The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 28.

The Viper

The Duke of Milan had sent a secret embassy to Mastino della Scala, lying crushed outside Milan — a secret embassy he had long been meditating. The master-stroke of his policy should be the Duke of Verona’s ruin, and his complete triumph.

And the moment of his sending was well chosen. The two days of which Mastino spoke had passed. The answer from d’Este at Novara had been unfavourable. His plans, he said, were to march back to Modena and Ferrara, protecting that part of Lombardy, held now by Julia Gonzaga’s men alone, against Visconti; he would wait for his army to come up; he would wait for Mastino, but not long; his duty lay inside Modena and Ferrara, not outside the hopeless walls of Milan.

And Mastino had set his teeth, and taken his answer in silence. That night there was a wild attack on the walls of Milan, so sudden, so fierce, that it almost seemed as if the ramparts must fall before the furious onslaught.

For five hours the Veronese and the defenders had struggled on the walls. Twice Mastino had wrenched the towers of the western gate from the enemy’s hand; twice he had been driven back, leaving his dead piled high. A third desperate attempt had also been lost, and della Scala fell back toward Brescia with frightfully diminished numbers, and mad with the agony of final defeat. His cause seemed hopeless. And in the moment of his hopelessness Visconti’s embassy arrived.

‘Give della Scala one day to consider,’ Visconti said to Giannotto, who accompanied de Lana on this mission. ‘And if he mislikes the terms, say thou art to carry them to Ippolito d’Este.’

It was evening, and very still. Visconti stepped on to the balcony, and looked through the clustered pillars of its arcade into the garden.

The setting sun blended all flowers alike with soft gold; a little breeze shook the leaves, and stirred the jasmine that clung to the carved sandstone, fluttering its white stars delicately; the sky was very clear, as pure as a shell, and tinted like a wild rose.

Visconti was busy with his thoughts. His eyes rested on Isotta’s dark prison with an utter satisfaction in gazing on this evidence of his power over della Scala. And then he looked to Graziosa’s dwelling, and a shade crossed his face. Even to himself he would not admit it — but with her it was not perfect success.

Since Valentine’s cruel stab, Graziosa had faded, grown silent and dull; and her beauty had gone with her happiness. She looked no wife for a Visconti. Torn from its setting, her fresh face lost its charm; the simplicity that had pleased him in her father’s house annoyed the Duke in his own palace; the meekness and devotion that had flattered his vanity now angered it — in his eyes she had no more presence than a serving-maid; she was making his choice a mock before all Milan, with her white face and timid voice.

Visconti frowned to himself as he thought of her. She had said no word, she had uttered no reproach; she had remained passive and dull; but she was grown a mere shadow, a reflection of her former self.

‘Maybe her folly will wear away,’ mused Visconti moodily. Tut if not — if she prefers her father before me — she may follow him.’

Today he had not as yet seen her. This was the first thought he had spared her; now he had a free moment and he would visit her — see for himself if her humour should promise of changing — the humour of:

‘My Lady Graziosa Vistarnini, who hath not spirit for her destiny, who hath not the greatness to be proud to be a Duchess of Milan.’

Visconti sneered at her scruples, and was inclined to be angry with his own folly in choosing his wife for a soft heart and true affection; and with more even than anger he thought of Valentine. He took his way alone through the sumptuous gardens.

Graziosa was not in her gorgeous residence. ‘She had gone to the little summer-house in the garden,’ he was told, ‘to see the sun set, and pray to Santa Teresa, whose name-day it is.’

Visconti turned on his heel with an impatient shrug of his shoulders. He was not attuned to passive virtue or to saintly prayers, nor was his palace their best background.

He saw Tisio and his pages in the distance — behind them, the white marble summer-house, standing on a gentle eminence, half hidden in laurel; and as he advanced through the clustering flowers he saw Tisio enter the low door, the scarlet liveries of the pages flashing through the deep green.

The perfect evening was like music in its calm loveliness. Visconti felt its charm; he was ever alive to obvious beauty, and none of his artist’s perception could have walked this glorious summer garden, at such an hour, unmoved. His heart softened toward Graziosa: she had saved Milan — for his sake: in his great triumph he could afford to remember it, and the affection that prompted it, and set to her credit much else she might seem to lack.

