The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 29.

The Ordeal of Mastino della Scala

‘A secret embassy from Milan!’

Mastino repeated the words slowly, and looked at Ligozzi, who had brought them. ‘And to see me alone?’

‘With terms from Visconti — so they said,’ answered Ligozzi. ‘Terms of peace.’

‘From Visconti!’

Mastino looked out through the open entrance into the blinding summer day, and then back at Ligozzi. ‘I fear they come with no honourable terms — from Visconti victorious.’

‘They would never dare come with dishonourable ones — to thee, my lord,’ returned Ligozzi.

Mastino laughed bitterly.

‘Dare! He is Visconti — with near all Italy at his back — he knows no such words as shame or honour. And I must see his messengers,’ he added, after a pause. ‘I know no such words now as pride or refusal.’

Ligozzi turned, but hesitated at the entrance.

‘And — alone?’ he asked. ‘They are from Visconti’

‘And may be skilful in dagger thrusts and poison,’ said Mastino. ‘Nay, that is not what I fear, Ligozzi.’ But he unstrapped his sword and laid it on the table in front of him. ‘All the same, I will have thee with me, Ligozzi. I see not why I should humour them too far — I shall have naught to say thou mayst not hear.’

Ligozzi left, and Mastino sat alone, his head in his hands, his elbows resting on the table.

It was blazing hot, the very crown of summer, languid and golden, with a haze of purple sky beating down on the swooning trees; noon, the sun at its height, the stillness of great heat in the air.

Mastino raised his head and looked out on it. What was Gian Visconti planning now?

He had some faint foreboding — a secret embassy from Milan — and following so swiftly on that last crushing blow; following so swiftly as to come upon him helpless from it — what had it to say, and to his ears alone? He had some premonition as he sat there. But it was not long. Ligozzi, exercising due precaution, returned with the two Milanese.

Giannotto stepped forward with a smooth obeisance, but stopped, a little surprised at the one occupant of the tent — the tall man with the proud dark face.

‘My lord — the Prince?’ he asked.

‘I am della Scala,’ said Mastino, and he turned to de Lana who looked an obvious soldier, and the worthier of the two. ‘Your errand, sir? I would hear you quickly.’

‘We have greetings from our lord, the Duke of Milan,’ replied de Lana, his speech and bearing uneasy, like one trying to gain time. He had always disliked his mission, and never more so than now, standing face to face with della Scala.

Here was someone very different from the man he had expected, and it tended to confuse him.

Della Scala’s dignity was his own, not that of pomp and splendour, the terror of crime, or the dazzle of power, that made Visconti feared and obeyed. As plainly attired as any of his soldiers, Mastino overawed the Milanese with something new to them — the sense of worth.

They were not trained to dealings with it.

‘Greetings from Gian Visconti, Duke of Milan,’ took up the secretary. ‘Moreover, we bring terms of peace for your acceptance, my lord.’

Mastino was silent a space, and Ligozzi, standing behind his chair, looked at them with an ill-concealed abomination that Giannotto’s quick eyes noticed keenly.

‘My lord, is the one with you to be trusted even as yourself?’ he asked, submissively. Tor our mission, Prince, is secret.’

‘He is my friend,’ said Mastino, shortly. ‘And now these terms of peace?’

‘The Duke is weary of the war,’ said de Lana. ‘He hath powerful allies, my lord.’

‘And the choice of means to crush me,’ interposed Mastino, his bright eyes full on the speaker, ‘are in his hands, you would say? Perhaps; and yet, messer, I ask for no quarter ‘from Gian Visconti.’ De Lana bowed.

Nor could he offer it, my noble lord; only terms as between equals.’

Mastino smiled bitterly.

‘That is generous in Gian Visconti, seeing we are not — equals’

Giannotto wished the Duke could have heard both words and tone. Visconti’s birth was a sore point with him. The secretary wondered if there might be found a ‘safe way of repeating them. De Lana flushed a little under Mastino’s steady gaze and quiet scorn of the master who had sent him.

