The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 9.

The Return of the Dead

Gripping Vittore’s hand, Tomaso looked cautiously up and down the road.

Crouching back in among the wayside trees, they commanded unseen a view of any who might come or go; and though the days faded fast, it was still light enough to see many paces off.

‘No soldiery about tonight,’ whispered Tomaso; ‘they have ridden farther afield. We will go back, Vittore.’

They had turned to retrace their steps when Vittore clutched his cousin’s hand yet tighter, and suppressed an exclamation.

‘Look!’ he whispered, ‘a horseman coming toward Milan.’

Tomaso looked round nervously, and saw a single rider approaching swiftly, but casting searching glances around.

As the boys watched, mistrustfully waiting, still in hiding, to see him safely pass, to their dismay he slackened pace, and finally drew rein altogether and looked eagerly in their direction.

‘Not a movement,’ breathed Tomaso, and Vittore crouched in silent fright.

None the less, motionless as they thought themselves, some slight movement betrayed them, for the rider dismounted, advanced toward their hiding-place, and softly spoke.

‘Who is there? I am a friend,’ he said.

‘He is a Florentine,’ whispered Vittore joyfully; but Tomaso leaned against the tree in silence, and even through the gathering dusk, as the younger boy looked up, he saw that he was pale and trembling.

‘Canst thou direct me?’ said the stranger. ‘I can pay thee for thy services.’

‘Answer him, Tomaso,’ Vittore whispered eagerly; ‘he is a Florentine, he will not hurt us.’

Tomaso made a step forward. ‘It is someone we know,’ he said chokingly, ‘or my brain is playing me strange tricks.’

As he spoke, he put aside the branches that hid them, and stepped forward. The stranger had guessed their hiding-place unerringly; he stood close by, his horse’s bridle across his arm. He was a slight, roughly-dressed, but well-formed man of middle age, light in colour and of strong yet delicate features.

‘Thou needst not fear me,’ he began with a smile; then, as the two figures drew nearer, he paused, and in his turn grew pale and trembled.

Tomaso, tossing his hair back from his face, with parted lips, stepped close, followed by Vittore.

‘Father! Thou dost not know me!’

‘Son! Tomaso!’ cried the traveller. He seized him by the shoulders with trembling hands, and scanned eagerly his face.

‘Tomaso!’ and his voice was shrill with feeling. ‘Tomaso at last

They had not met for many months and years — two at least; the father absent at a distant court, serving where chance had led him, for fame and fortune; the son, growing from boyhood into man in distant Florence.

Since Verona fell, Tomaso had mourned his father as dead, and he, in his turn, had wandered far, searching for the pair who had started out to find him.

With stifled sobs of joy, Tomaso clung about his father’s neck, and was clasped to him in frenzied pleasure.

‘They said thou wert dead, Father!’ broke out the youth at last. ‘I never thought to see thy face again.’

‘I thought the same of thee, my son,’ returned Ligozzi tenderly. ‘I have been searching for traces of thee long and wearily. I thought thou must have perished on thy long journey, having found out Verona had fallen. But is this Vittore?’ He drew to him paternally the boy who, so far, had watched the scene with wide-eyed curiosity.

‘And now, what art thou doing — and where staying?’

As if he feared to lose him, Tomaso held his father tightly by the sleeve, over which the bridle had been slipped, and Vittore clinging to the other hand, they drew him forward between them to the place from which they had come.

‘I am glad thou art not dead,’ said Vittore; Tomaso grieved for thee sorely, and so did I.’

Tomaso laughed happily. ‘Grieve! Aye, did we! But now we can rejoice.’

‘But why this haste?’ Ligozzi asked, ‘where dost thou hurry me?’

‘Back, Father, whence we came, for I was left in trust. It is a path thy horse can follow, and I will tell thee what has happened as we go.’

Ligozzi followed without further question, too full of joy for speech, and taking so much pleasure in that it was his son who spoke as for the moment not to heed too keenly what he said.