He picked up a white rose from the bush that crossed his path, and stuck it in his belt; he remembered she had often worn them — there was a bush in Agnolo’s bower, and they reminded him of her. He looked up at the white summer-house, a square tower, distinct against the sky: the top window was open wide, then suddenly blew to — and Visconti started at it curiously and so suddenly that a pang shot through his heart. Then he advanced with a quicker step toward the marble summer-house.

Graziosa stood in its upper chamber, a circular room, broken by three large windows — the walls a marvel of serpentine and jasper, the casements a glory of stained glass, through which there poured the last rays of the setting sun, flooding everything with a thousand dazzling colours.

A carved marble bench ran around the wall, and above it shallow niches, in one of which stood a gilt lamp. On the floor lay a forgotten lute, tied with a knot of cherry-coloured ribbons.

Graziosa unlatched one of the windows; it opened centre-wise, and the girl stood, one hand on either leaf, the sun making her golden bright from head to foot. Before her lay Milan, the beautiful, with its trees and gardens, clear in the setting sun that sank, a fiery ball, behind the distant purple hills. Graziosa breathed heavily. The tower looked toward the western gate; the sun caught the roof of a little house beside it, the roof of a house and a flock of white doves that flew around it, as if looking for something they could not find. Near rose the square tower of a little church, Santa Maria Nuova.

Graziosa stepped back into the room, letting the window fall to with a clang. Someone must come soon. With a piteous little gesture she pulled at the jewelled fastening of her stiff satin robe. For some moments her trembling fingers could not undo the great pearl clasp. At last it opened, and the yellow robe fell apart.

A rope of pearls bound her waist: with a hasty movement she undid them, and let slip the gorgeous dress, that fell stiff and gemmed on to the marble floor. Beneath was the blue robe she had worn when she first came to the palace.

With hasty fingers she pulled the ornaments from her hair, throwing them to the ground. Her long curls fell about her shoulders; a little sob shook her throat; she looked wistfully around, and sank into the chair. For a little while she sat silent with closed eyes, panting.

Suddenly the sun sank, leaving the room dull, all the light and colour gone.

Graziosa opened her eyes with a little cry.

‘I am so lonely!’ she whispered to herself —‘so lonely. I want someone — to kiss me — good-bye.’

She rose and fumbled among the folds of her fallen gown; she found something small she grasped tight in her cold fingers. ‘I am not brave — ah, I fear I am not brave!’

She rested her head against the arm of the chair, as if collecting herself; then, with a little smile, lifted it with a pitiful show of courage.

The wind blew the unlatched window open, showing the city roofs and the wall distant and grey; then it fell to again, leaving the chamber dull, almost dark, when a little later a footstep fell on the stair and the door was pushed open.

Tisio stepped in, peering around with vacant eyes. Orleans had lost his lute. Tisio remembered it left here. A heap of shimmering yellow satin caught his eye — yellow satin and a great rope of pearls. He marked it with vacant surprise, then, seeing the lute he sought for, made for it eagerly. He was proud to do these things. It pleased him to be so useful. He would not risk the page should find it. The lute lay near the bench against the wall, and, picking it up, Tisio noticed that someone sat there, someone very still and silent, against the cold white marble. He dropped the lute and came nearer. The chamber was utterly silent in the cold light, and the window was blowing to and fro with a dismal, sullen sound; but Tisio knew no ghostly terrors, he was not fearful of the dark.

He leaned over the figure eagerly, and when he knew it for Graziosa he was pleased. He liked her. That morning she had met him and seized his hands, and talked to him wildly, telling him with sobs something he could not understand. He thought it had to do with Gian.

Her head lay back against the purple cushion, and Tisio stroked it tenderly, fondling the beautiful bright curls that fell over the plain blue dress.

‘Pretty thing!’ he said gently. ‘Pretty thing!’

He had no remembrance how he had stroked that hair before, in the streets of Milan, in the sunshine.

She never moved under his touch, and something in the droop of her attitude struck him.

‘She is sad,’ he thought, and with a change of tone he lifted one of her limp hands.

‘Poor thing!’ he said again. ‘Poor, pretty thing! Art thou sad, poor, pretty thing?’

