The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 8.

For a Lady’s Gift

Tomaso Ligozzi sat in a corner of the ruined hut, with enthralled face, listening to Count Conrad, who lounged against the wooden table opposite. It was five days since Conrad’s rescue. He had made a recovery the more rapid that no leech had been there to meddle with him. Left to the simplest nursing, the barest needful nourishment, and the vigour of his own constitution, Conrad had rallied, till now, in almost full health, no trace was left of the hollow-faced, emaciated figure Francisco had carried into safety.

The morning after the rescue, it was decided that the hut was no longer a safe shelter; and, carefully destroying all traces of their habitation, the three, under Francisco’s leadership, helping Conrad between them, betook themselves into a thicket near. There, in his solitary prowlings to and fro, Francisco had discovered a deep cave underneath a sandbank, the entrance well overgrown with boughs and bushes. Here, not without discomfort, they hid till Conrad should be fit to travel, and comforted themselves for the wretched exchange when they heard the shouts of Alberic’s men.

Francisco was disappointed in his new ally. Count Conrad showed a levity, a forgetfulness of injury, that chimed badly with his own deep purposes. Tomaso was his chief reliance; his plan was to secure horses, by fair means or foul, and, as soon as Conrad could sit the saddle, to depart for Ferrara. So far Francisco’s stealthy and cautious manoeuvres to possess himself of what he needed had been unsuccessful; but at last he had come upon the track of something possible, and today, with Vittore to help him, he had departed to bring back with him the horses for their flight.

Twice between dawn and noon had Alberic’s men scoured their neighbourhood. Two, indeed, had come so near the hiding-place that their talk was plain. They spoke of the parchment found the day before and of the Visconti’s fury.

It seemed fairly sure that for many hours at least the soldiery would not return, as they could scarce confine their search to the one spot only; so, before Francisco’s departure, it was arranged between him and Tomaso that their rendezvous at sundown should be the ruined hut where they had first had shelter, there being no means of horsemen treading the thick brushwood around the sand-cave, and the hut affording opportunities of space and movement.

After a weary day and the second visit of the search party, which alarmed them as to the heat of Visconti’s pursuit, but reassured them also as to returning to the hut, Tomaso and Conrad reached it an hour before sundown and prepared to wait.

At first keenly anxious, straining for every sound, as time went on, unconsciously they grew more at ease, and Conrad beguiled Tomaso with his talk.

At last, with a sudden sigh, Conrad broke off, and lapsed into silence. Tomaso sat alert, looking through the open door. ‘Francisco is long,’ said Conrad after a while.

He was dressed in the leather doublet of a peasant, coarse and plain, yet very different from the rough attire Francisco wore. He was very handsome, of a sunny, pleasant expression, a quality rarely found among the Italians of Lombardy; and today, although prepared for flight, his blond curls were as carefully arranged as though he still shone at the court of Milan.

‘Messer Francisco is long,’ he remarked again, and Tomaso turned with a start.

‘He has doubtless met with unexpected difficulty, lord,’ he said with some reproach. ‘Horses must be found — somewhere — for our journey tonight. Every hour we stay here is dangerous.’

‘My heart misgives me that I did not accompany him,’ said Conrad; ‘we should all four have kept together.’

‘Doubtless too many would have hampered him,’ was the reply.

Tomaso did not add, as he might have done, that Francisco had his doubts of Conrad’s discretion, and had left Tomaso charged to see he committed no rashness in his absence.

‘Thinkest thou he will get the horses?’ continued the Count, twirling his curls through his fingers. ‘Let us hope he will try naught so mad as that attempt on the walls of Milan we made two days ago! The saints preserve us! But I thought it was all over with us! That was a fine race — tearing through the dark with Visconti’s soldiers at our heels!’

Tomaso was hurt at the flippant tone that reflected on Francisco’s judgement.

‘It was a gallant attempt,’ he said, ‘and all but succeeded; once within the town, we might have done much.’

‘And so might Visconti,’ remarked Conrad airily. ‘Thou art young, Tomaso, or thou wouldst see how worse than useless was such a mad escapade.’

‘Something had to be done,’ returned Tomaso, ‘this inaction was maddening Messer Francisco.’

Conrad smiled and changed the subject.

‘Who is this Francisco, thinkest thou?’ he asked. Tor a mere servitor at della Scala’s court, he bears a mighty hatred to Visconti.’

‘He served the Prince, and lost his master and his all in the sack of Verona. It is not strange he should wish to revenge della Scala’s wrongs and his own.’

‘I think him of better birth and station than he claims,’ said the Count judicially. ‘He has the bearing of one gently born.’

‘I take him for what he calls himself,’ the boy replied. ‘I owe him my life. I would die to serve him, nor would I question him.’

