The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 33.

The Storm

The storm had gathered and burst; rain fell in great drops that did not allay the heat; the sky was covered with clouds that dragged across the moon in a slow procession, dark and mysterious.

In one or two tents, thrown open to catch the breeze that stirred the chestnuts, sat the little handful of soldiers left to Mastino. Rude and coarse, still were they awed, by the horror that had befallen, to a whispering quiet.

Like a patch of white showing dimly through the gloom, the curtains of a litter were to be seen. At thought of who sat within alone there in the rain and dark, the men shuddered and drew nearer together.

‘The Prince?’ one whispered.

‘I have been to the tent, but further than the door I dare not.’

‘What was there to see?’

‘The boy — alone, weeping like a woman. Santa Maria! I should not like the watch he keeps!’

‘The Prince is mad, think you?’

‘The Prince is mad, or — hush! — possessed.’

The men fell again to a silence, broken only by the patter of the rain. At last another spoke, one drawn further back into the tent.

‘How came it about, think you?’

‘Visconti —’

‘Ah, yes, Visconti, of a surety; but how?’

‘The wedding ring, Petio — it was handed to her as she entered the litter — it was poisoned! She put it on, poor soul — kissed it, no doubt — well, it was poisoned, Petio!’

‘And so she started alive, and now lies there dead — poor soul!’ The men muttered and crossed themselves; a few sat in moody thought.

‘The sun — we need the sun,’ said one at last.

‘And a little wind, not these stifling puffs — a little wind from heaven. ’Tis hot as hell!’

‘Hush!’

How it rained! And a wind rose, but it scarcely seemed from heaven. The chestnuts moaned, tossing their branches. ‘Hush said someone suddenly. ‘The dear Lord forgive my sins! Who comes?’

They heard a footstep; a hand was fumbling at the entrance of their tent.

‘The Prince!’

And the next instant the men sprang to their feet in affright at what was before them, at the livid face looking at them — Mastino della Scala.

‘My wife!’ he cried hoarsely. ‘Give me my wife

They looked on one another, helpless, and made no answer. But Mastino, striding forward, seized the foremost by the throat and shook him like a rag.

‘Where is she? What have you done with her? Is she not bought and paid for? Where is she?’

Tomaso sprang into the tent, a piteous young figure, wet to the skin.

‘Oh, my lord! I will take thee to her. Come away! Come with me!’

His voice broke into a passion of sobs, and Mastino dropped his hands and paused.

‘Your lady lies still in her litter,’ said a soldier.

‘Out yonder in the rain, you rascal!’ cried della Scala. ‘What is she doing there?’

He flung from the tent, and Tomaso after him, the bitter sobs catching at his throat.

‘I cannot bear it,’ he cried. ‘It is doom itself. Oh, my master! My dear master!’

The soldiers crowded together and watched.

‘Look!’ gasped one, pointing through the dark. ‘He hath got her — he hath got her!’

And they huddled back, half falling over one another, as Mastino came into view — a slender thing in white and purple in his arms. Close by, he paused, and laid it tenderly across the saddle of his white horse, whinnying low and waiting.

‘Jesu, protect us!’ cried the men. ‘Where is he going?’

‘Stop him! stop him!’ shrieked Tomaso, running to them. ‘He goes to find — Visconti —’

‘Then no one of us had best dare meddle,’ was the answer. ‘Keep away from him, boy; he is mad, possessed — maybe by the devil!’

‘I care not!’ cried Tomaso in an agony of sorrow. ‘He shall not ride so; he has no armour on — it will be to his death. He shall not go — my lord! My dear lord!’

He sprang forward to the white horse, which Mastino had mounted, and clung to the stirrup.

‘Not tonight, my lord; wait till the morn — till the storm is over; thou art unarmed!’

Mastino drew Isotta close to him, till her head rested on his shoulder, and looked down wildly at Tomaso.

‘Visconti lies outside Novara — I know the way!’ he said. ‘Take some of us with thee!’ implored Tomaso. ‘Oh, my lord —’

But della Scala spurred the horse into a sudden leap that threw Tomaso to the ground.

‘I know the way!’ he said.

The white horse plunged forward into the storm, and the dark closed round the rider and his burden.

For hours had della Scala ridden with his wife across his horse and against his breast, but riding always toward Novara; and now he had ridden suddenly into a wild red glare that lit the sky.

