The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 26.

In Visconti’s Hands

Valentine Visconti was praying in the Church of Sant’ Apollinare. It stood some way from the Visconti palace, a magnificent building, rich with the Duke’s gifts.

That morning thanksgiving rose from every church in Milan; from the palace to the hut, all showed some sign of rejoicing. The Duke had ordered public processions and thanksgiving, and none dared disobey.

His Holiness Pope Boniface had deserted the failing cause of Verona; there was nothing to be feared and little to be gained from Mastino della Scala; the Duke of Milan had offered his aid against the rebellious Florentines, and many bribes besides, and today had seen the new league between the powerful tyrant of Lombardy and His Holiness publicly ratified.

From Rome Visconti had nothing more to fear, Mastino nothing more to hope.

The country around Padua was Visconti’s too; Cologna, which he had always held, the great seaport of Chioggia, Mestre and Lovigo, betrayed by Carrara.

Bassano had fallen, and now Reggio; there was cause for thanksgiving in Milan.

As a last triumph, Valentine had been sent to offer up prayers and gifts for her brother’s success. She was guarded on her errand, practically a prisoner. Soldiers stood at every door of the church, and a mounted escort waited to conduct her back. She was on her knees before the blazing altar, her head low over her missal, but she was not offering thanks to heaven for Gian’s victories.

She thought of Graziosa with angry hate. But for that girl, della Scala had been in Milan, and Count Conrad with him — and in reward for her treachery Graziosa was to queen it over her! Visconti delighted to flaunt her with her at every turn.

That morning Visconti had told her the war was drawing to a close — said it with much meaning, and promised her, smiling, Count Conrad’s head as a wedding gift. He had been closeted long with Giannotto; strangely elated he had seemed, and Valentine shudderingly wondered what was in the air.

That there was something she knew full well; Visconti was hatching some stroke that would complete della Scala’s ruin. For some days she had seen his purpose in his face, and today the alliance with the Pope confirmed it.

She did not greatly care, she was too crushed with her own failures to care much for the failure of another. She felt sorry for Isotta d’Este, and bitter toward Count Conrad.

‘But were I either of them, Prince Mastino or Count Conrad,’ she thought in hot anger, ‘I would not live to grace Visconti’s triumph.’

The sound of bells penetrated even into the hushed interior of the church. As the service ended and Valentine rose to her feet, she heard them burst into wild music; the dim, incensed air seemed troubled by their triumphant throb, the gold tapestry to shake with it.

‘Is it another victory?’ murmured Valentine. The church had emptied, she was alone in it save for two ladies kneeling motionless.

The monks swept out, with a swinging of censer and a low chanting. Only one remained, putting out candles about the altar.

Valentine closed her missal and turned to leave. The sun was streaming through the gold and opal windows in a dazzling shaft of light, it fell over her face and blinded her for a second. The next, she looked round to see the solitary monk behind her. His head hidden in his cowl, his arms folded, he passed her without looking up.

‘Count Conrad is in Milan,’ he said, under his breath, and silently and swiftly he was gone.

Valentine, hardly believing she had heard aright, gazed after him wildly, then collecting herself, walked down the aisle, her brain on fire.

Her ladies-inwaiting rose, and under no excuse could she prolong her stay.

‘Count Conrad is in Milan!’

Did that mean that he would rescue her yet — was it Conrad himself who spoke?

The thought was grateful to her sore, angry heart. She had not much confidence in Count Conrad’s skill nor his chances of success — still, he was in Milan, he cared enough to have risked that, and she could wait.

After the dim church the sun was blinding, the crash of the bells deafening. Valentine mounted her horse with a throbbing heart; that whisper in the church had given her new life.

The soldiers formed up either side, behind and before; it would not have been possible for her to drop even her glove unnoticed. She was riding the streets of Milan as her brother’s trophy, as his prisoner; every one of those who bowed so humbly to her as she passed, every peasant her guards thrust back from her path, was freer than she.

Sant’Apollinare was far from the palace, and for that reason Visconti had chosen it. All Milan should see her ride to offer thanksgiving for his victories.

