The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 31.

The Pride of the d’Estes

‘No news! So many days, and still no news!’

Ippolito d’Este spoke in an anxious voice, leaning in the wide-cut window of the watch-tower that rose above the gates of Novara.

‘I would we had not sent those last men,’ said Vincenzo gloomily.

He was seated at the table, his head resting in his hands. The chamber was large and dark, built of rough stone for strength and defence, fixed with narrow windows, and set with three doors — one into the narrow stairs, standing open, one on either side of it, shut. The walls were bare of arras. Vincenzo’s armour lay piled in a corner, and a great crucifix, a red praying hassock beneath, hung near one of the windows.

‘How many have we, my father?’ asked Vincenzo, rising.

‘Six hundred trained soldiers,’ was the brief answer.

‘And the townsfolk!’

‘And the townsfolk,’ replied d’Este, ‘and useless.’

Novara had been stormed and taken from Visconti some months ago, and the Estes, fixing their headquarters there, had foraged the country around as far as the ramparts of Magenta, a large town held by Visconti’s men.

For these last fatal ten days, disaster after disaster had reduced the Modenese soldiers to a mere handful; and when Mastino, sending word he was in desperate straits, had called out all of the Veronese that manned the town, they were left practically defenceless, in the midst of a country where Visconti’s arms were everywhere triumphant.

They dared not leave the town; behind its walls was the only chance of safety. They knew not what positions Visconti held, nor what positions della Scala. Since that last appeal for aid, they had had no message, no sign from him. Scouts sent out had not returned; one company, advancing from the walls, to find no sign or trace of Mastino, was surrounded and cut to pieces — the few who escaped returning to Novara with ghastly tales. Visconti’s arms seemed everywhere victorious. The country was laid waste — and not by their allies.

But the d’Estes’ hope was still in della Scala. Urgent messages were sent to his camp outside Milan, and when neither answer nor messengers returned, the Duke of Modena grew sick at heart indeed.

He had not mentioned all his fears to his son, though Vincenzo could not but know their strait desperate.

‘If we hear not today,’ said d’Este slowly, ‘I shall think there is treachery; not one messenger has returned — treachery, or some misfortune to della Scala.’

‘Then are we lost indeed!’ cried Vincenzo. ‘So far from Modena — so near Milan — only, what of the army that is with della Scala — our army, his and ours?’

‘What army we had with us,’ replied Ippolito, still looking with anxious eyes on the level country, ‘I sent to della Scala — he was in sore need. What men we had outside the town have melted away like snow.’

Vincenzo began to pace the room impulsively — a slender figure in a scarlet velvet doublet, his great black eyes bright and angry.

‘Shall we not make a sortie, my father? Shall we not dash out and fight, seeing for ourselves what has become of della Scala?’

Ippolito turned and looked at him, with a yearning love lighting his dark face.

‘I am waiting, Vincenzo. I have sent trusty scouts to Brescia. This silence cannot last long now; either Mastino or Visconti march this way — and in either case we shall be ready to receive them, Vincenzo.’

The younger d’Este lapsed into silence. Ippolito, too, was quiet, and the pause was broken by an officer entering. ‘The Count von Schulembourg,’ he began.

‘Conrad!’ cried Vincenzo, springing up.

‘Has he news?’ asked his father, eagerly.

‘I know not, my lord,’ replied the soldier. ‘He is riding unattended, and craves a passage through the town.’

‘He is riding away!’ said Vincenzo, ‘away from Milan!’

‘I must see him,’ said d’Este, with a darkening face, ‘at once.’

As the soldier left, Vincenzo looked at his father eagerly. ‘What may this mean, that Count Conrad rides away?’

‘We lie on the route to the Empire. The German maybe rides home from a losing cause.’

‘I never thought such of Conrad,’ began Vincenzo, when the door opened and the Count himself stepped into the room, brilliant, gay as ever, well armed, the double-headed eagle on his breastplate, and the black and yellow of the Empire floating from his helm.

‘Now well met, my good lords,’ he cried, ‘and fair fortune smile on you! I would ask the favour of a good horse — I am on my way to Germany.’

‘You leave the fight?’ asked d’Este.

Conrad nodded.

‘For better men — i’ faith, I’ve tried all I know — no man is asked to break his head against a brick wall for nothing — not while the sun shines, and there is such a place as his own land to see again!’

‘You used not to hold such language, Conrad,’ said Vincenzo, with some reproach.

