The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 7.

Graziosa’s Bracelet

Tisio Visconti, mounted on a white palfrey, rode slowly through the streets of Milan, a lean figure, with a foolish face and vacant eyes.

For the elder Visconti was half crazed, a fact to which perhaps he owed his life, Gian Galeazzo not fearing his poor disordered intellect enough to deprive him of aught, save his birthright — the sovereignty of Milan.

One or two men-at-arms in splendid livery rode behind him, and as he passed the people bowed humbly, respecting him solely as the Duke’s brother, for Tisio was powerless for good or ill. Some few there were who pitied him.

About the streets of Milan he was a far more familiar figure than his brother, who was seldom seen, but of whose unscrupulous power Tisio was the living symbol.

Complete liberty was allowed him; still the soldiers behind were rather guards than servants, and charged to see he did not leave the gates. Dropping his loose reins on the palfrey’s neck, Tisio Visconti looked around him with lacklustre eyes and a dull smile. He was riding through the long, narrow streets, cobbled and overhung with high straight houses, that led to the western gate.

Through this gate his father lately, his brothers months ago, had been driven to their deaths; his father, infamously, his mother beside him, in the full light of day to Brescia; his brothers, secretly, at dead of night, to Brescia also, whence they returned no more.

Yet to Tisio the gate and street had no memory or meaning; he looked ahead of him at the green trees beyond, and his eyes lit up. It was to see them he came. To him the world outside Milan was paradise; sometimes the soul within him rose and chafed at his dull captivity, and then he longed passionately for those green fields and trees, which he knew only from within the city gates.

The street was empty now; it was noontide, the hour Tisio preferred, when there were few abroad. The sun was hot, its rays flashing on the pikes of the sentinels who paced the walls; and Tisio’s followers wiped their brows and chafed. But he gazed with wistful eyes, unheeding, into the beauty and the calm, the green and the gold. The sentry took no heed of him; so many times he had done the same; ridden to the gates, waited, looking eagerly through, then patiently returned to the gloom of the Visconti palace.

Either side the massive entrance lay houses, low, of grey stone, enclosed in square courtyards, entered by doors deep set in the thick walls.

From one of these, as Tisio turned, a girl emerged in a scarlet robe. She carried a bunch of lilies, on her arm hung the basket that betokened her errand. She and the little group of horsemen were the only life in the silent, sunny street. Tisio’s eyes lit upon her, and he smiled. Like all the Visconti, there was poetry mingled with his madness, and the sight of beauty touched even his crazy brain.

The girl, starting when she saw the horsemen, paused, as if to retire, her hand on the door, her brilliant robe gorgeous against the background of grey wall. The colour, and the sunshine falling over her golden hair, made a picture Tisio was not slow to see; his eyes fixed upon her eagerly; he drew up his horse and turned to the page who, spy and attendant in one, invariably accompanied him.

‘I would speak to her,’ he said, with the eagerness of a child.

The girl, seeing she attracted notice, turned, frightened and confused, to make good her escape, but the page, riding up, stopped her authoritatively, but with a reassuring smile.

”Tis the Lord Tisio Visconti, lady; fear nothing; he would only speak with thee,’ he said.

But the girl’s alarm increased at the mention of that dreaded name.

‘He mistakes me for another, sir,’ she said. ‘I have never so much as seen even the Duke himself.’

‘My lord would speak with thee,’ repeated the page. ‘He is not the Duke, but it is the Duke’s pleasure that he be obeyed in matters such as this. Come, maiden, there is no need to fear: it is an honour.’

He turned his rein again, and, indeed, not daring to refuse, the girl followed and stood timidly by Tisio’s side. He looked at her long and eagerly, at her scarlet dress, her sunny hair, the white and green lilies in her hands. Still he did not speak, and she raised her head and looked around questioningly and fearful. But the page only smiled: the men-at-arms sat silent and indifferent.

‘Thou art very beautiful,’ said Tisio at last. ‘What is thy name? Whose daughter art thou?’

‘Graziosa Vistarnini, my lord; Agnolo Vistarnini is my father. He is a painter.’

But Tisio’s eyes grew vacant, and his gaze wandered to the lilies.