‘The Duke of Milan sends by us this,’ he said, and laid the parchment before Mastino. ‘These are his terms, my lord.’ But della Scala did not drop his eyes to it.

‘What are these terms?’ he said.

‘They are set forth there, my lord,’ began Giannotto.

‘So you have forgotten what they are, or did Visconti not tell you?’ and della Scala handed the roll to the secretary. When you have read it, tell me what Gian Visconti says.’

He leaned back, his eyes still on them.

Giannotto bit his lips in vexation.

‘Spare Visconti’s loving greetings. To the point, in a few words,’ continued della Scala, as the secretary still hesitated. ‘Then, my lord, this: the Duke of Milan will leave you Verona, where you may rule under his protection, provided you now put into his hands every other town you or your allies now, singly or together, hold.’

Mastino flushed and half rose.

‘Gian Visconti might have spared these insults,’ he said sternly, ‘and you yourself the relating of them. When have I shown myself such that your master should think I could betray Lombardy to keep one town? Get back, I have no answer save I have left you your lives.’

De Lana fingered the parchment nervously.

‘That is not all, my lord,’ he began, and stopped suddenly. ‘I cannot say it,’ he murmured to Giannotto.

Della Scala beat his feet upon the floor impatiently.

‘Do you think I am afraid to hear?’ he said. ‘Still, it may be spared. I see, Gian Visconti’s spirit is not peace but insult. On no terms will I treat with him.’

‘On no terms?’ repeated Giannotto.

‘On no terms of insult,’ said Mastino coldly. ‘I favour Visconti too much in listening so long. Leave me and take your lives back for answer.’

‘Better listen, perchance, my lord, before refusing,’ said Giannotto. ‘It is the Duke’s interest to offer you these terms; methinks it will be no less yours at least to consider them.’

De Lana stood silent, his eyes upon the ground. After this, give him plain soldiering.

‘What plot has Visconti hatched now?’ asked della Scala. ‘What more has he to say?’

Giannotto’s pale eyes twinkled unpleasantly.

‘Only this: Visconti bids me tell della Scala, Duke of Verona, that if he refuse his terms we take them instantly to my Lord of Este; also he bids me remind my Lord della Scala that he holds the Duchess of Verona, my lord’s dear wife.’

Ligozzi drew a deep breath and looked at della Scala; he had not quite expected this.

But della Scala rose with a white face and stared at the two ambassadors, incredulous.

‘Surely even Visconti will not use that against me?’ he said.

‘Visconti must have the towns; Visconti holds your wife. The rest is for you to reflect upon, my lord: or, since you refuse all terms, we will take them to my Lord of Este. Perhaps he will give up the towns and save his daughter.’ And Giannotto turned toward the entrance.

‘Stay!’ cried Mastino, in an agony. ‘Stay! Your terms again —’ He dropped back into his seat with wild eyes on Giannotto. All his calm had fled, his pride was cowed: the secretary noted it, well pleased, but de Lana shrank from his changed look.

‘This is what Visconti offers, my lord,’ repeated the secretary smoothly: ‘Give up all the cities, forts, and soldiers under your command, and the Duke forthwith makes an honourable return to you of the Duchess he holds captive, giving you leave to hold Verona under fief to him, doing yearly homage for it — he garrisoning it. If, however, my lord, you refuse —’

‘If I refuse?’ cried della Scala, leaning forward. ‘If I refuse?’

‘Visconti’s prisons are unwholesome; for some weeks the Duchess has pined; it is feared, without instant liberty —’

Giannotto paused a moment, and lightly shrugged his shoulders.

‘In a word, my lord, if you refuse — the Duchess dies’

A terrible silence fell, no one moved or spoke, the lazy flapping of the tent struggling on its cords was the only sound. Della Scala sat rigid, looking at Giannotto, all power of thought struck out of him.

‘Shall we take these terms to d’Este — shall we offer him his daughter for his towns?’ said Giannotto softly.