‘I have tried everything,’ cried Conrad, gaily. ‘I tried to rescue the Lady Valentine, I tried to kill Visconti, I tried to make him kill me — I have failed. My Lady Valentine is married, and is set out for France.

‘For France!’ interrupted d’Este. ‘Then must the country indeed be in Visconti’s hands if his sister and a wedding-train set out for France! What news, Count? Surely there is some news?’

Not much I care to repeat,’ replied Conrad. ‘Only rumours — all the country I rode through, from here to Milan, seems to swarm with Visconti’s men — I saw no sign of della Scala — there were wild tales abroad, and wild sights.’

‘On my honour, Count, you might have come with better information than this — days have we been waiting with no sign nor word —’

‘From Mastino, would you say?’ asked Conrad, eagerly. ‘From Mastino. Have you not heard or seen aught of him?’ cried Ippolito.

Conrad looked at d’Este’s intent face, and from him to Vincenzo, waiting expectantly for his answer.

‘I— I cannot say I have,’ he answered. ‘But as I tell you, I heard nothing save rumours —’

‘And they —?’

Conrad fingered his yellow sash uneasily.

‘One said Modena had fallen —’

Ippolito gave a sudden cry.

‘Modena!’

‘Aye,’ said Conrad, regretfully. ‘And Ferrara and Verona — so I heard —’

‘Mastino is dead!’ cried d’Este, and Vincenzo echoed the cry wildly.

‘Mastino is dead!’

‘I know not,’ said the Count. ‘I cannot tell — only this, that Visconti marches this way — and once more — a good horse. Vincenzo, Saint Hubert has saved me once — I dare not ask him again!’

‘Modena fallen,’ murmured d’Este, unheeding Conrad’s words. ‘And Verona — Mastino dead — Visconti marches on Novara!’

‘My father, we are lost indeed!’ cried Vincenzo, with a white face. ‘If Mastino be dead —’

‘If!’ said the elder d’Este, sternly. ‘There is no if, Vincenzo.’ The boy looked round bewildered, and his eye fell on Conrad, waiting by the door.

‘I will give orders for thy horse,’ he said. ‘Come with me —’ and he led the way from the room. Conrad paused in the door, but Ippolito waved him aside sternly.

‘Fare you well, Count, Vincenzo will see to your needs; meanwhile I have other things to think of —’ and he strode past them, swiftly ascending the stairs to the soldiers in the higher chamber of the watch-tower.

Vincenzo, leaning on the stair-rail, with very bright eyes, looked after his father, and then toward Conrad with a sudden wistful smile. ‘I almost would I were to be riding gaily across a summer plain, away — away — this castle has grown gloomy of late — there is horror in the air.’ He shook the feeling off, speaking gaily. ‘Well, be glad thou art on thy way, Count Conrad, and in exchange for the horse, take, for my sake, with thee the little page Vittore. He is very young, and not of Lombardy.’

‘Gladly will I,’ replied Conrad, as they descended the narrow stairs. ‘And always shall I keep him for thy sake.’

‘Aye, do,’ said Vincenzo wistfully again, ‘otherwise thou wouldst forget — of a surety, forget.’

‘Not I— I shall always remember.’

Horses were brought to the courtyard, and Vincenzo called his little page and put him on one.

The sight of him brought memories to both of a certain game of chess — how fatal it had been: how long ago it seemed!

‘I tried to make atonement,’ Conrad murmured.

‘My atonement, methinks, is to come,’ said Vincenzo. ‘But Mastino will never hear of it — Mastino is dead.’

Conrad winced. He knew Mastino was not dead, but he would as soon have stabbed Vincenzo d’Este as told him.

‘Fare thee well,’ he said, holding out his hand.

‘Fare thee well.’

Vincenzo took his hand, smiled up at him gravely, and reentered the castle, mounting to the room he had left.

Visconti was on the march.

Vincenzo caught his breath sharply and went to the window to see the last of Conrad. Again he wished he was riding away into the sunshine, away from the dark walls that seemed closing round him for ever.

‘Farewell!’ called back Conrad, gaily waving his mailed hand, and Vittore, excited at the sudden journey, drew off his cap and waved it gaily too. ‘I go to my own land,’ cried the Count. Vincenzo’s lips trembled, but his words sounded as cheerily as Conrad’s.

‘And we stay here in ours,’ he called back.

And in after days in peaceful times in Germany, when that brilliant, bloodstained Lombard summer seemed far away and strange as a wild dream, Conrad remembered; a memory he shared only with the dead.