Did they come from yonder?’ he asked, and pointed beyond the gate.

‘No, my lord. From a friend’s garden. My father thinks to paint them.’

Still Tisio did not heed her answer; he laughed foolishly. ‘I may go?’ asked Graziosa timidly. ‘I may go, my lord?’

He bent from the saddle and lifted from her shoulder a long lock of her curling hair, and stroked it, dropping it with a sigh. ‘Give me these,’ he said, pointing to the lilies; ‘all the flowers I know grow in Gian’s garden — Gian is the Duke of Milan.’

And at his words, and the tone in which he spoke them, Graziosa’s pity overcame her fear.

In silence, tears in her eyes, she handed him the flowers. He took them eagerly, but before she could withdraw her hand, he grasped her arm with a childish exclamation and touched the bracelet of fine workmanship she wore upon the wrist.

‘I will have this too,’ he said, laughing with satisfaction: but the girl drew her arm back sharply and turned to go.

Tisio fumed. ‘The bracelet,’ he said peevishly, and the page motioned her harshly to remain.

Graziosa turned to him in confusion and distress.

‘I cannot give it him,’ she said, the tears starting. ‘I entreat thee, sir, ask him to let me go.’

But the page intimated to her warningly she had best make no to-do. There was only one law for the citizens of Milan: that was the tyranny of the Visconti; let the one who encountered it only in the capricious whim of the crazy Tisio be thankful.

‘Hold it good fortune, it is naught but a bauble he demands,’ said the page. ‘Give him the bracelet; he will drop it, forgotten, tomorrow. Ask for me one day at the palace. I will restore it. But give it now, before he grows angry. Thou hadst better.’

Tisio’s face was darkening.

‘Make haste, make haste,’ cried the page impatiently, ‘or it will be thou and thy bracelet both that will be carried off.’

‘My betrothed gave it to me,’ she murmured. ‘I cannot part with it.’

‘I will have it,’ repeated Tisio imperiously, with outstretched hand. Graziosa’s helpless tears were flowing; slowly she unclasped the bracelet; the page took her treasure with an easy air, handed it to his master, and turned the horses’ heads toward home.

‘Thou wilt be none the worse,’ he laughed, as they rode away. Tisio, absorbed in his new toy, gave her neither look nor thought, for jewels, gold ornaments of rare design, were the craze of this Visconti’s diseased brain.

Graziosa pressed her bare arm to her lips, and looked after them, the tears of vexation streaming down. She thought of Ambrogio, the painter-lover, whose gift it was: what would he say to find her bracelet gone?

‘Oh, if only Ambrogio had been here,’ she cried, ‘he would not have let the Duke himself take it from me — but I— what could I do? — if only he is not angry that I let it go.’

She had not much faith in the page’s words besides, how dare she venture to the Visconti’s palace? Her tears flowed afresh; she picked up the poor discarded lilies, all her pleasure gone. In the distance she could see Tisio, still handling the bracelet with delight, and she half-smiled, even through her tears, at so strange and pitiful a thing. ‘It makes the poor crazy lord happy,’ she said softly, ‘but it breaks my heart to lose it.’ She watched Tisio disappear; then, her loss a certainty, she turned with reluctant feet upon her errand.

Meanwhile Tisio, absorbed in his new spoil, rode toward the palace.

The projecting gables of the houses sent clear-cut shadows across his path; the strong noonday sun blended the city into brilliant light and shade, broken only by the vivid colour of the drapery fluttering at some unshaded window, or the sudden flash of pigeons’ wings against the golden air.

As they neared the great gate of the palace, a group of horsemen, galloping noisily ahead of them, dashed into the vast courtyard and drew rein with a fine clatter at the entrance steps. Tisio, following, raised his head, and looked dully at them — a band of his brother’s soldiers, hired mercenaries; it was usual enough to meet them both within and without the Visconti’s abode. As he was dismounting, the leader of the band addressed him familiarly.

‘My lord hears thee not, sir,’ said the page, ‘his thoughts are with his spoils.’

The soldier laughed with a grimace.