She made no answer, and he laid her hand back on her lap tenderly, smoothing her dress, and whispering comfort in her unhearing ears.

Suddenly the door swung under an impetuous hand. It was the Duke, but Tisio was not startled.

‘Gian!’ he said, ‘be kind to her; talk to her, poor thing!’

Visconti stepped into the room, looking at Tisio keenly.

‘Where is she?’ he asked, for in the gloom he could not at once see the silent figure in the corner. ‘Where is she, Tisio?’

‘The girl with the pretty hair —’ began his brother; but Visconti grasped him by the arm with a cry.

‘Bring me a light!’ he cried, ‘a light 2

With trembling hands Tisio lit the lamp and brought it near. Its yellow light fell over Visconti’s green dress and Graziosa’s bright hair.

‘If it should be so!’ muttered Visconti. ‘If it should be so!’ The light was faint, but it showed him enough. He looked into her face, and his own changed darkly.

‘Tisio,’ he said, ‘she’s dead! Graziosa! Graziosa!’

He bent closer, eagerly.

‘Get help, Tisio! Help!’

And Tisio, eager, alert, put the lamp in the window, where it flung long, ghostly shadows, and sped calling down the stairs.

Visconti had sent for help, yet even while he sent he knew it useless: she was dead! He stood looking at her. Poison! — she had poisoned herself! Something was tightly locked in her right hand! He forced the fingers apart, and looked at it — poison. ‘How dared she do it?’ he muttered, with an ever-darkening face. ‘How dared she? Who gave it her? Who dared to give it her?’

He would never have thought it lay in her to do this. All Milan must know she had preferred to die rather than be his bride. He had failed in this, though he had sworn he could not, though he had sworn she should share his throne before them all — the woman who loved him for himself alone. He remembered Valentine. Valentine had done this.

At his feet lay the satin garments and the jewels Graziosa had flung aside: she would not wear them. Not all his power could do that; not all his pride, all his ambition, could make her wear the crown, without the love. Gian Visconti stamped his foot. How dared she! How dared she!

Her eyes would never sparkle at his coming nor sadden at his good-bye. And Visconti, coming back to look at her again, was awed; affection stirred anew, and something like respect at the sight of her still dignity.

He looked around to find the door full of anxious faces, and Tisio behind him.

‘Finely I am served!’ he cried in a transport. ‘Do you let the Lady Graziosa go unattended? She hath been murdered, and those who should have been with her shall die for it!’

Weeping ladies and frightened pages crept in and stood aghast, silent at what they saw — more silent at his face. Visconti stood before Graziosa’s body and looked at them with mad eyes; he held a white rose in his fingers. The flickering lamp was just over his head; its light fell on his face and on hers — her sweet face that told its own tale.

For some moments Visconti was silent, gazing at them wildly, and it seemed to more than one of those who crowded there appalled that there came a new expression to his face, a new look into his widely opened eyes — not madness and not rage — but fear.

‘In a week I would have made her Duchess of Milan,’ he said at last, with a sudden break in his voice; and he dropped his white rose at her dead feet with a shudder, and turned away, through the crowd that fell away from him, down the stairs in silence.

It was two hours later, in the hushed, awe-struck, half-expectant palace, when Visconti opened the door of his inner room and stepped into the ante-chamber, where one page kept watch.

To him the Duke beckoned, handing him a glass with milk-white lines circling it — a slender, flower-like glass with a long stem.

‘Fill up with wine,’ he said.

The page obeyed.

‘Now bring the glass and follow me,’ said Visconti, and left the room, the boy behind him.

Before his sister’s door he paused. Soldiers guarded it: within could be heard footsteps and anxious frightened voices, the whispers of the tragedy. The key was turned: he entered, opening the door quietly, admitting himself and the page, the guard closing it behind him.

The room was lofty, and, like all Visconti’s rooms, A great crucifix hung at the far end, and before it knelt Valentine. When she heard the door she turned and started to her feet. Put the wine down and go,’ said Visconti to the page.

‘Ah, no!’ cried Valentine. ‘Let the page stay, Gian

She stepped forward with imploring eyes upon the boy. ‘Go,’ said Visconti again.

