The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 30.

The Wedding

Seven days had passed.

In Milan there was much rejoicing, in its streets and palaces much splendour; it was the Lady Valentine’s wedding day.

Among the throng outside the church of Sant’Apollinare, the eager crowd that fought and battled for a better chance of seeing the splendid procession, was a monk, seemingly a wandering friar, who pressed his face against the cold marble walls in the silent vexation of an utter disappointment. It was Conrad.

He had failed in his mad mission; success from the first had been hopeless; he had not redeemed himself. He had not helped della Scala, he had not rescued Valentine — he had failed.

A dozen different plans had been formed — equally futile and impossible to carry out. Who could outwit Visconti in his own city? Bitterly Conrad regretted the false hopes conveyed in that whisper in this very church. Perhaps she had trusted to them, and here was her wedding day and he was standing outside, helpless!

He knew it pure folly, this risking his life for nothing, and what had brought him there he could scarcely tell; but under his monk’s habit he had a concealed dagger.

He felt desperate, wounded badly in both heart and pride. It was not so much for love of Valentine Visconti — that had ever been more fancy than aught else — it was the sense of failure — of self-humiliation; a bitter sense of how Visconti laughed at him. Far better a fine, romantic death than disgrace one side, defeat the other. In fact a fine, romantic death in a lady’s cause would be decidedly gratifying. With this new thought of it struggling in his mind, Count Conrad suddenly turned from the wall and forced lustily through the crowd to the church steps.

He was there none too soon. A sudden wild shout from the crowd, a movement of the soldiers keeping guard, told him they were leaving the church. The pushing, struggling people were well kept back by the stout halberds; but Conrad, partly by virtue of his dress, but rather by the strength of his squared arms, managed to force to the front, where he stood close behind the stalwart figure of a German mercenary.

Conrad glanced at the blond hair and mild blue eyes. ‘Friend,’ he whispered in German, leaning forward, ‘have consideration for a German father who will say many prayers for thee — in his native tongue.’

The soldier turned.

‘Quick,’ said Conrad, ‘a place next thee, my friend.’

The soldier smiled at the friar’s curiosity, and allowed him vantage; and Conrad, stationed near the foot of the steps, looked up them eagerly to the brilliant group issuing from the church doors.

His roving eyes sought Gian Visconti. It was only four months since he had seen him, talked to him freely, face to face, his friend and favourite, but it seemed years. Visconti had grown in greatness since then, and Conrad, when his gaze caught the once familiar figure, felt far away from knowledge of him.

Visconti was standing, his cap in his hand, surveying the crowd. He looked much older, Conrad thought, his face was dark and sombre, hardly like the face of a man at the summit of his ambition. He came down the steps slowly, on one side his sister, her bridegroom on the other, and taking no further notice of the shouting people, gazed down moodily.

Conrad hardly looked at Valentine, whiter than her white dress, gazing vacantly before her; he did not notice the utter change from her former brilliancy, he had no eyes for the overdressed, foppish bridegroom — he was looking at Visconti.

The steps were thickly strewn with flowers; the train of lords and ladies was one of colour and gems still flowing from the church as Visconti came to within three steps of the Count, and Conrad sprang forward before the startled soldier could throw out a hand.

Visconti stopped, and the procession behind him, arrested, stood a flaming band of movement and colour. Conrad threw back his hood with a sweeping gesture, thrilled by the excitement of the moment to dare anything. What his motive was he could not have told, but it was a fine moment. He caught one glimpse of Valentine’s suddenly illumined face, and drew the dagger.

‘Another wedding gift!’ he cried in ringing tones, and struck Visconti full upon the breast.

Then an utter confusion fell upon Count Conrad. He was seized, and pinioned tight amid wild yells, while the dagger, glancing off the armour beneath the soft rose-coloured velvet, fell on the steps unheeded.

‘Count Conrad?’ said Visconti clearly through the babble of voices. ‘Conrad von Schulembourg?’

‘Aye,’ said Conrad wildly, struggling between the two soldiers who held him. ‘Complete your triumph, Visconti. I would have killed you; kill me — kill me! You tried before and failed. I have tried and I fail. End it.’

He would have added more defiances, but the soldiers hauled him roughly back, and choked the words back into his throat.

‘Count Conrad?’ asked Valentine, in a clear tone. ‘Did he say Count Conrad?’

Visconti motioned to Orleans.

‘Take the Duchess on, my lord. I will remain and deal with this crazy friar.’

‘Surely he needs but little dealing with!’ said the Frenchman. ‘An assassin! There is the gallows ready!’

‘There is also your wedding procession waiting,’ returned Visconti quietly, and he motioned the train onward, and Conrad forward, the eager people in the street all straining every nerve to know what might have happened; appeased by the oncoming train, they gave only half a thought to the little knot pressed round the steps, and what the Duke had paused for.

Conrad stood between his guards, with a flushed face and a proud bearing. He would have liked to kiss his hand to Valentine, stepping into her gorgeous litter, looking back with half-awakened eyes; but his hands were held firmly, and his feet lashed together.