It was the freedom of one whose services are valuable enough, even when well paid, to permit him to bear himself with small respect to his employers. For the mercenaries were a power; the transfer of their services could ruin states and lose towns, and even Visconti had to pay them well and concede licence to their leaders; for upon them, to a great extent, his sovereignty rested, and Alberic da Salluzzo could take more liberties than any. He was a famous captain, noted for his skill in wars and turbulence in peace, a man with no country and no honour, endowed with dauntless courage and endurance, of vast rapacity and of all the cruelty his age allowed.

Making no way for Tisio, and motioning curtly to his men, he strode up the stairs, a stalwart figure, overdressed in splendid armour, and swung into the ante-chamber of the Visconti’s audience-room. It was deserted. Alberic, astonished, paused on the threshold, looking round in amazement for the crowd — courtiers, servants, seekers, soldiers — wont to fill it.

Opposite was the closed door of the Visconti’s room, but even Alberic dared not knock there unannounced. He was turning away to seek enlightenment, when a dark form he had passed unnoticed in the distant shadows of the great room rose, and he recognized, as it advanced, the secretary’s stooping figure.

‘What has happened here?’ demanded the soldier.

‘Is there need to ask?’ answered Giannotto. ‘The Duke has had the room cleared. He will see no one.’ Alberic half-laughed, and shrugged his shoulders.

‘The madness is on him at Count von Schulembourg’s escape. Is that it?’ he asked. ‘But art even thou excluded?’ he continued in surprise, for Giannotto was the one man who could come and go unannounced, unbidden, the one man who knew Visconti’s secrets.

The secretary smiled, the slow smile that men’s lips learned in the Visconti palace.

‘It is best for the Duke to be alone, and for me that he should be,’ he said. ‘The news that Count Conrad has escaped hath galled him much; it came at a bad moment too, following on those parchments twice found within the grounds’— he paused. ‘Thou wert sent to find the writer, or the one who put them there; art thou successful?’

Alberic shook his head. ‘I return as I went. Beyond finding that doorway forced in the wall, messer secretary, there is no token whatsoever of how the Count escaped. But after so long a fast, messer,’ Alberic showed his teeth, ‘it is not likely that it was alone.’

‘The one who aided him is he who inscribed those parchments?’

”Twould seem so,’ answered Alberic. ‘We have searched anew among the huts from which we drove Count Conrad’s German dogs; on the threshold of the largest there was — this.’

He drew out of his breast a parchment, a long narrow strip, scrawled across in irregular writing, and handed it to Giannotto.

‘What does it say?’ he asked.

Giannotto glanced at it hastily, his eyes on the Duke’s door. He read, ‘Della Scala lives!’

The captain whistled softly. ‘Now, thou may’st hand that to the Duke instead of me,’ he said.

Giannotto searched the writing keenly. ‘Della Scala cannot live; ’tis some trick of the Torriani.’

Alberic laughed harshly. Whate’er it be, I say thou shalt have the pleasure of showing it the Duke!’

‘Nay, thou must speak of thy own failures, friend. Besides, the Duke will need thee for his further orders. Count Conrad must be found, alive or dead!’

Was it his ghost attacked the walls last night?’ asked Alberic; and not wholly did he speak in jest.

The secretary cast uneasy looks across his shoulder at the ominously shut door.

‘It angered Visconti strangely,’ he whispered. ‘But it was a handful of madmen. Wandering robbers from the hills! They were four at most, and they tried to scale the walls of Milan!’ He smiled in scorn.

‘And yet,’ said Alberic, ‘they were almost on the ramparts ere they were discovered, and when they were pursued fled back into the night silently, nor could we find whence they came, nor any trace of them.’

‘However that may be,’ said Giannotto, ‘the Duke hath dismissed even me, and the delivery of this parchment had best wait till his black fit has left him.’

He raised the arras from the entrance that opened on the stairway, and passed out of sight along the corridor, leaving Alberic standing in the unguarded entrance of the deserted audience-room, undecided, the parchment in his hand.

But he did not stand there long alone. One or two servants stole back to their places, afraid to stay away; and presently, with slow steps and vacant smile, there passed by him Tisio Visconti, followed by the page who never left him.

