The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 24.

Treachery

The day that was to place Milan in the enemy’s hands was wearing to a close; the sun had almost set in a wide sky, a flare of orange and purple, against which the chestnuts stood in rich dark.

Mastino della Scala and some few of his officers were standing in the little wood into which the secret passage opened Behind them the army was in readiness.

‘I have wrenched success from the hands of failure!’ cried Mastino, his eyes brilliant, a different man. He could have laughed aloud for joy; he would see Isotta tonight, he would keep his word; Visconti’s palace was near the western gate, they would be upon him before he knew.

‘There is no possibility of failure, Ligozzi; no possibility of treachery?’ he said, eagerly, and pressed his friend’s hands in his.

‘None, lord; Vistarnini is to be trusted to the death.’

‘Von Schulembourg’s horse returned to camp this morning,’ said Ligozzi. ‘I know not where the Count is.’

‘When I am in Milan I will find him; he shall wed the Lady Valentine; I bear him no bitterness. Ah, Ligozzi, the world will be a different place tomorrow.’

And Mastino leaned forward eagerly, waiting for the first sign of the return of Tomaso, who had been sent ahead to reconnoitre.

The sky flared and blazed through the trees till the whole world seemed on fire; the red clouds were reflected in della Scala’s polished armour till it glowed in one bright flame, above which the plumes on his steel cap floated long and white.

The next second the glory faded and was gone, leaving the world cold and grey.

The sun had set.

A cold breeze stirred the leaves against the pale sky, but to Mastino, leaning against the tree trunk, waiting, no foreboding came. It was success, success — at last!

‘Tomaso is long,’ said Ligozzi.

‘The way is long,’ smiled Mastino. ‘But not so long that we shall not enter Milan before dawn!’

The passage opened into the undergrowth from the wide mouth of a cave, and della Scala, in his eagerness, stepped forward into the shadow of its blackness, listening intently.

No sound broke the stillness save the little murmur of the wind, the occasional clank of the bridles of the idle horses. ‘Hark cried Mastino. ‘I hear him!’

He turned with shining eyes to Ligozzi.

‘My friend, at last Heaven has heard!’

‘He carries no torch,’ said Ligozzi, wonderingly, for though footsteps ascended, no ray of light fell across the dark. ‘He stayed not for torch,’ cried della Scala. ‘Bring up the men, Ligozzi!’

As he spoke, a figure forced itself out of the dark, a wild figure, and yet Tomaso’s; his white face was smeared with blood which trickled from a great gash on his forehead, his doublet was rent and torn, and he reeled as hurt and spent.

‘O Mother of God!’ muttered Mastino. ‘Mother of God!’ Tomaso sank at his feet with a bitter cry.

‘All is over!’ he cried. ‘We are betrayed. Oh, would I were dead before I had to tell thee!’

‘Betrayed?’ echoed della Scala. All the life was struck out of him, he steadied himself against the cavern wall and looked at the boy dully. ‘Betrayed?’

‘Betrayed? By whom?’ cried Ligozzi. ‘Ah, thou art hurt!’

‘Nothing, nothing. I am in time — Visconti — his men guard the other entrance — with difficulty I escaped to warn thee,’ gasped Tomaso.

‘Who betrayed us?’ demanded his father, his face dark with passion.

‘The girl,’ said Tomaso, bitterly; ‘the girl who loved Visconti.’

‘And Heaven favours her love and not mine!’ The cry was wrung from Mastino. ‘We are betrayed for a girl’s love of Visconti. And my wife waits for me!’ He laughed wildly, and drew a faded rose from the folds of his sash, flinging it on to the ground.

‘Look, Ligozzi, a sign from Heaven — a sign I thought had been fulfilled. But a girl prayed for Visconti, doubtless, and her prayers are heard. Isotta must perish, but Visconti is saved To mock, Heaven sends me a sign.’

He ground the rose to powder beneath his heel, and Ligozzi quailed at the wild anguish of his face.

‘I should have known,’ he cried. ‘I should have known. I called on God and this is His answer. I will fight Visconti alone!’

He turned from the cavern to the open, and stepped out among the waiting officers.

‘Back to camp!’ he cried wildly. We are betrayed again, by a woman who loves Visconti! The Duke of Milan is fortunate; who would do the like for me?’ And he flung himself down upon the bank, and sank to the ground.

‘Leave us,’ whispered Ligozzi: ‘Leave us, all is over for tonight, the Prince and I will follow.’

‘He is much moved,’ returned one of the officers.

‘All his hopes were on it,’ said Ligozzi bitterly. ‘His wife, his God.’

In disappointed groups the men moved off, to spread the evil news.

It was now fully dark, but not so dark that the three left by the cave could not see each other in the faint starlight.

Mastino called to Tomaso. His voice was hoarse and strained.

‘Tell me all, boy; tell how it happened’

‘My lord,’ faltered Tomaso, ‘it is too painful’

‘Painful!’ And della Scala laughed harshly. I am well used to that; tell me how it happened.’

He had risen, and standing in the shadow of the trees, only the outline of his great figure was visible to Tomaso and Ligozzi, standing a few paces before him.

‘There is not much to tell,’ said the boy uneasily; he was sick with disappointment and the pain of his wound and leaned heavily against his father.

‘Agnolo opened the door to me — as had been arranged; he told me, with a wild face, his daughter was gone. Visconti had carried her off, he vowed. He was half-crazed, and ah, my lord, even as he spoke, the courtyard filled with soldiers, Visconti’s soldiers. The girl had fled to the palace, and told the Duke all! We were betrayed!

‘They laughed to see me there; vowed I should die a merry death, trusted you would follow and let them give you a warm welcome. Agnolo, they mocked with talk of pardon, for his daughter’s sake, his daughter the Duchess to be, whom Visconti had proclaimed to all his court, if he would tell them a little more of what you meant to do. But Vistarnini met them with defiance.

‘“At least Visconti shall not claim us both!” he cried, and then they laughed and killed him. That was the Duke’s word, they said, not pardon.’

Tomaso paused.

‘And his daughter lives to be Duchess of Milan!’ said della Scala. ‘It is the will of Heaven!’ He laughed again, harshly.

‘I escaped while they argued over the poor painter’s body, and they dared not follow, being in terror of an ambush. If it had not been for saving thee, I would I might have died!’ And he sank his head upon his father’s shoulder with heart-wrung sobs.

‘Take him to the camp,’ said Mastino, rising. ‘How can I comfort him or thee, wanting it so much myself?’ And he turned away through the trees.

The air was perfumed and soft, it fanned the heavy hair back from his face and rustled the flowers around his feet.

He walked fast, in a fury of hate. It came to him to rush into Milan, and die upon the soldiers’ spears, if he might only get his hands upon Visconti. ‘I will challenge him to fight, to single combat,’ he thought madly. Then his mood changed, he stopped and felt for the locket at his neck.

‘Isotta! Oh, my dear, my dear!’ and his voice was full of tears.

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