‘Surely there is more good news,’ said Costanza, as they crossed the bridge that spanned the canal; ‘the air is full of rejoicing, and I have seen many messengers spur past.’

Valentine set her teeth, and looked between the spears of her escort at the bright blue water beneath them. All the craft that covered its surface were gay with flags, its depth reflected buildings hung with the banners of the Viper.

‘It fills the very air we breathe,’ shuddered Valentine, ‘the shadow of the Viper.’

Costanza glanced at her.

‘I must confess,’ she replied, ‘I should be proud an it were my bearing. To be a Visconti on such a day as this would please me well; and though I am your friend, madama, I must say it.’

‘As do all the others,’ said Valentine, bitterly. ‘You are blinded by splendour and power — you see no deeper than the skin!’

‘Maybe,’ said the other lightly. ‘Yet am I glad the Duke hath triumphed, and not Mastino della Scala, who is as sullen as a peasant, and a foe to all display’

‘And his wife?’ asked Valentine in a low tone. ‘Have you no thought for her?’

Costanza shrugged her shoulders.

‘Methinks I have done much to show I have! But she is a prisoner of war, and must take her chances like another. Were it the Visconti’s wife in such a case — she would not be a prisoner long! Let Mastino della Scala tear her from his foe himself — let him do as Visconti did when the Lady Graziosa was in danger.’

‘Hold thy tongue,’ returned Valentine angrily. ‘You talk as a child — you know not what you say.’

‘I only know this,’ retorted the other, ‘I would I were the Lady Graziosa,’ and she looked defiantly at Visconti’s angry sister.

‘For shame, Costanza,’ said Valentine. ‘Remember yourself.’

They rode in silence till, at the turn of the street, another splendid cavalcade crossed theirs. It was the Lady Graziosa and her suite. Tisio Visconti and Orleans were in attendance; she rode a white palfrey.

The sun lay tenderly in her soft hair; her green dress was covered with pearls, and round her throat she wore the emeralds Visconti had promised his sister, the first jewels in Italy, robbed from della Scala.

Valentine noticed them, she noticed Graziosa’s happy face, the joy she took in the homage paid her, in Visconti’s success that so galled her, Visconti’s sister, and a sudden purpose rose in her eyes.

She smiled sweetly on Graziosa, and rode up to Orleans; the Frenchman remarked with pleasure how she outshone the Duke’s betrothed. The deep blue of her velvet robe made her skin appear of dazzling fairness, her hair was like burnished gold, her mouth like a red flower, but her eyes, for all her smile, as dangerous as Gian Maria’s could be, as mad, almost as wicked.

‘We are well met, my lord,’ she said, smiling. ‘Have there been even greater victories?’

‘I know not, lady; they say something of Lucca’s having fallen,’ returned Orleans. ‘I have been escorting the Lady Graziosa to view the new church — by the Duke’s orders’; he added in a lower tone, ‘could I have chosen my companion, it had not been she.’

Valentine listened with downcast eyes, playing with the rubies at her wrist. Her escort was grouped about her, and Costanza glanced aside at her curling lips with some mistrust.

‘The Lady Graziosa is happier and fair today,’ she whispered to her companion, and Valentine overheard and smiled the more. ‘And my brother, the Duke?’ she asked.

‘I have not seen the Duke all day,’ replied the Frenchman. ‘There is talk of an embassy to the enemy — confusion and crowds —’

‘You have been riding Milan to see the rejoicings?’ interrupted Valentine, and she raised her eyes to Graziosa once — the glance was not pleasant — then she fell to playing with her bracelet again.

‘Yes,’ said Graziosa innocently. ‘My lord bade me ride to the new church.’

She was very happy, and affection welled up in her tender heart, even for the woman who had used her so cruelly — for she was Gian’s sister.

With a timid gesture she held out her little hand to Valentine. ‘Will you not ride back beside me?’ she asked, pleadingly. But Valentine ignored her hand and her request.

‘Have you visited any other churches in your ride?’ she asked. ‘What other church in Milan should interest the Lady Graziosa?’ asked Orleans wearily, fearing to be sent back on some distasteful journey.

‘I did not know — I thought there might be one — Santa Maria, close to the western gate.’

