The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 6.

The Rescue of Count von Schulembourg

The house, a low, graceful building of white marble, was approached by a broad flight of steps, flanked by a balustrade almost hidden in early roses, which trailed in great clusters over it and along the velvet turf. Fronting it was a great fountain, and a wide avenue of yew-trees, patched with sunshine, led up to the facade.

To right and left spread turf-grown paths, edged with orange and lemon trees, and sweet with the scent of the citron and myrtle; around their roots grew violets, primroses, daffodils; and behind, beyond, on all sides, were grass and walks and trees, a sea of moving green.

The place was profoundly quiet. The statues, placed here and there, looked out from the foliage smiling; the dainty seats of coloured stone were empty, innocent of satin skirt or ruffled cloak. There was no sign of the recent care of man; no wild things stirred; beside the basins of the fountains lay two peacocks, dead. The villa doors were open, showing something of the long corridor that traversed the lower floor, but silent as the scene without. The stillness was unnatural; the beauty of the place, the two dead gorgeous birds, the open doors and lovely sunshine, made an impression that appalled.

The day was long past noon when, through the dim corridor, there was the faint flutter of garments. Someone was slowly moving. The sunbeam’s slanting ray struck through the doorway on a strange, haggard-looking figure: a man. He was wasted, bent, and shrunken; his limbs tottering under him. Where his blue velvet cloak fell back, it showed a splendid suit of black and gold, embroidered and decked out with ribbons, but the splendour hung upon a hollow frame: a skeleton. Long locks of pale golden hair heightened the ghastly hollowness of the pinched face. Conrad von Schulembourg was paying with this form of death for the favour of Valentine Visconti. As her brother’s favourite, he had thought it safe to lift his eyes to her; being something of a gallant fool, very gay to face danger, very incredulous of its ever coming to him in this hideous shape. He was not quick to read character, especially Visconti’s character. Could Gian Visconti have seen his victim now, even he might have started, for it is hard to imagine what men who die of hunger look like.

The trees, softly moving, made pleasant light and shade; the myrtle blossoms blew and sailed in little clouds of mauve, while the sweet-smelling leaves of the citron hung their rich clusters over opening lilies. Conrad, dragging himself across the grass, with straining eyes and parted lips, thought only of the water in the fountain, and saw only those dead birds. Poisoned! Visconti had forestalled all chances.

The Count had scarcely strength for any definite purpose of self-help. He craved water, and turned to drag himself away in search of some he might dare drink. Ere long, he knew not how, he reached it; a little hollow fringed with fern, in its centre a calm and placid pool, the trees mirrored in its peaceful surface. Count Conrad fell beside it, gazing longingly. A statue of a wood-god, the sunlight yellow in the hollow eyes, leaned from among the bushes, and mocked him with its smile.

Another effort and he had reached the stone. The water was so cool, so clear, so pure and still, it seemed impossible that it should harm him. He reached his hand out, then convulsively resisting the impulse, drew it back, and sank again upon the grass. At a flutter of white from the boughs near, Count Conrad lifted his eyes, and saw a dove that flew past him to rest upon the rim; he watched it eagerly. The bird preened itself, shook its feathers daintily, stooped and drank. Conrad drew himself a little nearer. Suddenly with a cry the bird whirled up into the air, beat its wings together vainly, and fell back into the water, dead! Poisoned! All the water poisoned! Desperation giving him a moment’s strength, Count Conrad rose and regarded the dead dove with greedy eyes, but steeling himself against the impulse to devour his own death, he crawled on with the vague thought to reach the gate. Some instinct of remembrance guiding his stumbling steps, he came upon it. It was twice his height, and all its elaborate tracery offered no single aperture through which a child could thrust his hand. Sick and blind he clung to it; he tried to shout, to scream, his voice died in his throat. In helpless rage, his wild face pressed against the iron, his eyes starting, his tongue lolling out of his dry mouth, he gripped and shook the lock.

Two children running by, stopped, gazed, came nearer, and then at what they saw, fled, screaming. No one else approached. The world seemed empty. Twilight began to fall. Then in his half-delirium Count Conrad thought again of the dead bird, and laughed wolfishly to himself, making with tottering steps back toward the hollow. To search coherently for food or drink or succour was now beyond his power. Presently again he, sank across the grass and lay there crying like a child, whimpering and whispering. Once or twice he made an effort, snatched at the long grass, fell back again, and lay now in silence.

After a time, but while it was still light, he seemed to wake as from a trance, and saw a figure moving down the glade toward him. Was he still living? He could scarcely tell. Was this Visconti come again to mock him? The thought spurred the man, though dying, almost to strive to rise and meet his fate standing. But sky, grass, trees, and stone reeled about him in a chaos of green and blue. He strove to speak, but his tongue refused. The dark figure came nearer, stopped beside him, stooped and spoke, but Count Conrad did not see nor heed. He lay, a woeful spectacle, as if dead indeed.

He awoke, as he thought never to wake again, with moistened lips, and water on his forehead, and a face that was not Visconti’s bending over him; a dark face with strange brown eyes that looked at him with sombre interest.