‘But would remind me that I owe him something too?’ laughed Conrad. ‘When the time comes to show it, I shall not prove ungrateful.’

He seated himself on the table, and idly swinging his legs, looked around the hut with lazy distaste and seemed to think of dozing.

‘Remember we travel tonight, my lord,’ said Tomaso, annoyed at such indifference.

‘If our good friend gets the horses’

‘There is no “if”, unless we wish to perish,’ flashed Tomaso. ‘If Francisco gets no horses, we must from here on foot.’

‘I do not oppose it. Rather than be taken into Milan, I will travel on foot in any other direction till I drop,’ laughed the Count.

‘Thou takest it lightly, my lord,’ said Tomaso. ‘Thou dost not seem as eager for revenge as thou wert. Think of the death Visconti doomed thee to. Thou hast great wrongs to right — wilt thou not return to Milan to avenge them? Or wilt thou ride away and forget?’

The laugh faded from Count Conrad’s face, and his eyes flashed.

‘No, Tomaso, I shall not forget,’ he said; ‘too well do I recall that night when I crept down the palace steps with my Lady Valentine. Visconti met us; parted us; ah, when I think of her face! — she was forced back to the horror of her life again: I, carried off to die of slow starvation in my own villa. Yes, yes; if his wrongs are like mine, Francisco did well the other night when we dashed on Milan; such wrongs put madness into one. Think of it, Tomaso; bound, gagged, half-crazed at the misfortune, I was hurried hither, secretly, at night, to be left to a dog’s death in my own villa. Death was what I expected, but I nerved myself to meet it as a noble should. There is a long low room in yonder villa, with narrow windows I could scarce get my hand through — all of stoney and meant for cool in summer heat; into this I was forced, unbound, left with mock ceremony, and the door locked upon me. Ah! the sound of that key, Tomaso; they seemed to turn it in my heart, for I guessed its meaning. I had heard too often of Visconti’s letting his prisoners die of hunger, and, as I listened to the soldiers’ footsteps fading in the distance, the cold horror of the truth seized my heart. At first it seemed impossible that I could starve in my own dwelling. I mocked my fears; I could force, I could break the window! I laugh now at my own absurdities. I could do neither, I could do nothing! Terrible hours followed, Tomaso, terrible hours and terrible days. Still I would not own the truth, and still, as no one came, I knew it to be true! I thought of the Lady Valentine, and wondered what her fate might be. I thought of Germany, and wept to think I should never see it more! Then one evening, as I lay, I think, half-senseless, I heard the key turn in the lock, and Visconti entered, followed by Giannotto; two white hounds slunk at his heels: well I remember. Dear Lord! I was fallen so low in my misery, I fell at his feet and begged for mercy, for pity, or speedy death! And he — smiled on me, and bade Giannotto bring food!

‘I cursed myself for my weakness, but could have kissed his feet. Then what happened I hardly knew. As in a dream I saw Giannotto lay a tempting feast; a banquet for one or two, such as I and Visconti had often shared together! I blessed him with uplifted hands! When all was set, he turned to me, still smiling.

‘“Thou askest for food,” he said. “I would not refuse thy last request, Count Conrad.”

‘And he flung one of the hounds a piece of meat: it ate and died! Without a word they turned and left me, the feast still spread, the dead hound by the table. Then methinks I lost my wits, and went mad with rage and agony. When my ravings ceased, I found myself, my hands upon the food, it almost at my lips. But I resisted; I set it from me; and then my eyes wandered round the room in blank despair. I saw — the key still in the lock! I thought it was a vision, a trick of Satan. I crawled toward the door: I dragged myself along. It was no vision: they had gone and left me free!’ Conrad paused; Tomaso, an absorbed listener, drew a deep breath.

‘What did it mean, lord?’ he asked.

‘Ask me not, Tomaso,’ answered Conrad with a lighter air. ‘They were so certain I should eat and die, it made them careless, or Giannotto had a throb of pity. Many kindnesses the knave has had from me. I know not what it was; such things will happen. I have heard of them when in my native land from prisoners of war. But all I knew and cared for was that I was free! At first, indeed, it seemed to promise little good. I crept, I know not how, into the garden into the air: the sky was overhead: it gave me strength: let me but get to the water and I would live . . . As by a miracle I reached the fountain.’ Again Conrad paused, shuddering at remembrance of his anguish.

‘The fountain?’ repeated Tomaso, absorbed in the relation. ‘The fountains were poisoned, boy; you know it; it boots not talking of it; it is all past and done with, and I live, a sound, free man, thanks to our brave Veronese; though in Booth how he could have saved me, had he not been a giant, I leave to my good angel to think out’; and Conrad laughed.

Tomaso looked surprised. He could not understand how Conrad could so easily shake off his hatred of Visconti, save when the thought was forced on him.

A silence fell which Conrad was again the first to break.