‘Thou, my lord?’ cried Alberic. ‘Now, how would it be if I ask him to hand this parchment over?’ and he turned with a swaggering laugh to the page.

The page shook his head, not comprehending. Tisio, unheeding, seated himself in one of the great chairs, Graziosa’s bracelet still between his fingers.

‘I will wait no longer,’ cried Alberic suddenly; ‘let the Duke summon me.’

But the next moment Alberic’s swagger dropped, and he swung his plumed hat low to the lady who, unattended, stole across the threshold.

It was Valentine Visconti.

Her breast was heaving; suppressed excitement showed in every movement; it was not difficult for Alberic to read she had heard of Count Conrad’s rescue.

With a motion of the hand she bade him wait, and turned to her brother, huddled in his chair, gazing blankly at the floor.

‘Tisio!’ she said, and her tone was very gentle. ‘What dost thou here?’

He looked up, and his dull face lit at sight of her.

‘I wait for Gian,’ he said simply.

Valentine shuddered. ‘What wouldst thou see him for, Tisio?’

He smiled, and held out the bracelet. ‘To show him this’ The tears rushed to Valentine’s eyes but she remembered the captain and turned to him.

‘Thou carryest something here to give the Duke?’ she asked. ‘Another parchment, lady,’ said the captain. ‘But I fear my lord is in no humour for its contents’

Valentine’s eyes sparkled brightly. ‘Thou has not the courage to present it?’

‘I confess, lady, I am waiting till I am obliged to,’ answered Alberic.

Valentine held out her hand. ‘Give me the paper; I will give it to my brother!’

The captain hesitated.

‘Since thou hast not the courage,’ she added almost with a laugh. All Gian’s orders had not availed to prevent some whisper reaching Valentine of his evil humour and the cause of it: Conrad’s escape, the threatening parchments; the hint that della Scala lived. Alberic, glancing at her, saw a triumph and a malice in the lady’s glance that made him doubly feel he did not care just then to await Visconti’s coming. But still he hesitated; the Duke might vent on him his fury with his sister.

‘This business will not wait,’ cried Valentine, ‘give me the parchment to deliver, or knock at yonder door and hand it to the Duke yourself.’

But the captain of the mercenaries bent low, shook his head with a significant gesture, and, handing over the fatal missive, bowed himself away. Valentine turned again to Tisio’s page.

‘Take thy lord away,’ she said. ‘The Duke may not be best pleased to see him here.’

But Tisio would not go. Valentine, bending over him, stroked his hands tenderly, then breaking from him, leaned against the wall in sudden woe.

‘All of us crazed,’ she cried bitterly. ‘All of us, surely; wretched people that we are!’

Then, at the sight of the parchment she held, her former mood returned. Conrad was alive! He had vowed devotion. He would return to her rescue. She would live to be free; to come and go outside the Visconti palace, outside Milan, out yonder in the world. She leaned back against the arras a moment, dizzy at the thought of so much joy, and her courage rose high, her eyes danced.

‘The Duke must have this parchment,’ she said; ‘and since Alberic da Salluzzo does not care to seek an audience for it, why, Tisio, thou shalt see me give it. The Duke loves not an interruption when he is angry,’ she added, with a soft laugh. ‘But ’tis my duty to show him this.’

And she advanced toward the ominously closed door.

The page looked uneasy. He had no wish to face Visconti in his fury. Yet well he knew he dared not leave his charge. Valentine tapped at the door with gentle fingers.

‘Gian!’ she called.

‘Lady, this is madness!’ cried the page, startled into speech. She looked over her shoulder.

‘I am also a Visconti, boy,’ she said. ‘Why should I fear the Duke?’

‘Gian!’ she called again, her beautiful head close to the dark panels. ‘I have something here of great moment. Why let everyone know thou art so moved? Gian! Thou makest thyself a mock; dost thou fear Count Conrad, that his escape moves thee so?’

A pause: then with a smile Valentine stepped back a pace or two into the chamber.

‘The Duke comes!’ she said, and the page turned pale.