‘Thou comest from the Duke?’ gasped Conrad. Francisco shook his head.

‘I am no emissary of Visconti.’

‘Then thou comest to save me?’ whispered Conrad eagerly, hope dawning in his eyes.

‘I will save thee if I can,’ replied Francisco. ‘Thou art alone?’

Conrad moved his head. He was too weak for more. Then a sudden thought shot horror into his face, and he struggled to a sitting posture.

The water!’ he gasped out. The water — from that fountain — thou gayest me to drink of that?’

Francisco followed in surprise the direction of his glance. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I had it with me; ’twas water and wine too.’

‘Oh!’ Conrad sank back. ‘The water is poisoned — all —’

‘Poisoned — Visconti’s doing!’ said Francisco.

‘How didst thou get in?’ whispered Conrad feebly. ‘Visconti barred all entrances.’

‘I found one unknown to any; canst thou, with my help, walk there?’

‘I think — I can walk — to safety,’ was the answer, and the love of life lending him strength, he staggered to his feet, and helped by Francisco and invigorated by the wine, made slowly forward.

But they had not taken many steps before Francisco well perceived he had rescued a man past helping himself, well-nigh past any help from others.

With a sigh Conrad sank speechless into his arms.

Francisco looked around him. He had come far from the entrance he had forced, and Conrad, plainly starved and emaciated as he was, was still a man full grown. To leave him and to return to Tomaso would be too dangerous. The place must be under observation. But to seek safety himself and abandon the helpless man was not a thought to occur to Francisco, though, hampered by his dead weight, he would be at any pursuer’s mercy, or fall a prey to any ambush; so with stout words of encouragement, and forcing more wine through his lips, he lifted the Count to his shoulder and made as rapidly as he was able to the door beside the lichen. It was a breathless journey, but at last, and unmolested, Francisco gained the wall and laid his burden down. Reconnoitring without, he saw no sign of danger, and, glad of the oncoming dusk, dragged up the man and laid him, at least free, outside the door. The cool air blowing from the water, a few drops more wine, in which Francisco soaked some crumbs of bread he found within his wallet, enabled the rescued man again to move.

It was an easy matter now to bring Vittore and Tomaso, who would not be left, and between them Conrad, too spent to put questions, was carried to their shelter and laid on the rough heather couch in the hut, from which one of his own vassals had not long been driven; a poor asylum enough, but one for which he only too gladly exchanged the deadly splendour of his own magnificent abode.

‘Who is he?’ asked Tomaso, in timid surprise. For the first time since their knowledge of him Francisco laughed, and without bitterness.

‘One of Visconti’s victims! It is some poor satisfaction to have rescued two,’ he said. ‘I know nothing of him except that it is plainly to be seen he is some person of distinction. We will nurse him to the best of our skill. Tomaso, he may be of use —’

Then suddenly Francisco’s humour changed. He glanced around him at the boy, the youth, scarcely recovered from his fever, the ghastly figure on the ground over which he bent, and fury shook him. Of what use anything against Visconti? ‘Oh, terrible to be so helpless!’ he cried passionately. ‘We will leave this place. I break my heart in vain against the walls of Milan. I will to Ferrara, to della Scala’s kinsfolk there.’

‘And they will aid thee?’ asked Tomaso trembling.

Francisco smiled, but this time grimly. ‘I can but try,’ he said. ‘Della Scala was once known and trusted there. And in no case can we stay here!’ He pointed down at Conrad. ‘The place will not be safe for us, let Visconti once discover his victim has escaped him. We will depart to Ferrara, and fall upon Visconti while he is unsuspecting that I— that anyone lives still to animate the Estes against him.’

An hour or two later, while Vittore and Tomaso slept, Francisco keeping watch beside him, Conrad woke from a light doze and felt that he had hold on life again. He tried to murmur thanks to his preserver, but the other checked him.

‘Thou art not of Italy?’ he said.

‘I am Conrad von Schulembourg.’

‘Conrad von Schulembourg!’ echoed Francisco in surprise. Visconti’s trusted friend!’

‘The trusted friend of him who fastened me within my villa yonder to die a lingering death of hunger, or of poisoned food.’ The drops started on his forehead, he gasped for breath.

Francisco soothed and tended him.

‘Think not of it; get well,’ he said, as he had said to Tomaso. ‘Live and help rid the world of the Visconti. He would have thee die a dog’s death. Is not life dear to thee?’

‘Yes, I will live,’ said Conrad, ‘and I will take revenge both for my own wrongs and for a woman’s sake.’

Francisco turned quickly and looked at him keenly.

‘A woman’s sake! Thy motive is the same as mine: I too am living for a woman’s sake.’

Then, at the other’s questioning stare, Francisco continued more quietly:

‘I am from Verona, Count; that will tell thee much. I belonged to della Scala’s court, and barely escaped with life from the sacking of the town. Thou see’st I can for that and other matters more than equal thee in hatred of Visconti.’

He rose and, moving toward the door, looked out.

‘Oh, I am impatient!’ he cried passionately, ‘to be riding toward Ferrara!’

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