‘Well, Visconti,’ he said, with a still higher carriage of his head, ‘what is it this time — starvation or the rack?’

Visconti made no answer: he was looking down at the flowers on the steps.

‘Take those away,’ he said to a page, and pointed to a spray of white roses.

The boy obeyed, and glanced at his companions, wondering.

‘Saint Hubert!’ cried Conrad, with a sudden laugh. ‘You are full of whims as of old! How long must I wait for my death, at your good pleasure, my lord?’

The Duke turned his eyes on him.

‘You are strangely foolish,’ he said, and hesitated, looking at Conrad with a moody face.

‘Foolish indeed, or I had never been Visconti’s friend!’ retorted Conrad. ‘Foolish — or I had never trusted to his friendship. But call me also bold, my lord, to be here now, buying with my life the pleasure of saying so!’

‘The impudent German murmured a lady in Visconti’s ear. ‘Heaven has given your lordship even this — to crown your perfect triumph.’

The Duke was still silent: he looked from Conrad to the crowd, shouting, throwing up their hats to see the procession pass, and then to the soldiers, wondering at this strange hesitation.

Why did you come to Milan?’ he asked at last, fingering the gold tassels on his sleeve, and speaking slowly.

‘To save your unhappy sister,’ cried Conrad. ‘To try and kill you, Visconti!’ And he struggled fiercely in the grip of his captors.

‘Take him away,’ said Visconti. ‘Take him —’ He paused a moment.

‘To the gibbet, my lord?’

‘No — outside the gates. Give him a safe-conduct that will take him out of my soldiers’ lines. And so farewell, Count Conrad; I can waste no more time on you.’

‘I will not go!’ shrieked Conrad furiously. ‘I will not have your mercy, Visconti — I will not accept from you my life!’ Visconti passed on.

‘I say I will die!’ cried Conrad after him. ‘Do you quail at another murder, Visconti? Dare you not kill one more?’ The Duke looked back at him.

‘I owe you somewhat, Count. You may remember a certain game of chess you played in della Scala’s camp. It served me well — it saved my life — and gave me — della Scala. Now take yours — as a most unequal recompense.’

He smiled unpleasantly, and Conrad was silent, struck, chilled.

Tut him outside the gates,’ continued Visconti; ‘and give him money for his journey. Maybe he left della Scala too hastily to bear much away; maybe della Scala did not in any case pay well; and we would not have the noble Count beg his way to Germany’.

‘Visconti —’ Conrad choked on the word. ‘Visconti —’

‘I will spare thy thanks,’ smiled the Duke. ‘Farewell.’

‘Give me a dagger — someone!’ yelled Conrad. ‘That villain shall see I do not live to profit by his scorn. Give me a dagger — I— you truckling knaves! You shaveling cowards!’

When your blood is a little cooler,’ said the soldier calmly, tying his hands the tighter, ‘you’ll be giving us a ducat apiece for not taking you at your word.’

‘Silence, churl! I will not leave Milan; I will not be put outside the gates!’

‘Just whatever the Duke says, messer, you’ll do — just whatever the Duke says; and thank your guardian saint he was not himself today, or you’d have had your death — but not quite so pleasant as you seem to think it’

And for all he could shriek and threaten and pray, struggle and fight, Count Conrad was escorted through the crowded streets, between soldiers with immovable faces, and amid a crowd that laughed in huge enjoyment of his angry threats and bitter entreaties. A good mile outside the gates they led him, a fine rabble at his heels. And then they left him, with a good horse, a sword, and a bag of ducats.

‘Now, Count, take those and ride to Germany — or if you must die, try and get back into Milan.’ And they rode away, laughing heartily.

Count Conrad seated himself on the roadside, and was, silent a long while. Then he rose, and rubbed his stiff arms, bruised by the soldiers’ grip, looked back toward Milan, looked at the horse and sword, gave one sigh to the past, mounted and rode away out of the shadow of Milan toward Novara, the first town on the route to Germany.

There was a great coming and going of brilliant company in the Visconti palace, a constant spurring of horses through its gates, the riding in of messengers and soldiers, the riding out of officers and nobles.

The Duke of Orleans and his wife had left for France, with a splendid cavalcade of knights and ladies, escorted by the flower and chivalry of Milan.

All Valentine’s struggles and proud resistance and scorn had come to this: she left for France, as Visconti had ever said she should — left Milan dull to craziness, forgetful, with no sign of either joy or regret.

Visconti thought of this consummation with some satisfaction, then banished his sister from his mind. There were other matters more important to Visconti than the subdual of his sister — Mastino della Scala and his wife for one.

Mastino had kept his pact: in one week, Pavia, Treviso, Cremona, Vicenza, and Verona had fallen; company after company of Mastino’s soldiers had passed into the hands of the Milanese. Modena and Ferrara were left, but so weakened that a few days must see their end, though the deserted garrisons were fighting desperately, and sending wild messages to della Scala, imploring aid.