D’Este! D’Este was not the man to place his daughter before states — Mastino knew it; Visconti knew it.

‘No! No!’ he cried, with sudden vehemence, ‘I will.’

He put his hand to his forehead with a dazed expression and whispered something to himself.

Ligozzi, standing erect behind his chair, touched him gently on the shoulder.

‘Send them away, my lord,’ he whispered. ‘Let them not remain here — send them away.’

‘With a refusal?’

Della Scala lifted his white face. ‘With a refusal?’ he muttered stupidly.

‘With what else?’ said Giorgio firmly. ‘With what else?’ Giannotto moved a little nearer and spoke with a sickly smile.

‘Our answer may wait. The Duke of Milan gives a day in which my Lord of Verona may decide upon his answer.’

‘Give them their answer now,’ whispered Ligozzi eagerly. ‘Do not let them imagine for one moment that you hesitate.’

Mastino did not heed him; he sat as if frozen.

‘Leave me to 2 the words died on his lips. ‘Leave me — to answer — I will give you my answer — anon.’

De Lana and Giannotto moved in silence to the far end of the tent.

‘Visconti is a fiend,’ said de Lana, with a gesture of revolt.

‘Santa Maria, I wish I had never seen this della Scala. His face will haunt me.’

Giannotto smiled.

‘Thou hast not been in Visconti’s service long,’ he said, ‘and what have these things to do with us?’

‘But this is inhuman,’ returned de Lana. ‘Della Scala hath a winning face. I might have been a better man if I had sold my sword to him.’

‘This way, messers,’ said Ligozzi. ‘I will come to you presently’ And the flap of the tent fell to behind Visconti’s messengers. Mastino sat, his head dropped into his hands.

‘My lord —’

Ligozzi put his hand upon his master’s arm.

‘My lord —’

Mastino raised his head and looked at him; his face was distorted, his eyes unnaturally bright.

‘Give them their answer, my lord,’ said Ligozzi. ‘Every moment gives them a triumph. Send it now.’

‘Now,’ cried Mastino, hoarsely. ‘They give me till tonight — surely, Ligozzi, they gave me till tonight.’

‘Thou dost not need until tonight, my lord. Visconti asked thy honour.’

‘And offered me,’ said della Scala slowly, ‘Isotta.’

Ligozzi looked at him horror-struck; an awful thought was breaking on him.

The eyes of the two men met; Ligozzi’s were steady, but Mastino’s flinched.

Neither spoke for some moments, Ligozzi at last incredulously.

‘You cannot mean — to accept?’ Mastino was silent. ‘Oh, no,’ cried Ligozzi, passionately. ‘You are not yourself. For the love of Heaven let me go and tell them to depart.’

And he started forward, but Mastino caught him by the arm. ‘Stay, Ligozzi; I command it.’

‘Then you yourself will tell them? Oh, it is impossible that thou couldst fall —’

‘Impossible?’ Mastino rose with clenched hands. ‘I think it is impossible that I could let her die.’

Ligozzi looked at his changed face.

‘The cities are not yours, my lord; the soldiers are not yours — would you be a traitor, della Scala?’

Mastino winced.

‘I would save my wife,’ he muttered, his face turned aside. ‘Your wife! A woman!’ cried Ligozzi. ‘Gian. Visconti will burn in hell for tempting you, but, by all the saints, so will you, my lord, if you accept such terms.’

Mastino was roused. The energy of Ligozzi broke the bonds of his dull agony. He turned, also passionately.

‘Have I not prayed and implored for this — only this — her life and return? Have I not sworn and vowed I would recover her — at any cost? Have I not warned them of it — and she shall not die! She shall not die! What care I for the cities! Did I not warn them? She shall not die!’

He fell to pacing the tent wildly, but Ligozzi stood in his place, bitter sorrow, deep anger in his face.

‘Think what it means,’ he said sternly.