Mastino’s thoughts were centred on one thing — Visconti. There was no reflection in them; neither the past nor present had meaning. He was riding in a nightmare: he knew he carried Isotta, and that she was dead; he knew too he was riding to find Visconti — nothing more.

The red glare rose into the sky in pointed flames.

”Tis a burning city,’ said Mastino; but the words had no meaning. Here was light, however, had he needed it whereby to find Visconti.

That blinding flare, though still a mile away, lit up the great posterns of a gate near, and a long wall adjoining was glowering red in it, the trails of the flowers showing like blood as they hung over it, spectral and strange. It was a noble’s summer palace, lit by Novara burning yonder.

Mastino stopped his horse, that needed no checking, worn out by the wild ride, and gazed before him at the flames, and slowly something of reasoning power returned. He had ridden to meet Visconti, and Visconti was here. He knew it — either of God or devil — knew it surely; and he rode his horse on slowly, with the double burden, through the unguarded gates, and came to a flight of steps unguarded too, leading up to a wide balcony, overlooked by high, open, lighted windows. Here was the place — unguarded. Here was Visconti, and the soul of Mastino suddenly blazed into a white heat that for a moment blinded him.

Then he dismounted, and laid Isotta down, speaking the while to his horse. The glow from the burning city wrapped them both and made the fair dead face ‘rosy. The, tempest was over, and only a soft rain fell, ceasing gradually. Mastino found a sheltered spot beneath the bushes, and with a pitiful gentleness laid Isotta down and drew the hood about her head.

‘I will come back,’ he murmured, kissing her. Then he turned to the steps with his naked dagger in his hand. He wore no armour; he was bare-headed — he gave it no thought. He was here to slay Visconti. That was God’s fact.

Along the steps a soldier came lazily, and Mastino sprang on him and strangled him before he could cry out, bearing the body noiselessly to the ground. Then, listening, he heard from within the palace a laugh and a voice — Visconti’s. Della Scala looked round. How was he to get him? He must feel Visconti’s blood run warm over his hands, and quickly.

‘How it blazes! The soldiers will have poor spoil,’ said Visconti. ‘But we will build another town, de Lana: we are rich enough.’

‘Outside the walls just now we found a ghastly thing,’ said a second voice: ‘a human hand grasping tight a knot of scarlet ribbons — just the hand, a beautiful hand.’

‘Your tales sicken me — I have always hated horrors,’ said Visconti.

Mastino crept along and found a door.

‘I will get in there,’ he said within himself; and then within himself he laughed, for it was opened.

The tapestry within was moved aside, and there was a glimpse of a white sleeve and a delicate ringed hand. The next moment the curtain was torn, in a giant’s grip, from its fastening, and Mastino, trampling it under him, was upon them — in his madness staying to reckon on no odds.

Where was Visconti? Not far, for he himself; with his own hand, had opened the door.

But from the red glare outside, the blaze within blinded della Scala. He looked round him for Visconti. Then a voice screamed: ‘Keep him off!’ and suddenly his eyes met the Duke’s and he strode forward. It seemed almost done. Visconti, in wild fear, fell back before that terrible face, staggering against the wall, his hand fumbling for his dagger, and the men in the room scattered to right and left, as before an apparition.

‘Gentlemen!’ shieked Visconti, ‘you are ten to one: stop him! A fortune for the one who slays him!’

But Mastino had him in his grip — almost: another moment

But Visconti fell, and crouched along the wall, those reaching hands above him; and a dozen swords leaped out: the soldiers flocked in from the anteroom; there was a wild confusion.

‘Slay him!’ shrieked Visconti. But from della Scala, as they closed on him, came a yell that froze the marrow.

Ten to one! They needed to be. The place began to run with blood.

‘Gian Visconti! Gian Visconti!’

Visconti rose by the wall again. ‘Kill him!’ he gasped. ‘Kill him!’ and cowered away. He was not sure if that face or that figure, struggling ever toward him, could be killed; that they were earthly, or that that was the voice of a man which, with no sound of the human left in it, called his name.

‘Let them kill him!’ screamed Visconti.

But de Lana did not move, he did not look round; neither did Visconti.

‘Visconti! Visconti!’ gasped the voice . . . Ah! . . . There was a great scuffling of feet, the dragging of a heavy body, and Mastino, an inert mass upon the soldiers’ arms, was forced back upon the balcony.

They let him fall there, and one heard him moan; but he was bleeding from twenty wounds. They left him and closed the door.