But when Tomaso, beginning, boy-fashion, with the last, and not the first, came to mention of the Visconti’s blow, Ligozzi roused to fury.

‘Methought I saw a scar across thy face,’ he said, ‘yet in this light I could not see too well. It is only one more wrong to set against the Visconti’s name, one deed the more to be avenged.’

Tomaso took the clenched hand and covered it with kisses.

‘I can forgive him now,’ he said, ‘since thou wert not slain when Verona fell.’

”Twas no fault of the Visconti’s that any living soul escaped,’ returned his father. ‘Still, go on with thy tale, Tomaso; who is this Francisco, that thou nam’st so oft?’

Tomaso, eager and suddenly light of heart, told all he knew, and ere his recital ended they had reached the open, and found everything as they had left it, the horses safe, nothing seemingly disturbed.

‘Francisco will be pleased at a helper such as thou, Father,’ said Tomaso proudly; ‘thou wilt be of more service in his venture than the German Count.’

‘And when this Francisco returns presently, the plan is that we set forth at once for Ferrara?’ asked Ligozzi.

‘And meanwhile rest, Father, and I will bring thee food. We have already eaten.’

‘I, too, my son,’ answered Ligozzi; but he seated himself on one of the rough wooden stools and watched Tomaso affectionately, as he brought the poor horn lantern from the wall. He lit and set it on the table, where it cast a straggling and wretched light.

‘Francisco is surely overlong,’ he said; ‘suppose the soldiers think to search again on their way home from some outlying district?’

‘Then there will be another fight,’ said Vittore, ‘but Francisco will get the best of it.’

Ligozzi laughed.

‘I owe this Francisco much,’ he said; ‘he must be a brave man, and his care saved you both. From Verona, didst thou say?’

‘From Verona, Father. He said he knew thee, thy name; he is di Coldra; he knew thee, he has said, and the della Scala also!’

At della Scala’s name Ligozzi’s eyes filled with tears, and his voice trembled when he spoke.

‘I at least knew della Scala well,’ he said, ‘and loved him too.’ He paused. ‘Next to thee, Tomaso,’ he continued sadly, ‘his memory has filled my heart during these weary weeks. I hoped, hope against hope, he might have escaped even as I did, but there comes no sign he lives.’

‘Then thou didst not see him perish?’ asked Tomaso softly.

‘On that fearful night on which Verona fell,’ answered Ligozzi, ‘della Scala himself defended the gates, fighting like a lion. But he was betrayed, Tomaso, by a dastard in his pay, and the Visconti’s soldiers poured in through the breach, secretly, and seized the palace, the Duke unwitting till it was too late and the palace flaming. I had to carry him the news; may I never have to do the like again. The palace was a sheet of fire, the Duchess was within, and the Visconti’s soldiers swarming. The Prince rushed like a madman through the streets, a little group of us behind him. Too late! The Duchess Was too great a prize, the miscreants had lost no time, and she was gone. A tale had reached the Duke while he still struck about him frantically that Gian Visconti himself had led the onset, and was still within the precincts with his prisoner. But it was a trap, Tomaso, set by a traitor. Della Scala, rushing where the pikeman pointed, was led beneath a burning stairway. It crashed in. I was behind the Duke; a beam struck me down, I thought among the dead, but some friars found me and brought me back to life; of della Scala they knew nothing.’ He paused, and hid his eyes a moment in his hands.

‘Thou didst care greatly?’ said Tomaso, after a painful silence.

‘He was a noble prince,’ replied his father. ‘I owe him everything; he made a friend of me, and I ever found him brave and generous, as strong as gentle, and most honourable — and he loved the Duchess, aye, he loved her. The Duchess still lives, a prisoner in Milan, but della Scala —’

He sighed deeply, and rose as if to put from him the memory of the tragedy.

‘But to return to thy deliverer,’ he said, ‘one Francisco di Coldra, thou say’st; he claims I know him. What manner of a man is he?’