‘I will not,’ cried Mastino. ‘I will be baited and hounded no more. What has their grudging help done for me? I tell thee I warned them, I would hold them as nothing when it came to saving her.’

‘Still they trust you,’ returned Ligozzi. ‘Listen, della Scala; I speak in the cause of honour — you shall hear, you shall know what it means, before you lend yourself to such a thing for love of a woman! It will give all Lombardy to Visconti, it and hundreds to the sword; it will mean the burning of cities to the ground; it will mean the misery of half Italy! It will give a mad tyrant to rule over thousands who are at present free — it will send d’Este and Vincenzo to prison — to shame, misery, death perchance — it will strip Julia Gonzaga of everything — and is she not as young and fair and good as Isotta d’Este — and did she not trust you with her all? And yourself? What will it make of you? What triumph will it not give Visconti to see you fall? Have you kept your name high so long to make it a by-word now? Beyond redemption will you be dishonoured, della Scala — an outcast, a traitor — to hold a little fief at Visconti’s pleasure, the mirth of your enemies, the scorn of your one-time friends.’

Mastino broke into a wild exclamation. ‘I will hear no more! I will hear no more!’

‘I must wound you to save you,’ continued Ligozzi. ‘Against yourself I will persuade you; my love cannot see you do this thing. Oh, remember yourself! A man, a prince; not hothead of a boy. This black offer will be the turning-point and strengthen you. No man’s cause is bettered by such means as this. All Italy will rise to cry shame on Visconti — heaven itself will turn against him and make you firm to overthrow him!’

‘And Isotta!’ said Mastino fiercely. ‘Isotta will be slain!’

‘She is one woman — how many as fair and good as she will perish if della Scala betrays Lombardy! She is one woman against the fate of half Italy.’

‘She is my wife!’ cried della Scala desperately; ‘that one woman is my wife! Thou hast forgotten!’

‘Forget it too, my lord; for your own honour’s sake, forget it too.’

‘Ligozzi, Ligozzi,’ whispered Mastino, ‘thou canst not mean it: deliver up to die by Visconti’s hands the woman I— love!’

‘If they hanged her from the ramparts where I must watch her die, they should not move me,’ said Ligozzi grimly. ‘But — by all the saints, I would take my revenge.’

‘Aye!’ said della Scala bitterly. ‘But perchance it would not be given thee to take revenge — perchance thou wouldst fall lower and lower, and be crushed after all and have gained nothing! Ah, Ligozzi, is this the beginning? Have I not pitted courage and high purpose, and honourable dealing and a righteous cause, against craft and cruelty and force? And to what end? Visconti triumphs. Always Visconti! What availed honour and faith when Visconti’s cunning and Count Conrad’s folly made the plans of weeks naught! Again, undaunted, I said I will succeed in the face of failure, I will succeed! What happened? Visconti had a handsome face; what mattered if his cause was bad? Again we failed! And what since? Half my men are dead against the walls of Milan! And now, am I to choose again what thou callest honour, am I to leave Isotta to die by his dishonouring hands — oh, canst thou think of it! — and then be crushed at his leisure for all my reward? Am I so tied by tradition as that? Does not Visconti fling all laws, all humanity, all honour to the winds — can I fight him within the bounds of a boy’s code of honour? The time comes, Ligozzi, when such things hold one no longer — the soul thrusts them asunder and does what if must, regardless of the laws of men! I must save her. Here is my chance and, fair or foul, I take it. I cannot think of the welfare of unknown thousands; what are they to me? Cities pass under Visconti’s rule and cities are snatched from him — am I responsible for the fate of Lombardy? Men fight, betray, deceive, and lie for wealth, ambition, and revenge — and common folk pay the price — shall I consider it too closely if they suffer once in a cause like mine? I tell thee, Ligozzi, I would hold it cheap to have her from Visconti with the misery of all Italy.’

Ligozzi’s eyes did not move from della Scala’s face.