The inner door opened as smoothly as silently, and Visconti stood there looking at the trio. He was dressed in purple velvet, but his doublet was tumbled, the fine lace frills at his wrists were torn to rags, his eyes strained wide open, and for a moment, as it was with any who encountered it, his expression gave his sister pause. But again she remembered Conrad lived, and she held out the parchment. ‘I thought it well to give you this,’ she said.

Gian advanced and took it in silence. But those torn ruffles, that disordered doublet, had their meanings, and the look in those wide eyes, as he turned them on her, quelled the mockery in hers, in spite of herself.

‘Begone!’ he said, ‘and do not usurp another’s office again. Leave me.’

‘With thine own thoughts, brother?’ she said softly, facing him. ‘Be careful,’ he answered; ‘thou shouldst know my humours, and that ’tis dangerous to cross them. Remember it only suits my purpose that thou shouldst live!’

At this Tisio, as if half-comprehending the threat, rose, and his brother’s eyes fell on him.

‘Thou too! What dost thou about my doors? Hast thou come too to dare me with thy folly?’

His eyes blazed, his hands worked. Tisio, dazed and affrighted, let fall Graziosa’s bracelet.

The page stooped to recover it.

What hast thou there?’ cried Visconti with sudden change of tone; and the page, quivering for his life, handed the bracelet on bent knee. Visconti studied it one second, then, with a sound of fury that sent the boy crouching back against the wall, control left him. His eyes lighted on Tisio, and in maniacal fury he seized him by the shoulder and shook him as though he were a rag.

‘How camest thou by this?’ he yelled. ‘How came this bracelet in the Visconti’s palace? Answer me!’

Tisio whimpered, but had no reply, till, with a shout, Visconti flung him from him with such force that, save for Valentine, he would have fallen; then he turned upon the page who knelt by, trembling.

‘Answer me!’ he cried furiously. ‘Answer! Where got the fool this?’ He held the bracelet out. And the sight of those torn ruffles around his long white hands made the boy’s hair rise.

‘Indeed, my lord,’ he gasped, ‘a girl, whom my Lord Tisio — met by the western gate —’

‘Gave it him!’ shrieked Visconti. ‘Ah, the three of you shall pay dearly for this hour’s trifling with me!’

‘My lord took it,’ cried the page, half-wild with terror. ‘He took it, my lord; she wept to give it.’

‘She wept to give it,’ said Visconti slowly.

There was a pause. When he spoke again, his tone was calmer.

‘Then he shall be slain for taking it,’ he said, flashing a look on Tisio, who, huddled in the chair, moaned with distress as he leaned against his sister.

‘Shame! Calm thyself!’ cried Valentine. ‘What has Tisio done? Is this the first ornament he has liked and taken? Have they not orders to let him have his pleasure?’

‘Mark me,’ returned Visconti. ‘Take care thou dost not make my dislike overrule my ambition — the pair of you hold your lives solely at my pleasure.’

He turned to the page.

‘Go, and take thy fool with thee, and keep from my sight.’ With a white face the wretched page rose and helped Tisio to his feet. At a whisper from his sister he went meekly, Visconti’s mad eyes on him the while.

A terrible silence fell.

Valentine steadied herself against the arras. She was thankful to see Tisio go — alive. To ask why the jewel Tisio had fondled had so angered Gian was beyond her daring. ‘He is possessed,’ she murmured to herself.

With an unpleasant laugh Visconti turned to her.

‘Didst thou urge him to flaunt me with this?’ he asked. ‘Flaunt thee?’ said Valentine. ‘How should I know a toy like that could rouse such fury?’

The Duke looked at her keenly, and crushed the bracelet together in his hand.

‘As I say, thou darest me far because thou art worth something to my plans — but I have the power, and I keep it’

She was silent, and he turned to pass back into his own room. But at the same moment Giannotto spoke. He had entered unobserved, and drew near his master with an obsequious movement.

But Visconti met him with a snarl.

‘I will see no one! Did I not say so? Take care, Giannotto, lest I see thee too often.’

The secretary paled, but kept his composure. He had learned that to shrink before Visconti only served to arouse him the more.

‘I would merely say, my lord,’ he remarked, ‘Alberic da Salluzzo awaits further orders’

‘Hath he found the Count?’ flashed Visconti.