‘The Lady Valentine,’ he said, following his own train of thought, rather than addressing his companion, ‘does she ever think of me?’

Tomaso inwardly wondered how much he thought of her. Save when telling his tale to Francisco, this was the only time he had named her. It seemed as if his sufferings and his love alike were to lie lightly on his mind.

‘They say in Milan Lady Valentine is to marry the Duke of Orleans,’ Tomaso ventured presently.

‘They say echoed Conrad with scorn. ‘The Frenchman is not even yet in Italy. Much may have happened ere he is.’ Tomaso rose and looked from the doorway anxiously.

‘It is close on sundown,’ he said, ‘it is time Francisco came.’

‘It is intolerably wearisome,’ yawned Conrad. ‘I would I had gone with our friend — Would have been more enlivening than this.’

Tomaso’s face ill concealed his scorn.

”Tis a matter of life and death, Count Conrad; even now the soldiers may at any time return.’

With a pleasant smile von Schulembourg leaped from the table.

‘Pardon me, if I vex thee with my seeming carelessness,’ he said, with the charm of manner that could always win him friends. ‘I owe too large a debt to all of you, to be really so heedless as I seem; but methinks there is no single thing —’

‘Save keep ourselves in readiness, my lord,’ said Tomaso. ‘Francisco charged us to be so disposed that we could leap into the saddle without a breath’s delay.’

‘I remember,’ said Count Conrad, lapsing again into an idle mood. ‘Methinks our Veronese deliverer issues commands as if well used to it.’

The youth made no reply; he was gazing eagerly along the chestnut-bordered path, sorely impatient for Francisco’s return. ‘Canst thou play chess?’ asked Conrad suddenly.

Tomaso looked around at him in surprise. Did the German noble jest?

Von Schulembourg was again seated on the table, admiring his shapely hand, which he held against the light.

‘Play chess?’ repeated Tomaso. ‘No, my lord.’

Count Conrad crossed his legs daintily and sighed.

‘It were a splendid chance to teach thee — had we but the men. Thou hast read old romance, boy? And must remember how the knights and ladies play at chess? ’Tis a royal game.’

He sighed again, and glanced with disdain down at his leather doublet.

‘Yet ’twere strange to play chess in this garb,’ he added, and kicked the table with his heels in discontent.

Silence again fell, Tomaso still at the door, unheeding of the Count’s complaints, watching anxiously through the gathering dusk.

‘By heaven, boy!’ Conrad exclaimed suddenly. ‘Till this moment I had forgot it. Lady Valentine’s gift — thinking of the chessmen brought it to my mind. I swore never to leave it — with my life! And ’tis behind me in the villa.’

‘Behind thee, lord?’ cried Tomaso, bewildered and startled at his excited tones. ‘Where? What?’

Conrad was on his feet, his eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘At the villa,’ he cried. ‘I know where it is, I will go and fetch it.’

‘My lord, consider what thou say’st,’ and Tomaso barred the door with outstretched arms. We promised Francisco we would not leave the hut — to attempt the villa would be simple madness!’

‘Why, boy, the villa is close by,’ laughed Conrad, ‘and Francisco may not be back for hours most like; he may hang back till dark. Meanwhile am I to twirl my thumbs in here, and Lady Valentine’s love-gift calling to me from beyond that wall? Out of my way, Tomaso. The dagger may be useful, and ’tis beautiful: a handle carved out of a single stone. Lady Valentine will not forgive my losing it!’

‘The Lady Valentine will forgive the loss of a dagger, lord, when thou helpest to rescue her from Milan,’ Tomaso said curtly. ‘But what use to seek her gift and give thyself again into the Visconti’s power?’

‘Cush, Visconti! Visconti! . . . I have heard the name enough,’ returned Count Conrad. ‘I intend to have my lady’s gift — it suits neither my honour nor my affection to leave it there to be some mercenary’s plunder; and the chessmen too, boy! The set the Emperor gave — ah! you would love them — silver and ivory — I will bring them too. They will while away more weary hours such as these. What was I thinking of to leave them there so long!’

‘At any moment Francisco may return, and without thee here time will be lost; moreover, his orders were that we await him.’ At Tomaso’s words, Conrad raised his arched eyebrows. ‘Order? To thee, maybe; thou art a boy, and of humble station. I am von Schulembourg: orders scarcely tally with that name.’

He drew his mantle over his despised doublet, and stepped to the door, putting Tomaso aside and not heeding his entreaties. ‘Calm thyself, I shall be back long before the grim Veronese!’ he said airily. ‘Were there light enough, there would be time to learn the game before he comes again.’

‘I will learn from no one who so little knows his duty,’ cried Tomaso in hot wrath.

But it was as impossible to anger Conrad as to stop him, and with a smile on his lips and a good-humoured wave of his hand, he was gone.