And Valentine looked straight at Graziosa, who paled beneath her tone.

‘How should that interest me?’ she faltered.

Costanza put her hand on Valentine’s sleeve.

‘Have a care,’ she whispered. ‘Not before them all, madama, for pity’s sake!’

But Visconti’s sister took no heed; she gathered up her reins and signed to her escort to move on.

‘Of course,’ she said, ‘why should it interest thee? There is nothing there — it is only a small, mean church, where a poor, obscure traitor lies on his bier.’ She looked around the startled faces with a bitter scorn on her own. ‘Who has heard of him? — one Agnolo Vistarnini — killed by the Duke’s orders, killed by thy lover’s orders, in the very hour that thou betrayedst him to him, Graziosa Vistarnini!’

She flung the words at her as if they had been knives, and if they had been they could not have been more deadly. Without a word, her hand catching at her throat, Graziosa sank from her horse, the scene in an instant one of confusion.

‘Dieu! What have you done!’ cried Orleans, springing from the saddle and raising Graziosa. ‘Who will answer for this?’

‘She will not die of it,’ said Valentine, scornfully. ‘She will take care to live — to be Duchess of Milan’

‘Oh, shame! Shame!’ cried Costanza, and several echoed the cry.

”Twas no gentle act,’ said Orleans, lifting Graziosa, ‘and Heaven save you now, Princess!’

‘And our heads may have to pay for it,’ grumbled the officer who led Graziosa’s escort. ‘Men, see the Princess does not escape, or there will no one of us live to save himself.’

‘Shame! Shame!’ said the Duke again, as Graziosa, white as death, was laid in a litter. ‘You have done a mad thing!’ And the whole fluttering cavalcade whirled in startled confusion toward the palace.

Valentine looked after them, and there was no remorse in her face.

‘You must answer to the. Duke for this, madama,’ said the officer, ‘and at once.’

She turned her horse slowly, and at a quiet pace rode toward the Visconti palace. Costanza began to weep.

‘Nothing can save you now, mistress — why did you do it? Oh, why!’

‘Count Conrad is in Milan!’ was Valentine’s answer to herself; and to Costanza she said, coldly, ‘Do not fear for me. I am too valuable to be meddled with. Even a Visconti would not dare to slay his sister before the Frenchman’s eyes’

They entered the courtyard in silence, the soldiers forming up close around her. The cavalcade had ridden slowly, and there was no trace of Graziosa’s arrival. The palace seemed quiet. Valentine dismounted as usual, and was mounting the entrance steps when de Lana advanced.

‘I have a painful duty to discharge, Princess,’ he said. ‘You are my prisoner.’

Valentine went white: she had not expected this so swiftly. ‘The Lady Graziosa is in danger of her life,’ continued de Lana.

”Tis no fault of mine,’ said Valentine. What do you want with me?’

Costanza clung to her, weeping loudly.

‘Have done!’ said the soldier, sternly. ‘Follow behind your lady. You will follow me, Princess.’

‘Seeing I cannot help it,’ retorted Valentine, with flaming cheeks. ‘Where is my brother? Where is the Duke of Orleans?’ She looked round once; from somewhere there stepped forward two of de Lana’s men and took their places at her side. She moved up the stair, Costanza with her, weeping with fear.

The corridors were empty, save for the soldiers at their posts. De Lana opened the door of the Duke’s apartments and stood aside for her to enter, but Valentine shrank back.

”Tis the Duke’s orders,’ said de Lana, and he moved Costanza back. ‘You will enter alone.’

Then Valentine summoned up her courage, and when she had passed the door, de Lana followed and stood beside it.

Visconti was at the table, behind him Giannetto, and at her entrance he raised such a white, distorted face of fury, that Valentine quailed and sank back against the wall.

‘Ah!’ said Visconti, ‘I have it in my mind to kill you, my sister. I have it in my mind to give myself that pleasure — to kill you.’

He rose as he spoke, and Giannotto drew farther away from him, glancing at Valentine with a white amazement; the Duke was bordering on frenzy.

‘Oh,’ cried Visconti again, ‘so you have no more wits than Tisio: you think, because it suited me that you should wed with Orleans, that you are free to flout me at your will?’