Visconti looked round fearfully.

‘Is he gone?’ he asked.

The great candelabra had been overturned and the room was in a semi-gloom, broken only by the dim candles in their sconces and the fitful flare from the city.

No one answered Visconti. The men drew breath in silence and looked at their wounds. How he had fought! A horror fell upon them.

‘Is he dead?’ asked Visconti, shaking like a leaf.

‘There were fifteen men to kill him,’ said de Lana, and he wiped some blood from his hand with a shiver.

No one else broke the silence, all stood still as if spell-bound; it was a horrible, horrible thing, and they drew back from the door — afraid.

‘Hush! What was that?’

Visconti leaned forward fearfully.

What was it?’

The sound of someone on the balcony. Visconti’s face went livid.

‘He is alive —’

A horrid shudder ran through them all. De Lana strove to speak and could not.

‘The door is not fastened,’ whispered Visconti, hoarsely. ‘Fasten the door — someone!’

But no one moved, no one dared, for superstitious horror.

Something fell back from the door, then the sound of something that dragged itself against it painfully, then a rattle at the unbolted door.

‘He is not dead!’ half screamed Visconti. ‘A town to the man who will go out and slay him!’

No one moved.

‘A half-dead man!’ cried the Duke, ‘and no one will end his misery?’

They dared not.

‘Hark! He will have the door open. De Lana, I command you —’ He pointed with a shaking hand, but de Lana only shook his head.

‘There has too much been done already,’ he said, shudderingly.

The Duke looked round wildly.

‘A town, a fortune to the one who will have compassion’; and with a shrug and a grimace, a rough soldier stepped forward, his drawn ord in his hand, and opening the door, pushed something back before him and went out.

Gian breathed heavily, listening, but the next second the soldier was in the room again, with altered face, and the door ajar behind him.

‘I cannot,’ he gasped —‘it’s blind, struggling — it — does not look like a man!’

‘Shut the door!’ yelled Visconti, and then fell back against de Lana, shaking, for a livid face appeared, with dim eyes and a bare throat streaked with blood. For one moment the ghastly apparition showed there, then fell into the dark again.

There was a sickening pause. Visconti spoke first, looking around.

‘Are we fools or women? He came to murder me, and he is slain — what is there in that? Go and see now if he be dead.’ Someone went, fearfully.

‘He lies very still, my lord; he is dead —’

The trembling pages had brought more lights, and light was life to Visconti. He came forward and looked, a little nearer, on the figure in the doorway, but very slowly, with de Lana between.

Mastino lay out straight, in a sudden up-flare from the burning city, his arm flung over his face.

‘He was a giant,’ whispered Visconti, fearfully. ‘And how dark! I do not remember him so dark —’

He looked over de Lana’s shoulder at him.

The soldiers peered behind him. That man was Mastino della Scala once! It was strange even to their cold hearts.

He was dead —dead! Visconti’s fear, the superstitious fear of a righteous, God-sent vengeance, turned to a savage joy; still he was afraid, still afraid.

He touched the body with the point of his gold shoe.

‘Throw him into the garden,’ he said to the soldiers, showing his teeth.

Giannotto and de Lana exchanged a curious glance; the soldier set his lips.

‘Are you all traitors or cowards, that you do not heed me?’ cried Visconti in a fury. ‘Throw, thrust, kick this thing into the garden — let him lie there till the morning.’

‘My lord,’ said de Lana, with a dangerous look in his eyes, ‘he was a prince and a Scaligeri!’

‘He was my enemy — scorn for scorn! Throw Mastino della Scala from the balcony — or —’

And half a dozen men came forward and lifted the prostrate body.

‘Haste,’ said Visconti, his eyes on de Lana. ‘Throw him out of my sight.’

‘Let them carry him down the steps, my lord,’ cried de Lana. But Visconti turned on him, his face and hair glowing in the light of the flames from Novara, his face fiendish.

‘They shall do as I bid, or hang from the nearest tree! Now haste!’ he said again, as if he feared the dead might yet arise.

They carried the body to the edge of the steps and pushed it over, crashing dully down the foliage that half overspread the marble.

Visconti stepped to the parapet and looked over.

‘He said something as he fell,’ he whispered to himself. ‘I heard him — but he must be dead now —’

He turned back into the room, breathing more freely.

‘Now close the door again,’ he said, and watched while it was done.

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