As he spoke he moved with Tomaso to the door, and looked out into the dark. What kept Francisco and the Count?

‘He is tall and strong,’ replied Tomaso, ‘with thick brown hair and heavy eyes; a handsome face, I think it, Father, stern and sad. He is worn — as if from sickness. The Count thinks him better than he gives out; I know not.’

Ligozzi was silent; his figure alone was visible.

‘Seeing the case is as thou say’st, Tomaso,’ he remarked at last, ‘every moment of delay is dangerous, and thy friend is long.’

Tomaso stepped into the open, and, to ease his impatience, brought forward the horses.

‘I think they come,’ he cried joyfully in another moment. ‘It seems a dream, Father, that thou shouldst be here to meet Francisco.’

Ligozzi was still strangely silent. He drew back within the doorway. Hurried footsteps were heard, the crackling of fallen boughs, the swish of the flowering grass. Ligozzi saw a tall figure looming toward them through the dusk, a slighter one beside him.

Tomaso, from where he stood, eager and excited by the horses, cried out to them. Ligozzi, still farther back, bent down to Vittore, who stood beside him; seen by the dim light of the horn lantern, his face was strangely agitated.

‘Has this Francisco half-closed eyes, and a ready, pleasant smile?’ he asked.

Vittore looked up in surprise.

‘He has such eyes,’ he answered. ‘I have not ever seen him smile like that. Thou didst know him then, my uncle?’

‘Yes,’ Ligozzi answered brokenly. ‘I think — I remember him — at della Scala’s court.’

But here Tomaso, calling on him, reentered the hut, followed by Francisco, whose stately presence seemed to make the mean place smaller still.

‘My father,’ said the boy joyfully; ‘my father, saved from the taking of Verona, and come a long way in search of us!’

Francisco fell back, uttering a stifled exclamation; the anger cleared from his brow. He looked keenly at the figure in the shadow.

‘Ligozzi!’ he exclaimed, with shining eyes. ‘Ligozzi lives!’

‘It was a miracle, was it not?’ said Tomaso eagerly. ‘He has come to join us. He owes thee thanks, Messer Francisco, as do we.

And all this time his father had not spoken. Tomaso wondered at it, and now, when Ligozzi come forward shrinkingly, Francisco raised his hand as if to keep him back, or warn him, or restrain.

‘No thanks are needed,’ he said quickly. ‘I am Francisco di Coldra, from Verona, and ever ready to serve those whom Visconti hates!’

Ligozzi stood bare-headed, as if dazed.

Francisco spoke again, with meaning. Thy travel hath confused thee, sir,’ he said; ‘thou thinkest thou art still at the Duke of Verona’s court, that thou standest thus humble?’

At this, Ligozzi roused himself. ‘Tomaso has told me — he began. But again Francisco stopped him.

We must to horse!’ he cried. ‘To horse! Too much time has already been shamelessly wasted,’ and he strode out, motioning to them to follow.

By the horses stood Conrad von Schulembourg, bringing them one by one under review, in the scanty gleam of light afforded by the lantern, and that flickered upon them through the space that answered for a window.

‘A roan!’ he cried gaily. ‘I ever loved a roan charger. I will have this one, Francisco.’ He spoke airily, as if ten minutes since Francisco had not lashed him with his tongue, and threatened him even with death, should his foolhardiness endanger them again.

‘Thou wilt ride the black,’ said Francisco coldly.

‘Because I love the roan?’ asked the other with a laugh. ‘Because I say so,’ returned Francisco.

A mocking answer rose to Conrad’s lips, but it was never spoken. With a gesture, Francisco motioned him to silence. He turned and listened.

‘Horses! And coming hither!’ he said. ‘Soldiers!’

The others, grouped close by, ready to mount, stopped paralysed — yes, Francisco’s ears had caught the sound aright, the tramp of horsemen, and coming upon them from the road.

Escape with horses any other way there was none, though Conrad madly urged they should mount and fly.

But Francisco turned on him threateningly.

