The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 32.

The Price of Dishonour

He who was once the great Lord of Verona and a proud and stainless knight stood without Brescia, awaiting the price of his dishonour. It was midday, of a swooning heat, and great purple clouds lay heavily about the horizon, with a sombreness that foretold a storm.

Mastino della Scala stood alone on a group of rocks scattered upon the plain, that sent his tall figure up against the deep sky, erect and motionless.

All that was left of his army was behind him in the chestnut wood: half had been betrayed, half had been cut to pieces rather than yield. Some few — the lowest dregs of his camp, the men who cared not where or when they drew their swords, so they had food and drink — remained, to try their luck with him, now no better than one of themselves. Through all the miseries of that weary week his gallant band of Veronese, some two hundred, had stood by him, watching the others ambushed, attacked, surrounded, and destroyed, hearing of town after town that fell, and smiling scornfully at talk of treachery, accepting without question Mastino’s silence. Was he not the son of Can’ Gran’ della Scala, and his name one with honour, the proudest name in Lombardy, the proudest badge in Italy, the ladder of the Scaligeri!

So had they stayed with scorn at thoughts of betrayal whispered among the baser residue, until that morning when he had summoned their leaders and told them, with a strange calmness, he had sold them, Verona and Veronese, for his wife’s release — sold Lombardy for Isotta d’Este.

Then leaving them, standing silent and bewildered, della Scala mounted to these rocks to await his wife — alone. His eyes were on the fields before him; he hardly noticed a slight figure that crept timidly to his feet — Tomaso.

‘My lord’— the boy’s voice faltered, and he kept his eyes turned away —‘the Duchess hath started safely; I saw her mount her litter with glad eyes; they bade me hasten forward and tell thee so.’

‘Ah!’

Della Scala stepped on to a higher rock and shaded his eyes with his hand. He was in armour, and bore on his arm his shield, across the boss, the ladder, the ladder on which the Scaligeri had climbed so high, and from which they had fallen — to this!

Tomaso crouched beside him, silent and dismayed. He had clung to della Scala in spite of his father’s loss (that he could not understand), and in spite of what was happening now, that began to make plain that and many things.

Tomaso glanced up at the sombre figure standing alone above him. Mastino wore no mantle, and the golden circlet was gone from his helmet. Mastino della Scala was no longer Duke of Verona.

No pages or footmen followed; save for this one boy, he was alone, carrying his own shield, holding his own horse, despised of those he once had thought of as beneath even his scorn.

A gallop of horses broke the summer quiet, and spears gleamed through the ruddy chestnuts behind them. The Veronese, thought Tomaso, the Veronese soldiers.

Della Scala neither turned his head nor moved, but stood there with his shield hanging on his arm, his sword hand listless by his side.

Tomaso was right. The riders were a band of Veronese. At a full gallop they flew out of the shade into the sun, in face and movement, fury.

Tomaso shrank back at sight of them, roused from their bewilderment, riding full tilt toward Mastino in a silence that was more deadly than shouts of hate; and Mastino turned at last and faced them with wild eyes.

The foremost man was swiftly on them, his furious face brought close to theirs. As he swept up he drew the dagger at his waist and hurled it full on Mastino’s shield.

‘That from me!’ he cried, and rose in his stirrups with a shout. ‘That and my scorn, della Scala!’

But Mastino was prepared; he stood erect and did not flinch. Another rode by; bending his face close to him, he spat at him; both shattered their daggers on to his shield, those daggers mounted with his arms that they carried as his soldiers. One tore from his neck the collar Mastino had hung there, and flung it at his feet with curses.

‘Traitor, where is Ligozzi?’ cried one, hurling an imprecation, and della Scala took a step back with a cry wrung from him; but the man was gone, and the face of another Veronese was looking into his with utter loathing. Without a pause they dashed by, each hurling his dagger, and many some order or sign of, Mastino’s friendship, full upon that shield that hung on della Scala’s arm.

‘That to cheer thee in thy shame!’

‘That to make a necklet for Isotta d’Este!’

‘This from me, who would have died for thee!’

The taunts were bitter and savage, and hurled in a fury of scorn and hate; but Mastino della Scala, save for that one movement, neither flinched nor stepped out of the way of the onward rush, but bore for a long hour of that summer day that wild ride past of the Veronese and the batter on his shield of the daggers that disdained to slay him.

‘Stop! in the name of Heaven, stop!’ shrieked Tomaso, and held his hands against his ears.

They took no heed of him, in their mad fury did not even see the boy. But to Tomaso it was most terrible that della Scala made no movement to defend himself; his calm face was awful.

‘Stop Tomaso shrieked again. ‘Stop!’

How many more, how many more! How many times more that rattle as the daggers struck the shield and then fell to lie bright in the sun? How many more furious faces, how many more bitter curses? How long would della Scala stand there turned to stone? Tomaso crouched and hid his eyes. At last they came to an end. The last rode by, the standard-bearer, tearing the standard to rags with furious hands.