‘Thou art striving to blind thyself, della Scala. Oh, my lord,’ he resumed, ‘because others are dishonourable will ye be so also? And what do ye say of common folk? — not common folk alone will ye sacrifice, but d’Este —’

‘He has helped me half-heartedly — and is she not his daughter? Yet at a word from Visconti he would league with him behind my back,’ cried della Scala.

‘I do not think so,’ said Ligozzi, firmly. ‘But Julia Gonzaga, who trusted you — what have you to say to her?’

‘Naught cried Mastino, distracted. ‘Naught! save that I do not love her — let him who does look to her — as I will to Isotta!’

‘And she!’ said Ligozzi, resorting desperately to his last argument, ‘will she not turn from the liberty bought at such a price? Is she not the daughter of a noble house? Has she not been taught to consider death preferable to dishonour — if she was asked, what would she choose?’

Mastino’s breast heaved.

‘Ah — but I cannot ask her. If I could — Ligozzi, if I could go to her and look into her eyes, and say, “I promised, give me back my promise, for only on terms thou wouldst spurn can I save thee”, she would understand — she would die with a smile, as I should — and that I could do. But to let her die a slow death — a dishonoured death! Wilt thou remember it is Visconti! His lies in her ears — knowing nothing of my struggles! Thinking herself forsaken, yet hoping against hope, and ever coming to her belief I would not let it be, till one day it was! Ah! I cannot do it! I cannot do it!’

He threw himself on the chair again and hid his face. ‘She loves me,’ he said brokenly. ‘It seems strange, Ligozzi — that she should — care — for me. God knows, I have no charm such as Visconti has. I cannot please, I am clumsy and uncouth compared to those she had around her — and yet she chose me. “While thou art alive I fear nothing,” were the last words I heard her say, and I shall leave her to curse the day she met and trusted me to save her from a villain. What commonest foot-soldier I have would leave the woman that he loves to die Visconti’s way? Ah, Heaven have mercy! For what crime is this a punishment!’

‘Then you will accept these terms for her release?’ said Ligozzi. will plead with you no more, my lord — only, if you do this thing, I, who am your faithful servant, I, who ever loved and worshipped you, can serve you no longer — it is too terrible a thing — I cannot stay and see it done!’

Mastino’s head was bent forward, his hands clenched so tightly that the flesh was broken, his whole attitude so hopeless in its agony that Ligozzi feared for his reason.

‘Oh, my lord!’ he cried passionately, and flung himself on his knees by Mastino’s side. ‘Oh, my dear, dear lord! Thou wilt choose the noble part, I know! Thou wilt not let Visconti triumph, for this is all a devilish plot to make thee dishonoured, to make thee betray thy trust — foil him — say no!’

Mastino made no answer, and Ligozzi too lapsed into silence, rising from his knees softly.

How hot it was, how hot! Ligozzi felt dizzy — he wished the sun would cease blazing down — he wished della Scala would move — had he persuaded him? Mastino raised his head.

‘Bring them back,’ he said slowly, ‘I will see them now.’

Ligozzi’s heart beat high. ‘He has won — over himself at least he has a victory!’ he thought — but looking on della Scala’s haggard face, he ventured no speech.

Mastino sat erect — his hands on the table in front of him, his eyes on the floor. Visconti’s envoys entered.

Giannotto, glancing at Mastino and then at Ligozzi keenly, saw that there Visconti had an adverse advocate. But the strained silence on them all was hard to break. They were uneasy, like men before a great grief, or in the presence of one about to die — it was difficult to treat the matter as an ordinary one, or to ask a decision from that tortured man before them.

Even Giannotto’s heart failed him, and he stayed near the entrance, abashed and afraid, but with a fear different from that with which he fawned upon Visconti. Visconti’s moods and motives he could understand — to some extent they were his own, on his own level — but this man — some things were beyond the Duke of Milan’s secretary, and for the first time in his life he felt it. Mastino himself broke that hideous silence. He raised his head, and with a little affectionate movement Ligozzi laid his hand on his master’s arm as if to strengthen him.