The spurs jingled, with a trampling of hoofs the horses turned, the strong sun caught Conrad’s plumes and Vittore’s bright hair, he looked back with a laugh, and at a swift trot they passed through the castle gate.

Down the long paved street they clattered, till that sound too was gone.

Count Conrad had ridden away. Vincenzo stood silent in the great patch of sunlight that lay along the floor till Conrad’s bridle bells were quite lost in the distance; then he turned, with something like a sigh.

He was not alone long — Ippolito reentered with a calm face, and yet one his son was startled by.

‘Count Conrad’s news has been confirmed,’ he said; ‘a messenger has returned’ He paused a moment. ‘All the country is in Visconti’s hands.’

‘The saints save us!’ cried Vincenzo.

‘Aye, the saints, for there is no hope in man!’

We must get arms — and succour into the city —’

Ippolito looked at him with a proud affection.

‘Follow me, Vincenzo.’

He opened one of the small doors; it led to a twisting flight of steps, and the two mounted in silence.

At the head of the stairway was a chamber used as an outlook toward — Milan.

‘Gaze yonder,’ said Ippolito, pointing through the narrow arched window.

Vincenzo obeyed, and looking out over the great wide plain, with its white campaniles dazzling in the sunlight, at first saw nothing.

But on the horizon was a silver light, a light that danced and quivered, flecked here and there with red, and dotted about with curious faint smoke wreaths, fires in broad day.

‘Visconti’s army!’ said d’Este. ‘And those fires the forts and villages della Scala held — held but yesterday!’

Their doom was in those words and in what they saw; there was no need for more.

‘Santa Maria save us!’ murmured Vincenzo, with a blanched face. It was all he said — words were poor, there was little enough time for action, none for comment.

Outside could be heard the steady tramp of the sentries, and the hurry of more soldiers to the walls.

‘Do they know?’ asked Vincenzo, as they descended.

‘The soldiers — yes — they are Modenese. The townsfolk — poor wretches — why tell them?’

They watched the other chamber, and after a silence Vincenzo spoke incredulously.

‘Conrad said Modena had fallen?’

‘It is true,’ said his father, in a low voice. ‘And Ferrara — oh — my cities!’

Vincenzo gave a little gasp of pain.

‘And Verona?’

‘That too.’

The younger d’Este looked out blankly at the sunshine, all hope faded from his face.

‘And Mastino, Father?’

Ippolito was silent, a silence worse than speech. Vincenzo was awed.

‘So we are abandoned — defenceless, resistance hopeless! Oh, my lord! My father! We cannot fall into Visconti’s hands! We — the d’Estes!’

‘Hush said his father, sternly, yet with sparkling eyes. ‘I have been considering all — the Viper shall never fly in triumph from the walls from which a living d’Este is turned. Oh, had I never left Modena! See, Vincenzo — as soon as Visconti is within two miles of the gate — this!’ He touched the door beside him, pushing it open, and Vincenzo’s startled gaze followed the direction of his hand.

In the dark recess were the stone steps leading to the store beneath; the powder, the rude engines of war, and a vast quantity of wood, stored for winter use, and piled high even to the door. Vincenzo felt his heart grow cold; he looked from his father’s proud face to what the steps beyond conveyed, and understood.

He raised his eyes steadily and smiled. He, too, was a d’Este, and in this moment the proud glory in his birth was plain. ‘My son!’ cried Ippolito, suddenly, passionately. ‘My son!’ Vincenzo could not trust his voice to answer; he sat very still, the smile on his lips, his hand on his toy-like dagger.

D’Este turned his head away. From without came the sound of voices and footsteps — sounds of alarm, commands, shouts. Ippolito turned to the door.

‘I go to give the last orders,’ he said, and left Vincenzo alone with his approaching fate.

He sat very silent.

This, then, was the end, the end of it all!

That one thought beat strongest on his brain — this was the end. What had he not meant life to give him — all he had seen others enjoy, all he had ever dreamed of, honour and fame, power and love, visions there were no words for — the future for him had held all these — and now, a burst bubble!

In the very richness of his youth he had flung away his days and hours, laughing at time, if he ever thought of it, and at life — then were life and time and an unending world before him.

Life! And even while he sported with it as endless, it could have been measured by hours.

A great wave of homesickness rushed over him, homesickness for the world, for the past he had never treasured, for Modena, the leaves and roses outside his father’s palace, and Conrad riding away into the sunshine — away from this dark chamber he would never leave. Yet he did not for a moment flinch, such a thought never entered his mind, only he could not bear to have to wait; he wished it were done and over — now.