‘In the name of mercy, stay!’ cried Valentine, in sudden desperate fear, seeing her brother’s face. ‘Stay!’

The wretched page hesitated, but not for long. Visconti turned once more, and he tapped on the door to be let out, making no more ado.

Visconti watched him go, then stepped to the inner door and locked it on the women whispering and quaking within. Valentine tried to speak; the words died away on her tongue; she fell back against the tapestry, grasping it in stiff fingers, her eyes on his face.

Visconti seated himself at the table on which the page had stood the glass, and, resting his face on his hands, looked at her. The Viper on his doublet seemed to writhe, alive.

‘Graziosa is dead,’ he said.

Valentine’s eyes grew wild with fear.

‘I did not kill her!’ she cried. ‘I did not kill her, Gian!’

‘I found her dead,’ said Visconti, still looking at her. Valentine writhed against the wall, wringing her hands. ‘She slew herself,’ she moaned, ‘I did not kill her —’

‘I shall not kill thee,’ said Gian.

He looked down at the wine as he spoke, with a smile. Valentine threw herself on her knees.

‘I did not touch her!’ she screamed wildly. ‘I did not lay a hand on her!’

‘I shall not touch thee; I shall not lay a hand on thee,’ smiled Visconti.

‘Then I shall not die? I shall not die?’

She staggered to her feet, with an effort to be calm.

‘Thou wilt not die?’ said Visconti, softly, his eyes on her. ‘Thou wilt drink — this.’ And he touched the glass beside him. ‘Thou canst not be so cruel,’ pleaded Valentine. ‘I am thy sister, Gian —’

‘Do I think so much of family affection?’ said Visconti. ‘Still, she was to be my wife! Thou wilt drink this.’

Valentine flung herself on her knees again, and dragged herself along the floor toward him.

‘Have pity!’ she cried. ‘Have pity, I am so helpless! Spare me, and I will never offend thee again — never!’

‘Thou hast strangely lost thy courage,’ returned her brother. ‘What is there in drinking this wine?’

She was at his feet, clinging to him, imploring.

‘Let me live till morning!’ she pleaded. ‘Do not kill me here — in this dark chamber. Oh! I cannot die here, I cannot!’ Visconti looked at her calmly:

‘Graziosa died not in a fairer place, she died lonely and alone,’ he said. ‘Thou wilt drink this.’ He put out his hand and drew the glass nearer. ‘Come, thou wilt drink this.’

‘I am so young,’ sobbed Valentine. ‘Think, Gian; I am so young, Gian!’

‘Graziosa was no older,’ he said.

She clung to his hand in agony, beseeching him, calling on him, wildly trying to move him to let her live until the morning — only until morning!

‘Graziosa died after the sun had set,’ said Visconti. ‘Drink the wine, nor keep me here so long. Thou hast often wished to escape — where is thy courage gone, not to take this chance?’

‘But not to die like this — not like this — give me a priest!’

‘Had Graziosa one?’

She cowered down on the floor, her beautiful hair falling over her shoulders, her face hidden; then suddenly uplifted it again to Visconti, who sat looking at her, motionless.

‘Gian, I loved thee once, when we were little children.’

‘I have forgotten it, and so hadst thou until this moment — drink!’

Valentine sprang up in a paroxysm of uncontrollable terror. ‘I cannot! I cannot! Kill me thyself!’

‘With this?’ and Visconti touched his dagger. ‘No; a smoother death for one so fair.’

Valentine flew to the door and clung to it.

‘Philippe! Philippe!’ she shrieked. ‘Conrad! Costanza!’ Visconti rose suddenly, with such a force as to fling over the chair. ‘Cease!’ he cried. ‘Wilt thou drink this? Or who dost thou think will dare to interrupt me now?’

Valentine’s wild eyes looked at him in silence a moment, then her glance dropped.

‘Give it to me,’ she whispered.

Visconti did not move.

‘Come and take it,’ he said.

She came slowly, one hand against the wall, her long shadow flickering before her.

Visconti watched her, motionless. ‘Make haste,’ he said. ‘Make haste.’

She came to the table, her eyes down, her breast heaving, past tears or entreaties.