‘My lord, no; nor trace of him, unless these parchments be one.’

‘Thou hast another there?’

Giannotto, bowing low, handed Visconti a packet. His head was bent, his eyes downcast, and the smile that flickered over his thin lips unseen.

‘This, my lord, was brought in by one of Alberic’s men — found an hour since outside the gates of Count Conrad’s villa.’

It was sealed, and inscribed with the Visconti’s name.

Visconti seized it, and Giannotto, stepping back, watched furtively his furious face.

Gian looked at the packet. There was no attempt to disguise the writing. It was the same as that upon the parchment Valentine had given him with its brief threat: ‘Della Scala lives’, and the seal of it was the Ladder of the Scaligeri. Long Visconti fingered it in silence, then remembering he was not alone, glanced wrathfully up to see that Valentine was watching him with a faint smile of scorn, and that Giannotto, for all his downcast head, waited with eyes keen with expectation. But Visconti curbed himself. To have the mastery of others he must keep the mastery of himself.

‘Giannotto,’ he said, and the secretary started as if a whip had touched him, ‘thou wilt see to it that da Salluzzo searches Milan and all Lombardy — that he spares neither treasure nor blood — and that he brings to me dead, or living, Count Conrad von Schulembourg, and the writer of these parchments.’

With an obeisance Giannotto went, in silence, and Visconti slowly broke the seal of the packet. Then he turned to Valentine.

‘Art thou waiting to see if it contains a message from thy Conrad?’ he said fiercely. ‘Have no fear! Thou shalt see his head ere night.’

She shuddered before the taunt, and turned to leave him. It was always the same; let her meet Visconti with never so high courage, she left him quelled, discomfited, dismayed.

‘Go!’ shouted Visconti, in sudden fury, and she stayed no longer to question or defy.

Carrying the half-opened packet and the parchment, Visconti reentered his private room. It was dark and silent; no sound from within or without broke its deserted gloom.

He was alone, nor was he likely to be disturbed. Seating himself, not without a furtive glance over his shoulder, he looked at the writing again, the writing and the seal, then opened the packet.

A roll of parchment, close writ, strangely stained in places a reddish brown, fell with a rattle on the floor. Visconti started back, he stared at it, uttered a hoarse sound, stooped and picked it up. The parchment was inscribed with poetry. Here and there among the stains a line was readable.

PERCHANCE THOU WOULDST NOT DARE TO TURN—

His glance caught the words. He looked around with wild eyes.

A huge, black bureau, fitted with many drawers, stood in one corner of the room. Visconti, the parchment in his shaking fingers, went to it, still with glances around, and drew out drawer after drawer, till he had found the thing he sought. It was among neat piles of parchments, annotated in Giannotto’s hand.

Visconti turned them over hastily, till he came upon a document hung with the seals of Verona, a cartel of defiance, neatly endorsed in a clerkly hand, and signed in large, bold writing, ‘Mastino della Scala’.

Eagerly he turned to the cover of the packet, and laid the two writings side by side. They were the same.

Visconti leaned against the black chest, breathing heavily, his face not good to look on in its white devilry.

‘He lives! Della Scala lives he cried, and struck himself in his rage. Then his gaze came back to the bloodstained parchment crumpled in his hand.

‘And this —? And this — where got he this? The parchment that I read from on the road that day; the parchment that I thought was left at Brescia, in that —’

The words died away on his lips. In a sudden paroxysm of something more than fury, Visconti drove it down among the others within the drawer, and locked and double-locked it in.

The day was fading; in that dull chamber the light fled early and entered late. Visconti glanced again stealthily at the dark arras, faint in the dusk. He strained his ears listening; the air was full of voices, far away, pleading for the most part, yet some so near and threatening, Visconti held his ears. They died away as they had come, but to Visconti the silence was more terrible.

‘Giannotto!’ he called. ‘Lights! It grows dark —’

He listened; he heard those sighs again, then suddenly the sound of flying feet, hurrying, hurrying; with a scream of horror Visconti rushed up the steps calling wildly for lights.

The huge door swung open at his desperate push, then, falling to behind him, shook the tapestry; as it fell into place again a long sighing filled the empty room.

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