The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 1.

Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti.

It is a day in early summer, as beautiful as such days were in the Southern lands of 500 years ago. It is Italy steeped in golden sunlight which lies like a haze over the spreading view; the year 1360, when cities were beautiful and nature all-pervading. Here is Lombardy, spread like a garden in the hollow of the hills, ringed about with the purple Apennines, covered with flowers, white, yellow, purple, and pink. This wide road, one of the finest in Italy, winds from Milan to Brescia, its whole length through chestnut woods and plains covered with flowering myrtle. Primroses in great clusters border its sides, and from the midst of their delicate blooms spring the slender stems of poplar-trees; these are red-gold, bursting into bloom against a tender sky; tufts of young green; clumps of wild violets.

But for all its unspoiled beauty, the road was one of common use, for Milan was within hail. Villas, the summer dwellings of its wealthy peers, stood back among the trees, surrounded by magnificent grounds. Behind them beautiful open country spread into the blue distance, fragrant and glorious with budding trees. And cold and magnificent the great city itself, with its huge walls and gates, crowned and emphasized the landscape’s beauty. The lines of hundreds of turrets and spires, bold and delicate, leaped up against the sky. And paramount, catching the eye with colour, weighing on the mind with meaning, were the city’s banners. They floated from the gates and the highest buildings, half a score of them, all with the same device. Far off could that device be read: a green viper on a silver ground: the emblazonment of the Visconti.

From afar the city was a vision of stately splendour, and the low dwellings clustered round about her walls, in the shadow of the palaces, appeared to the nearing traveller but a touch added of the picturesque. A close survey, however, revealed semi-ruined huts; in their foul neglect and unsightliness, a blot upon the scene. They were homes of peasants, who, tattered and miserable, starved and unwashed, seemed their fitting occupants. Here comes a band of them slowly dragging along the road toward Milan, men, women, and children, leading a few rough-haired mules, laden with scanty country produce. It was poor stuff, and a poor living they made at it. The wealthy grew their own fruit and vegetables, the poorer could not afford to buy. Crushed by hopeless oppression into a perpetual dull acceptance, the crowd trudged along, with shuffling feet and bent heads, unheeding the beauty and the sunshine, unnoticing the glory of the spring, with dull faces from which all the soul had been stamped out, and ‘fear’ writ large across the blank. Every movement showed them slaves, every line in their bent figures told they lived under a rule of terror, too potent for them to dare even to raise their eyes to question. A stream of grey and brown monotony along the glorious road, decked with the fairest: beauty of fair Italy, these miserable peasants were strangely out of keeping, both with the radiant blossoming country and the magnificent city they drew near.

Keeping close behind them walked a young man and a boy, better attired than the others, yet travel-worn and weary-looking. The delicate cast of their features bespoke them of another part of Italy, as did the soft Latin tongue in which they held their whispering excited conversation. The elder, whom his companion called Tomaso, was a fair-haired youth of about nineteen; the other, like enough to be a relative, a mere child of ten or twelve. The sun was growing hot, and their stout cloaks of dull red serge were flung back, showing their leathern doublets, to which the elder boy wore attached a great pouch of undressed skin, which evidently bore their day’s provisions.

Suddenly, when Milan, clear and grey, was distant barely half a mile, the group of wretched figures was roused from its shuffling apathy: and the terror latent in their aspect leaped into life and motion.

Swept back by the others, the two Florentines gazed in amazement to learn the cause of this panic. In the distance, brilliant between the dark stone of the gateway of the city, fluttered a banner, blazoned with the same device as those that blew above the walls. The peasants’ eyes, sharpened by fear, were quicker than Tomaso’s: it was some seconds before he could discern that the banner fluttered from the canopy of a splendid coach, magnificent in gold and scarlet, issuing from the sombre shadow into the sunshine of the road; and as it drew nearer, he looked with pleasure not unmixed with wonder at the rich gildings, fine silk, the beauty of the four black horses, the size and magnificent liveries of the huge Negroes who walked at their heads. To him it was an interesting sight, an incident of his travels. But to the Milanese peasants it was the symbol of the dread power that ruled Lombardy with a grip of blood, the device that kept Milan, the wealthiest, proudest city in the north, cringing in silent slavery; the banner that had waved from city after city, added by force or treachery to the dominions of Milan; the banner of Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti, Duke.

With trembling hands and muttered threats to their slow beasts, the hinds dragged their burdens to the roadside, forcing the children back into the hedges; leaving clear the way. Cowering and awestruck, in fascinated expectation, they stared, toward that oncoming banner, and at the horseman who rode behind.