Julia Gonzaga in Mantua was sore beset. At an urgent appeal from Mastino, almost every trained man holding the city had been sent to his assistance, to find themselves surrounded and cut to pieces by the Milanese, and Mantua left defenceless.

In Novara the Estes were shut up, waiting anxiously for news from Mastino — waiting in vain.

Isotta d’Este had been removed from Milan, and was lodged in a strong fort some miles outside Brescia, guarded still by Visconti’s soldiers, but also by some of della Scala’s trusted but still unwitting Veronese — men who kept watch over her night and day, inspected all she ate, and allowed no emissary from Visconti to see her alone.

Such were the terms.

The thing had been done secretly. Vague rumours that the Duchess’s release was being negotiated were the utmost that got abroad. The soldiers guarding her for Mastino thought the privilege bought, or that the Emperor had wrung it from Visconti. There were none who suspected the truth. Though for those ten days had been disaster on disaster, though town after town had fallen, squadron after squadron been ambushed, and though some whispered treachery had pointed to this captain and to that, none thought of staining the loftiest name in Lombardy with even a doubt — Mastino della Scala, the son of Can’ Gran’ della Scala, of a race that had never lied or betrayed, the one race in Lombardy of a lofty honour. Men would have as soon thought the stars would fall as Mastino della Scala.

Visconti, pacing his palace in a fever of triumph, thought of all this; thought of the d’Estes in Novara, still trusting — thought of Mastino’s Veronese, their devotion, their sympathy — thought of Mastino’s feelings. It was almost enough to satisfy his hate — but not quite — not quite.

‘Tomorrow,’ he said, stopping before de Lana —‘tomorrow I shall march from Milan, and I shall lay in ashes every village, every town that has favoured della Scala. I will let loose my soldiers to pay themselves from the wealth of Lombardy, and I will make the Estes take their proud banner down from the walls of Novara, and hoist with their own hands the Viper!’

‘Mastino della Scala lies at Brescia,’ said de Lana, with an uplifting of his dark eyes. ‘His army has dwindled almost to a handful of picked Veronese; so a deserter who rode in tells me. He waits there for his wife.’

‘And I,’ said Visconti, leaning against the table, ‘have given orders she is to be sent, de Lana. He has kept his word; I will keep mine. He has paid dearly enough — he shall have his wife. And tomorrow I march on Novara?

‘I have my orders, my lord.’

‘I have nothing more to say, de Lana. Tomorrow we leave Milan.’

The captain was turning in silence, when Visconti spoke again.

‘Della Scala is at Brescia, ye say? Then his wife will reach him tomorrow about the time we reach Novara.’ He paused and looked at de Lana steadily. ‘I have sent orders for her release and forwarding in all due privacy, but with sufficient state, and I have sent her back her wedding ring.’

De Lana only half understood him, but Visconti had small care for that.

‘The Estes — in Novara, de Lana — they are unsuspecting?’

‘How can they be otherwise, my lord? They are isolated —’

‘Waiting for succour from della Scala doubtless! How many could their numbers be?’

‘Some thousand — no more. Della Scala called his Veronese out, my lord.’

”T’will be almost too easy a victory,’ said Visconti, smiling. ‘And then, from Piedmont to the Apennines, Italy will be under my rule: and della Scala — I wonder what will happen to della Scala, de Lana?’

‘There is nothing but death for della Scala,’ returned the soldier, standing at the door as if anxious to be gone. ‘Nothing is left for him but that, my lord.’

‘Ah — you forget,’ said Visconti softly. ‘There is his price — his wife; there is always his wife’ And repeating the words, as if to himself, Visconti motioned de Lana away, and entered the inner room.

Giannotto was looking out of the window, and at Visconti’s sudden entrance turned with a start.

‘Giannotto,’ said the Duke smoothly, ‘you will come with me on the march tomorrow — not for love of your company, my friend, but because I do not trust you. Still, I keep you.’

‘There is now no Lady Valentine to outwit me in your absence with some of her brother’s skill, my lord,’ replied the secretary meekly.

Visconti made no reply, but viewed the secretary sullenly. His words had brought up unpleasant memories: his palace was free of his rebel sister, but it was free also of another, one who should have been his wife.

All his brilliant, his magical successes could not quite obliterate the sting of that one failure. Graziosa’s name was a forbidden one; the splendid dwelling where she had shone so brief a while, shut to moulder. She was a thing of the past, though only ten days dead; but Visconti could not quite forget.

She had been buried quietly, in the same church as her father, at dead of night, with no mourners. And was she not gone — forgotten? Yet, disguise it as he might, it was failure.

‘Yet she loved me,’ thought Visconti; and it roused his wrath that he must think of her — the house by the western gate — the sweet face, the white roses.

‘Giannotto,’ he said moodily, ‘had she lived, I would not have done it — on my soul I would not have done it!’

‘Done what, my lord?’ asked the startled secretary, looking up at his dark, musing face.

‘Ah, I forgot,’ said Visconti. ‘You do not know.’

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