‘Now be silent,’ breathed de Lana to Valentine, who leaned against the wall beside him.

‘You!’ said Visconti, stopping before her. ‘You! — to meddle with me — let me lift my finger and I can bring you lower than any slave in Milan!’

‘Silence!’ breathed de Lana again. But Valentine had too much of her brother’s own spirit. The madness of the Visconti rose into her eyes; she straightened herself and moved forward defiantly.

‘Aye, or you can kill me,’ she said, ‘as you have the others; but you cannot make me humble before your wife out of the streets.’

Visconti stood stock still, and Giannotto, glancing at de Lana, wondered if she were to be murdered before their eyes. Under the look in her brother’s face Valentine stepped back again and huddled against the wall: she saw Visconti draw his dagger — and she hid her eyes — but motionless and without a sound.

‘I have had enough of you,’ said Visconti, and strode down upon her in a white madness of fury, forgetful of all else. ‘I will clear you from my path — yes, as I did the others.’ Then he looked at de Lana, and something in the soldier’s face told him he would have to kill him first.

‘And as I will any who oppose me,’ he cried, furiously. ‘Am I not the Duke of Milan? Take thy hand from thy sword, de Lana. Now we will settle scores, Valentine.’ His hand was lifted, Giannotto turned his face away, and de Lana had thrown himself forward, when a light knock on the door close by broke the moment’s silence, and Visconti’s hand sank to his side.

‘Open!’ he cried. ‘It is the messenger from the Lady Graziosa,’ and de Lana, eagerly seizing the interruption, flung wide the door.

Visconti looked up and met Valentine’s eyes, and she knew how near she was to death.

‘My lord,’ said de Lana, returning, ‘the Lady Graziosa hath recovered — there is no fear of her life, my lord.’

‘Ah!’ Visconti returned his dagger to its sheath, and Giannotto gave a gasp of relief.

‘Take my sister to her apartments, de Lana, and guard her well there — and if any ask for her, say she is under my displeasure —’

The captain turned, glad to take her from the room alive.

‘Will you see the messenger, my lord?’

‘No,’ said Visconti, fiercely. ‘As long as she lives, what care I for the messenger?’

The soldier seized Valentine’s wrist and forced her, still reluctant, from the room. She was conquered, not subdued. ‘If Graziosa dies,’ said Visconti, turning to Giannotto, ‘she does not live either. You have heard me say it. She and her woman’s venom!’ he continued, pacing the room furiously. ‘I should have swept her away sooner — I would now but for the French, and the French shall not save her next time. He is a fool, Giannotto, who thinks that because a woman is a prisoner she is powerless — let him remember her tongue.’

‘My lord, she may have thought the lady knew,’ faltered Giannotto.

‘Silence!’ cried Visconti. ‘She may have thought I wanted to give Isotta d’Este her liberty! Ah, let her beware! Graziosa, too; why did she not tell her that she lied? Had I not said he lived? I las she no spirit — no dignity — to shame me by her silence and her moans?’

The secretary ventured on no reply. He fumbled with the parchments on the table and drew one forward. Visconti’s glance fell on it and his rage calmed instantly; his eyes flashed with a changed expression.

‘These are the terms we sent to della Scala?’ he asked, with a sudden smile.

‘Yes, my lord; terms I think that cannot fail.’

The Duke sat silent a while, and the smile deepened to a laugh.

‘I disturb myself for a woman’s quarrels,’ he said at last, ‘and am on the eve of winning Lombardy!’

‘The Estes may already have detached themselves from della Scala, my lord,’ said the secretary.

‘We will hope not. They will cling to the losing cause, and Mastino della Scala, the stainless knight, himself shall betray them!’ smiled Visconti, with such cruel wickedness that Giannotto shrank.

‘You stand so strong after your victories, my lord,’ he said, ‘you might well crush them all by force.’

‘Only I do not choose that way of doing it,’ replied the Duke, still smiling. ‘I will accomplish a bloodless victory, I will spend no treasure, no time, and no men on this conquest, but I will win from it, not alone della Scala’s towns, but his honour and his fame.’

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