From the street below rose a great uproar; there was some panic among the people; the country folk were pressing through the gates, fire and sword behind them — Visconti was on the march! Wild frightened screams, and the hurry of feet, rose to the gloomy room, and Vincenzo sprang up; he wished his father had not left him, he wished he were not alone.

For his thoughts were bitter, and hard to bear alone. His life would be different, he thought, if he lived it again: not wasted, flung away. For the first time he felt he loved his father dearly, for the first time he realized how Mastino loved his wife — he understood. Was all knowledge coming to him so late, things to be made clear only to be darkened for ever?

Ah, well, it was all over now; there were only a few moments to — what? He shuddered a little — to what? He wished his father would return, passionately he wished it; he did not want to think — for the first time and the last. He stood there with tight-clasped hands, his eyes on the door, holding desperately on to his control.

And at last Ippolito entered, quietly, closing it behind him. He held a missal in his hand, and a parchment. As he laid them on the table, Vincenzo noticed the last was sealed with the seal of Verona, the ladder of the Scaligeri.

‘Mastino?’ he whispered.

‘Mastino is dead,’ said d’Este, in a calm voice, and he crumpled the parchment in his hand.

On it was written: ‘I have betrayed you for Isotta’s life,’ and it was signed with the proudest name in Lombardy —‘Mastino Orazio della Scala.’

‘That shall not destroy the glory of Vincenzo’s death,’ thought d’Este sternly, and he flung it from him, into the room beyond, among the powder — something only fit to be consumed.

The castle within was built largely of wood, and Vincenzo, looking into the darkness with a painful eagerness, watched the powder laid carefully about the walls, extending in a long train to tanks of oil, while fire boughs, dry and leafless, lay scattered thickly. D’Este had not been taken unprepared. Vincenzo’s flesh stirred and shrank; he remembered snatching a bat once from the camp fire, and how the pain in his hurt hand had tortured him.

”Tis a fearful death!’ he murmured.

Ippolito turned a drawn face toward him.

‘What didst thou say, my son?’

‘Naught, Father,’ answered Vincenzo bravely, though his heart was beating hot and thick. ‘Naught, save that that cannot fail us.’

‘No, Vincenzo; the wind blows eastward across the town,’ said d’Este, with a calmness that was almost brutal. ‘There will be none for Visconti to take back to Milan.’

‘We shall light the sky bravely tonight,’ said Vincenzo, and bit his lip to keep it steady.

His father’s dark face lit with a sudden proud smile that transfigured it.

‘Some scouts say Visconti sends men to treat with us, Vincenzo — with us — d’Estes! This will be what he never reckoned on: the flames blowing from the walls shall be our flags of truce!’

The streets, the whole town, were in a panic. The wild terror of the whole countryside had found its voice inside the gates of Novara; there were six hundred men to defend the walls — and God! How Visconti sacked a town!

The sunlight that had rested along the walls when Conrad said farewell, lay along the floor now, a great square of gold that just tipped the table where Vincenzo’s hand rested, and lay lovingly on his scarlet doublet, with its little foolish vanity of ribbons, and that other hand among them, clutched nervously, almost desperately, in the poor crumpled finery.

D’Este took the crucifix from the wall and laid it on the table. Under it burned a candle, and he moved that too, standing it beside him, as he took his seat opposite his son.

Behind him was the open door, in front the symbol of his religion — both meaning one thing, that the crucifix lying there baldly on the rough wood table told more plainly even than the powder kegs.

Vincenzo’s eyes were on the missal, but not his thoughts: his ears on the strain for that sound he set his teeth in readiness to hear — the call to the gates.

In the silence of the chamber, the noises from the street sounded distinct, painfully distinct — shrieks and cries. Poor souls! So near eternity, and fighting over a handful of goods! Presently all noises died away into faint murmuring — or had he lost his power to hear? Then all at once it came — the beat of the drums, the summons to the walls! Louder, louder, wild, inspiring, the beat of the drums; and Vincenzo’s heart bore them company.

They rose to their feet, the two d’Estes, and clasped hands across the table, the crucifix between them.

‘God have mercy on our souls!’ said Ippolito, and raised the pale, flaming candle.

‘Amen,’ said Vincenzo, kissing the missal with cold lips.

The drums beat wildly, intoxicatingly, then suddenly stopped.

D’Este pushed back his chair; for a moment there was perfect stillness, then he laid the candle to the powder . . . And Vincenzo d’Este was on his knees in the patch of sunlight, its glory full on his beautiful, upturned face.

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