‘I have considered,’ said della Scala, in a hard voice. He paused a moment, but a moment only. ‘I have considered, and my answer is: I will accept Visconti’s terms — my wife against the towns.’

‘Oh, dear lord breathed Ligozzi. It was the only sound; the Milanese were silent, almost as if they too winced to hear the words.

Mastino rose, with defiance in his burning eyes.

‘I accept — every city in my hands, every soldier — all — against my wife — I accept Visconti’s terms.’

Ligozzi’s hand had dropped from his shoulder, the clink of metal was heard through the heavy silence, without a word he stepped forward and laid his sword on the table before the Prince, then turned toward the entrance.

‘Ligozzi!’ cried Mastino, incredulous. ‘Not thou, Ligozzi — not thou, my friend!’

He held out his hand imploringly, regardless of the eyes upon him. Ligozzi stopped and turned, answering della Scala’s wistful look by one of bitter scorn and pain.

‘I had that sword from an honourable prince — I go to weep that I should have to return it to a traitor!’

‘Ligozzi!’ Mastino staggered back, his extended, rejected hand fell against his side. ‘Thou might’st have pared me that before these — for the sake of the old days — Ligozzi —’ he said, steadying himself. Ligozzi did not turn; with a hard face he walked across the tent — without a look back, without a word or a sign, he was gone.

Mastino watched his only friend depart with straining eyes, that then he covered for a moment as if to shut out what they had seen. But the next moment he turned proudly to the messengers.

Giannotto was alone. The soldier, de Lana, had vanished. Mastino started forward with a cry, but the secretary interposed: ‘My lord,’ he said smoothly, ‘our duty is our duty. There is no harm intended, there shall no harm be done; but of what value is your consent to my Lord Visconti’s terms, if your friend should speak of it?’

Mastino fell back. A swift beginning.

‘Your lady’s safety, my lord,’ said Giannotto, ‘depends on your friend’s silence. He has left his sword. There will be no bloodshed.’

There was a silence, then Mastino looked up and spoke hoarsely.

‘Begone! And take my answer to Visconti. I accept and will carry out his terms; my wife against the towns.’

‘Only remember, my lord,’ and the secretary smoothed his hands together nervously, ‘any attempt on Milan, any movement on your part, and the offer is null and void and the Duchess dies.’

‘Begone!’ screamed Mastino, ‘take my answer and begone!’ Giannotto turned and went softly out of the tent.

It was done — it was done — beyond redemption had he fallen; he had chosen — there was no turning back.

Mastino della Scala sat alone and stared in the face of what he had done. These few moments were his; then he must go and lie to his officers, deceive his men, weaken his towns, destroy his forts — prepare to place them in Visconti’s hands. He must send false messages to the Estes and to Julia Gonzaga — lie and deceive and betray! But he had saved his wife from Visconti — his wife —.Isotta.

Outside he heard familiar voices, officers and men; his Veronese, still glad to trust his leadership; and he was to betray and trick them into shame.

‘Can I carry it through, can I go forth with a calm face and lie to them — my soldiers!’ he cried in agony. ‘But her life — her dear life — her more than life — hangs upon my falsity!’

He thought of the beautiful free towns of Italy: his Verona he had rescued once; proud Ferrara; Mantua that had never felt any yoke but that of the Gonzaga; Pavia; all the haughty fair towns that had scorned Visconti. What would Visconti’s vengeance on them be? Mastino could hardly believe he had done this thing. Yet were the choice given again, he would choose the same — he would choose the same!

The sultry breeze blew back the opening, showing the deep blue sky and near-lying tents; a company of soldiers galloped by carrying the standard of Verona — the ladder of the Scaligeri.

How soon would that banner be torn from the walls of Verona and the Viper take its place?

‘My city!’ cried Mastino, ‘my city!’ and his head sank forward on his out-thrown arms, while his shoulders heaved with sobs.

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