‘Am I to run thee through?’ he said; ‘these horses mean more to me than thy life, or my own. Where shall we ride? Into the water? No, go back into the hut.’ He turned to Ligozzi. ‘Aid me tether these beasts where they may be unnoticed. These men perchance are only riding through.’

It was done in silence and with expedition. The soldiers’ voices were now plain, and the jangle of their arms.

‘Come, Ligozzi,’ said Francisco, ‘thou and I will play at being soldiers, and see how we can overcome Visconti’s men. ’Tis a game that thou and I have played before.’

He drew his dagger as he spoke, and stepped back with Ligozzi into the hut. The door was closed. Francisco glanced around. By the table stood Conrad, showing even at that moment the silver and ivory chessmen, which he slipped out of his doublet one at a time, and passed them before Vittore’s now wandering, now fascinated gaze.

Ligozzi and Tomaso stood beside their leader, one on either hand. Tomaso’s face was white; the Visconti’s scar showed plainly; his breast throbbed with excitement. Ligozzi’s gaze was riveted upon Francisco.

A sudden babble of voices outside told the soldiers were in the open. A voice cried: ‘Halt!’

But ere this Francisco had put out the light. They stood in darkness.

‘I know that voice,’ said Francisco at Ligozzi’s ear; ‘Alberic da Salluzzo. When last I heard it ’twas in Verona, at the burning of the palace. Dost remember?’

Ligozzi nodded. They held their daggers ready. No one stirred. Count Conrad thrust his chessman back into his doublet. He regretted Francisco had dragged him so furiously away before he had time to find Lady Valentine’s dagger with the emerald. It could have been of service now.

There was a lull outside. The soldiers had dismounted, but the captain kept his seat. The horses champed, threw up their heads, and clanked their trappings; but as he talked with the men told off to hold them Alberic’s swaggering tones were plainly audible.

Suddenly a shout arose.

‘They have found the horses,’ said Francisco.

Alberic flung himself from the saddle. They could hear that. Torchlight suddenly flared across the opening, high up in the wall, and more faintly through the broken roof. There was a sudden blow upon the door Francisco’s giant frame was barricading.

‘Who is within here?’ cried a harsh voice. ‘Open!’ and there came another blow.

But it scarce had fallen when Francisco, so swiftly no one could foresee his intention, stepped aside and let the door fly open as if the blow had forced it. On the threshold stood Alberic da Salluzzo, resplendent in jewelled armour and waving plumes. In the smoking torchlight, badly held, it seemed as if the place he looked into were empty.

‘Who harbours here?’ he said, and stepped across the threshold. ‘Bring thy torch here, Guilliamo.’

But Francisco was swift. The door was shut before the soldier heard, and Francisco set once more his giant frame against it. In an instant, by the breathing of the men near him, da Salluzzo knew he had been trapped. He turned to escape, he was about to call but a hand of iron closed round his throat. In the dim light the place seemed full of threatening forms.

He was trapped indeed! Half-strangled, he ground his teeth at his folly more than his plight, and struggled to get his dagger, but his hands were caught.

In vain he struggled; he was a powerful man, but he who held him was more powerful. In vain he tried to cry aloud to those without; his voice was gripped within his throat. Slowly but irresistibly he was forced back against the farther wall, with a strength he thought could not be man’s.

In a moment more, the soldiers without, nonplussed, but only for an instant, by their captain’s disappearance, broke in the door. They could scarce believe their senses. Da Salluzzo lay dead upon the floor, and over him there towered a tall figure. They saw naught else. These men had fought with Alberic at the Sacking of Verona; they knew that form, they had seen that face before. By their torches’ smoky glare it seemed unearthly, and the eyes to flame, the form to fill the hut.

‘Come and fetch your captain!’ cried Francisco. But at the voice, at the look of his wild face as he advanced, they dropped their torches and scrambled back across the threshold panic-struck.

‘Mastino della Scala!’ they cried, ‘Mastino della Scala!’ And dropping the lights they fled in terror.

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