‘Drink!’ said Visconti, leaning with narrowing eyes across the space between them. ‘Drink in it della Scala’s health, as thou didst once before.

Valentine raised her head and looked at him, and grew fascinated with terror. She crouched away from him, and lifted the glass to her lips.

Visconti bent nearer and she drank, putting it down half empty with a shudder and staring eyes.

Visconti smiled, and brought the evil of his face still nearer. ‘Drink the rest,’ he said. ‘Drink it, Valentine.’

Still in silence she obeyed him.

When the empty glass stood before him, Visconti turned away, taking his eyes from her with a laugh, and walked toward the door.

Valentine’s gaze followed him with a look of utter woe; still she said nothing, from her parted lips there came no sound. He looked back over his shoulder at her, standing there with her face toward him, with all expression gone, with unseeing eyes.

‘I will leave thee,’ he said savagely, ‘to await — the morning.’ She seemed roused by the sound of his voice, and stepped forward with a cry on her white lips.

But the door closed heavily — the room was in darkness, or was it her sight failed her? Everything swam before her in a blackening mist; she grasped at the table and fell across it, senseless.

The dawn was breaking, filling the room with a grey and ghostly light; the great curtains looked black and gloomy, and the corners of the room were filled with strange and moving shadows. Through an open window a cool breeze blew across Valentine’s sick forehead: she opened her eyes. The empty glass met her gaze, the fallen chair was beside her. She looked at them strangely. She was still alive.

‘Gian’s poison is slow,’ she said, and smiled to herself. After a time she rose and stumbled to the window.

‘When the sun rises I shall be dead, or perhaps I shall live till noon,’ she said to herself.

She mounted the estrade and sat beside the open window, resting her head against the woodwork, singing to herself. Suddenly the whole grey sky flushed purple: the sun rose above the horizon.

Valentine looked down into the garden, the sight seemed to awaken memories.

‘Hush!’ She laid her finger on her mouth. ‘Hush, Conrad — if Gian hears us — hast thou velvet shoes on — hush! He treads warily — ah, but it is no use — he poisoned me! He poisoned me!’

She rocked herself to and fro.

‘In a tall glass with white lines — it was not Gian — it was the Viper from the Standard — all green and silver — all green and silver — a coiling viper’

She dropped her head forward, then raised it with trembling lips.

‘Conrad, come and save me!’ Then she fell to laughing, whispering under her breath, counting on her fingers the hours she might have to live. ‘If to noon — how many?’

The door opened, and she stopped her muttering, turning lacklustre eyes toward it.

‘Goodmorrow,’ said Visconti, standing with his back against it and looking at her keenly. ‘Goodmorrow, Valentine.’

She looked at him and put the hair back from her face.

‘I thought I saw Count Conrad walking in the garden: I would have called him up to see me die — how long will it be?’ Visconti advanced with a bitter smile. ‘Has the lesson tamed thee? It would have been reality, but ye are pledged to France. I would that I dare poison thee, thou tiger-cat, but thou art tamed!’

Valentine’s face did not change. ‘Hush she said, leaning from the window. ‘He is back on the tower now —’ she pointed to where the silver banner hung idle against the brightening sky. What dost thou think? Shall I sit and watch, lest he spy on us, Conrad?’

Visconti looked at her.

‘Thou art tamed indeed,’ he said. ‘I am not ill-avenged.’

Valentine stepped down into the room, her tangled hair hanging about her, and grasped him by the arm. ‘I was waiting.’ she whispered. ‘I feared he would come back before I was dead. Ah, and he did! Count Conrad could not keep him off; the Viper, green and silver; the Viper, he has poisoned me.’ And she sank on to the floor with a sudden scream, her hands before her eyes.

‘Thou art neither poisoned nor dying,’ said Visconti roughly. ‘Call thy women, and — remember.’

She looked at him with vacant eyes.

Visconti turned away. ‘She is not likely to forget, it seems,’ he thought. ‘Her spirit will not trouble my path more.’

Neither his nor anyone’s. The brilliant, witty, and daring Valentine Visconti was to dare, to mock, to laugh no more; her high spirit was broken, her proud courage gone. From that fearful night she was timorous, shrinking, like a child, wandering and vacant — like Tisio, half-crazed.

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