Gone, absolutely gone, out of sight, into the heart of danger and at the crucial moment, for a set of chessmen and for a lady’s love-gift.

After an undecided pause of utter vexation, Tomaso could not resist the impulse to start in pursuit after him. But Count Conrad was fleet of foot; he had disappeared, and Tomaso dared follow no farther, for Francisco might return at any moment, and to find them both gone would make bad worse.

And scarcely had he reentered the hut when he heard the sound of horses ridden cautiously, and in a few moments more Francisco turned into the open.

He was mounted, Vittore in front of him, on a powerful black horse, and leading two others, and his face was animated with his triumph.

‘Thou see’st,’ he said, ‘we are well provided, though it has taken me all day . . . Now, to mount, without pause. Where is the Count?’

‘The Count,’ faltered Tomaso, half-crying with vexation, ‘the Count —’

‘Well, what of him?’ said Francisco, pausing keenly.

‘He has gone back to the villa — to fetch something. Oh, Messer Francisco, prevent him I could not — he left but now —’

‘Gone back to the villa!’ cried Francisco. ‘Did he rave? Is he in his senses?’

Tomaso wrung his hands.

‘He went to fetch a dagger he remembered and some chessmen.’

With a cry of rage Francisco flung himself from his saddle. ‘Methinks I left a fool to guard a fool,’ he said. ‘Did I not tell thee to see Count Conrad kept from folly? Our lives are on it.’

Tomaso paled at his displeasure, and faltered out a recital of what had happened, but Francisco cut him short.

‘The thing has happened,’ he said sternly, ‘and may cost us dear, but mine the fault to trust the foreign coxcomb.’ Never had the two boys seen him so moved, and they shrank into silence.

Francisco fumed with anger. We will ride without him,’ he said at length; but even while he bade Tomaso mount, and saw to his own girths, he paused irresolute, and Tomaso was thankful. He did not like to think of the gay Conrad left to meet his fate alone. He ventured to speak.

‘The dagger was a lady’s gift,’ he said, ‘the Lady Valentine’s. He could not bear to leave it.’

‘He will be wishing that he had,’ said Francisco brusquely; but his face softened, and he added presently: ‘He must be brought back, we cannot wait, and ’tis too dangerous to abandon him — for him and for ourselves.’

He flung the reins to Tomaso, and lifted Vittore to the ground. ‘Stretch thy legs the while,’ he said.

‘Shall I go, messer?’ asked the boy.

‘He will come quicker at my bidding,’ said Francisco grimly. ‘Keep open eyes,’ he added, ‘the soldiers must come by the road if come again they do. Hold thither at once and spy, and then return and wait us here. Tether the horses carefully and water them. They cost me something.’ He pointed to his roughly bandaged arm.

Half wild with remorseful vexation, Tomaso watched Francisco go the way the Count had gone, till his tall figure was lost to view. Then he and Vittore surveyed each other with anxious eyes.

‘Oh, cousin!’ cried the boy, ‘we have had a fearful day!’

‘Thou wert fortunate,’ returned the other bitterly; ‘Francisco is not vexed with thee’

But Vittore, full of his tale, was eager rather for a listener than himself to give sympathy.

‘Till noon we found nothing,’ he said. ‘Francisco hung around the farmhouses, but there were naught but sorry jades in every stable that we peered into, every one we tried, Tomaso, and so we roamed farther and farther across the plains —’

‘But how didst thou ever get such steeds as these?’ asked Tomaso, looking admiringly at the splendid animals, well groomed and well fed, fresh and vigorous.

We took them,’ said Vittore proudly. We came upon a camp of soldiers with horses and to spare, and Francisco asked them would they trade with him, and offered money, but they jeered and shouted and drove us off. Then Francisco stood before me while I crept up to those three and loosened their halters. The soldiers drank and sang; some lay and snored; they thought that we were gone, then suddenly 2 his voice sank with excitement.

‘What happened?’ asked Tomaso with interest. ‘I am glad that thou didst show thyself a brave lad, Vittore; what happened?’

‘They saw us; three of them rushed out; there was a fight, and Francisco won.’

Won? Against three?’ cried Tomaso.

‘He scattered them like the wind,’ said Vittore. ‘I know not how. He is a giant. He flung me on this black horse here; he mounted, I had the halters of the others in my hand. We rushed away. Of one he broke the head, I think, with his thick staff, and had his arm hit hard, but ’tis not hurt, he says. Some followed awhile, but they drank too deep; we left them like men dazed and mad, some falling by the road. It was a great business, cousin, but I felt no fear; Francisco is a brave, brave man’

‘He is a leader of men, methinks,’ said Tomaso gravely. ‘I little doubt the Count is right; he is more than he appears. Now we will leave the horses here behind these chestnuts, and step toward the road and reconnoitre.’

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