The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 4.

Valentine

Swiftly as he had come, Visconti returned to the palace, and the banqueting hall beyond. He stepped in silently, and softly let the curtains fall behind him.

The room was of enormous size, and overawed the gaze. The four large entries, one in each wall, were curtained alike with gloomy purple. The ceiling was domed and of immense height, showing a dim tracery of carved wood, from which hung golden chains, suspending jewelled lamps. The high and narrow windows were wrought with painted saints, splendid in colouring. From domed ceiling to panelled floor the walls were carved with men, women, saints, martyrs, flowers, and birds wrought together, in simple-minded joyousness of design, executed with the delicate workmanship of Niccolo Pisano’s school. Silk arras, hung from carved gold rods, here and there concealed the carving. A carpet, the work of two men’s lives, delicate in purple, brown, and gold, spread across the centre, where long low tables of walnut wood, rich and dark, could seat two hundred guests. Purple velvet chairs were set about in the corners, and the light streaming through the coloured window saints fell in gold and” green across an ivory footstool inlaid with jewels.

As Visconti entered, the hall was empty, yet he stepped stealthily, as if he felt eyes watching him. Seating himself in the window recess, he waited, and presently, as if at an unuttered summons, the curtains at the far end of the room were rustled apart, and a lady entered. She was Valentine Visconti, Gian’s sister. Her dress was of red and brown, embroidered with gold, her tawny hair piled high under a golden net upon her well-set head. She had the clear, colourless skin and the wide red lips of the fair-haired Italians, their rich presence; she was of a fine carriage, not easy to overlook; she might have been ten years younger than her brother; she was as tall and as stately.

She looked straight toward the window where Visconti sat. Gian returned her gaze, not changing his position. Valentine drew nearer.

Why hast thou set spies upon me?’ she demanded.

‘Why didst thou try to fly Milan with Count Conrad?’ he returned. ‘I was foolish not to spy on thee before.’

Her grey eyes glinted.

‘I tried to escape from a life that was grown intolerable,’ she cried, ‘and I will try yet again!’

Visconti smiled.

‘My sister, thou art much too precious; I shall not let thee go. Thou art worth a great deal to me. Through thee our family will be united to the Royal House of France. My sister, thy husband will be the Duke of Orleans, and not a German fool.’

But Valentine was also a Visconti: she advanced with blazing eyes.

‘I will not marry to serve thy ambitions; I will not help to steady thee upon the throne. Mark me, Gian, sooner than wed a Prince whom thou hast chosen, I will drag thy name into the mire, and sit in rags at thy palace gates.’

‘Only thou hast not the choice,’ he answered pleasantly.

Her anger rose the more as she felt her helplessness.

‘I will not marry the Duke!’ she cried. ‘I will not walk up to the altar.’

‘Thou canst be carried,’ said Visconti.

She moved up and down, twisting her hands in an agony of impotence.

‘I will appeal to the Duke of Orleans himself!’ she cried.

‘A. bridegroom who is bought for a hundred thousand florins!’ sneered her brother. ‘And how will thy appeal reach him? Come, my sister, be calm, the Duke will make as good a husband as Count Conrad. Bethink thyself, thou mayst live to be crowned Queen of France. Wilt thou not thank me then, that I saved thee from a German count?’

Valentine fell to weeping.

What has become of him?’ she sobbed, ‘the only human being who ever turned to me in pity. The only one who ever cared for me. What has become of him?’

‘What becomes of a fool when he crosses the path of a Visconti?’ asked her brother calmly.

Valentine lifted her head.

‘He is dead, then?’ she said.

‘It matters not to thee. Thy husband will be the Duke of Orleans, and thou art a prisoner in the palace till he takes thee from it.’

She caught at the arras; Visconti left her, and reached the door, his figure a shadow among the shadows.

The girl rushed forward with a cry. ‘Gian!’ she called.

He paused, his hand upon the curtain, and looked back at her.

‘Gian!’ she repeated, and stood still gasping, her hand upon her breast. The stiff folds of her dress gleamed richly in the subdued light that fell upon her from the painted window. ‘I know thee for what thou art,’ she said; ‘there are only three of us left, only three. Where are our parents, Gian?’

‘They were stricken down at Brescia,’ and Visconti took a quick step toward her.

‘They are dead,’ she breathed, ‘and they died as our brothers died, Filippo and Matteo —’

‘Did they so! Then take warning by it,’ and Gian, coming stealthily still nearer, turned a look on her. Valentine quailed, as Francisco well-nigh had done; the hot words of remorse and rebellion died away unuttered, and she hid her face, her high spirit cowed again into a bitter weeping.

Visconti left her noiselessly.

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