesses that came within her compass, never tempted because never seeing the temptation, happy in utter simplicity and ignorance; but a great moment found her wanting, a crisis she could not face; as she tried to think, right and wrong grew strangely confused. She only knew she loved Visconti, and that he was in danger.

She was too weak to kill herself, although she did not shrink from the cowardice of it, only from the pain; she was too weak to tell her father she still loved Visconti; she could not bear to see his face should she confess it; he would never understand.

‘I will lock the door,’ she said, with wild eyes, ‘lock the door, and let no one enter till it is all over — and perhaps my heart will break,’ she added pitifully.

Then she stood a long time, still with hands locked tight. Suddenly she turned and her robe caught the jar of lilies, throwing them into the room.

There they lay, faded by the heat, amid the broken jar, and Graziosa looked with unseeing eyes, and picked them up mechanically.

Opposite hung a mirror, and as she raised her head she saw herself reflected there.

The lilies dropped from her hands as they had dropped before in the street, the day Tisio took her bracelet.

‘He would have made me Duchess of Milan!’

She drew nearer and surveyed her pale face closely.

‘Duchess of Milan! And he had all Italy to choose from!’ The thought brought a flush to her cheek.

‘His sister is very, very beautiful. I am not so fair as she, nor as della Scala’s wife; and yet he thought me fit to share his throne —’

She moved toward the door with faltering steps.

‘I must not think,’ she moaned. ‘I will lock the door — I will lock the door —’

But another thought struck her, and she quivered with her agony.

‘He trusted me — he trusted us — he never questioned our faith!’

Then her heart rose in rebellion at her own weakness. Let Visconti be betrayed: why? What did she know of his crimes?

She could hear her father feasting the soldiers below, and thought of him restless and impatient for nightfall. He had never loved Ambrogio.

She listened and heard his voice in pleasant laughter with a triumphant ring in it, and a sort of rage rose in her heart.

Why are we to save Milan from a tyrant?’ she thought. ‘Ambrogio is more to me than all the Milanese.’

She put her hand on the door handle.

When would he have sent for me?’ she wondered dully. ‘He smiled. His voice was gentle; Ambrogio’s voice! And he is Ambrogio, and — tonight, tonight —’

Her eyes fell on the long blue hooded cloak hanging on the wall near. She took it down and paused with it in her hand, looking at it with fixed eyes.

A bird flew past the window, sending a swift shadow across the floor.

Graziosa opened the door slowly and stepped out on to the stair. It was almost dark there; silently she closed the door behind her and wrapped the cloak about her, drawing the hood over her head and face.

Leaning over the stair rail, she saw that the door of the room below was open, her father’s voice was silent: the soldiers had gone elsewhere. Softly she crept down into that pleasant chamber where Visconti had sat so often; the sunlight came in from the open door in a great band across the dark floor, falling on her white face as she moved through it and out into the yard. She saw there was no soldier by the door into the street. She opened it, she could see her father and the guard chatting over winecups by the sundial in the garden, they were not looking; she crossed like the shadow of the bird upon the floor. Her pet doves flew away at her guilty steps as if they did not know her, and Graziosa knew herself indeed changed from the one who had last fed them.

The bolt of the door would at first not move for her trembling fingers, but she did not stay here; in a second more she stood in the street, a closed door behind her. Graziosa would never see it open more.

The houses stood clear against a brilliant sapphire sky, and above them moved a silver banner, the banner of the Viper. It floated from the Visconti palace, and Graziosa, with no glance back, bent her steps in its direction.

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