‘Verona is no more!’ he yelled. ‘The Scaligeri are no more, the standard is no more, the standard of Verona!’

He threw the twist of red and gold at Mastino’s feet with a sudden wail in his voice. He was an old man, one who had served Mastino and Mastino’s father well. He stopped his horse; the first who had done so.

‘Mastino della Scala! Oh, why didst thou do this thing? Tell me thou repentest!’ he cried.

Mastino looked into the old man’s wistful face.

‘Verona is no more, the Scaligeri are no more. Ride thou to the others, old man,’ he said.

The standard-bearer wrung his hands.

‘I loved thee he pleaded. ‘Save thy soul and say thou dost repent!’

Mastino’s proud head was erect.

‘And do I live to save my soul? Get thee to the others, I do not repent.’

The old man rode away sorrowfully. Della Scala watched him disappear behind the rocks and trees.

He was the last, and silence fell.

‘They are gone!’ breathed Mastino. ‘They are gone!’

His eyes fell to his shield; from rim to rim it was defaced and dented, and the ladder of the Scaligeri was beaten from its boss. The ground around was piled with arms, and Mastino put his hand up to his eyes, staggering. The ladder of the Scaligeri was beaten from his shield!

‘Some men remain, my lord,’ said Tomaso timidly, at last, with a boyish effort at some consolation.

But Mastino winced; that they remained was a sorer shame even than the desertion of the others: for they were men, scum of camps, who fought solely for pay and plunder, and laughed at dishonour and admired treachery — they were the men who had stayed.

‘Isotta!’ cried Mastino, with a sudden wild movement. ‘Why does she not come — have I not waited long — have I not paid enough?’

‘I think I see her escort coming across the fields,’ said Tomaso timorously.

Mastino turned and grasped his arm with a sudden change of manner.

‘Tomaso,’ he faltered, ‘methinks I am changed since last I saw her; perhaps she will — not know me — or will startle at me if she does. Tomaso, she is very fair and I have nothing to offer now — Tomaso, am I very changed?’

He was changed, so changed the boy would scarce have known him; his soft brown hair was streaked with grey, his fine face drawn and white, his eyes, once soft and kind, unnaturally bright, and, like his mouth, strained and hard.

Mastino laughed pitifully as he read the answer in Tomaso’s frightened eyes.

‘She will not care — she will not care,’ he said. But his voice was unsteady, and he supported himself against the saddle of his horse.

‘The Duchess comes!’ said Tomaso, and clutched Mastino’s hand.

Out of a little wood of delicate trees, in front of them, the cavalcade was winding: Visconti’s soldiers, Veronese soldiers, and a white, curtained litter in the midst.

Mastino’s gaze flew to that, and to that only.

‘Oh, my heart’s desire!’ he murmured. ‘I do not repent!’ And he forgot the ladder of the Scaligeri battered from his shield.

The soldiers cantered up and lowered their halberds in a salute to the magnificent figure standing there alone, while the officer read in a high voice from the parchment, that stated that Isotta d’Este, Duchess of Verona, prisoner of war of Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, was returned to her husband in fulfilment of the league and treaty between them.

‘Into your hands we deliver her in safety, my lord, and my Lord of Milan offers three months in which either to quit Lombardy or choose some post in his service in Verona.’

‘My choice is made: I quit Lombardy,’ said Mastino. ‘Leave me.’

The soldier slightly shrugged his shoulders and gave the word, and, cantering off, Visconti’s guards wheeled and followed swift behind him. They had fulfilled their duty. Isotta d’Este’s safety was no affair of theirs now.

The Veronese footmen bearing the litter had set their burden down; the white curtains fluttered — was it the breeze, or Isotta’s hand, that stirred them so?

‘Tomaso, Tomaso, I have borne much; can I bear this?’

His eyes were sparkling, his tone joyful; he had thrown all his shame from his heart; the miserable past, the miserable future, were alike forgotten; the world had narrowed to this — her welcoming face.

He laid his shield on the ground gently, and walked across the grass softly. The curtains, white in the still blazing sun, dazzled him; his heart was beating so, he thought it must choke him.

‘Isotta!’

He called her name so low she could not hear.

‘Isotta!’

Still she made no answer.

‘Perchance she is very weary,’ said Mastino to himself, tenderly, and drew the white curtains back. She lay back among silk cushions.

‘Isotta, my dear!’

There was a tremor in his voice. Had she fainted?

She lay back, her head away from him, and, bending over her, he saw through her long curls that her eyes were closed, her lips parted, and one hand at her throat — the hand that bore his wedding ring. Oh, heaven!

He caught her head in his hands and looked at her. She was dead, quite dead. The silk curtains fell to again, and at Mastino’s cry the bearers shrank, appalled. Isotta d’Este was dead.

And Mastino lay along the ground, senseless, his defaced shield near him, bare to the bright glare of the sinking sun.

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