Still at the same measured pace the coach advanced; a cumbrous structure, swung high on massive gilded wheels, and open under an embroidered canopy of scarlet silk. At the head of each black horse walked a Negro, richly dressed in scarlet and gold. The trappings of the steeds were dazzling, in stamped leather and metal.

But this splendour of array the peasant folk of Lombardy were used to; it was not that which made them crouch as if they would ask the earth to hide them, shiver and shudder yet farther back as if the soft green bank could save them.

In the coach sat two, a man and a woman, but both so old and shrivelled that the distinguishing characteristics of their sex were well-nigh lost. Both were richly clad in furs, and half-hidden in satin cushions, nothing of the old man visible but his wrinkled face, grey beard, and, loaded with rings, thin yellow hands, the fingers of which were clutching nervously at his heavy silken robe. The woman, painted and bedizened under a large red wig, weighed down by a gown of cloth of gold, and pearls around her neck, wrung her hands together, and whispered incoherently below her breath. Both had sunk together among the cushions in an attitude of despair, the man looking steadily in front of him with white face, the woman casting terror-stricken eyes over the wretched spectators in a mute appeal for help, if even from them.

Behind them rode the single horseman who had struck the terror. His pace was leisurely, his horse’s bridle held by a pale-faced man with long red hair, of a stealthy bearing, crushed and mean-looking, but resplendent in a jewelled dress. The rider himself, slight and handsome, about thirty, plainly attired in green, gave, at a first glance, small token of the spell he exercised. He rode with ease and surety: in one hand a half-rolled parchment from which he read aloud in a soft voice, in the other a long whip with which he flicked and teased the occupants of the carriage.

The coach and its occupants, the solitary rider, and the red-haired man, were the whole of the procession.

At the rider’s side hung a single dagger, the others were unarmed, yet the crowd trembled under a spell of fear as if half Italy had backed that man. No one gave sign of feeling, no one moved, though the wretched couple looked around keenly and eagerly, with the helpless misery of those who have fallen below everything save fear, and will stoop to ask help of the lowest. And the Visconti banner floated out dreamily upon the light spring breeze, and the rider rode at ease and read from the parchment with a smiling face.

Suddenly the old man rose, and threw out his hands with a wild gesture toward the crouching peasants. His frantic cry was stifled on his lips, and a cut from the whip sent him back to his seat with a snarl of impotent fury. The woman sobbed aloud, but sat still, for the tease of the whip followed their slightest movements, though the horseman seemed to heed nothing but the parchment from which he read.

‘Beautiful the Tuscan flowers grew Around the Florentine —’

The soft lines died away on his smiling lips: he raised his eyes and looked straight at the old man, who, at the words, had turned in his seat and was gazing over his shoulder with an intensity of hate.

But on the pause there followed a cold laugh as the old man winced, faltered, and dropped his eyes from that charmed and steady gaze. Again the whip circled round them, and the calm voice continued

‘But straight and firm the poplars grew The Lombard ranks between.’

The woman gazed around at the crowd, desperate in hopeless misery. Hopeless indeed. Not a finger was raised, not a word uttered, though, men alone, they numbered more than fifty.

‘Perchance thou wouldst not dare to turn And draw the veil, from off that face, Fearing what secrets thou might’st learn Both for thine own and her disgrace,’

read the horseman, and the cavalcade passed on its heavy way, and the faint hope that had leaped to life within the wretched victims, at sight of human eyes upon them, died within them.

But on the outside of the crowd, Tomaso and Vittore, kneeling with the rest, as that banner drew near, now stirred uneasily, and, as the coach came abreast, the woman made a convulsive movement with her hands. The elder sprang to his feet and stepped forward impulsively. At sight of him in the roadway the horseman drew rein, and the terror-stricken crowd watched breathless, while the youth advanced boldly to his stirrup, hot words upon his lips, defiance in his eyes. The red-haired man at the bridle crouched, but before the lad could speak, the rider, leaning forward, struck him a blow full across the face.

There was no need for a second. With a scream of pain, Tomaso fell back, and then, as if noticing them for the first time, the horseman sent his glance on the crowd. No sound or movement: they cowered beneath his eyes in deprecating silence.

‘Drive on,’ he said, and the dreary procession started again, winding through the sun and shadow toward Brescia.

So great was the spell upon the peasants, that though the wounded boy lay moaning in the road not a man, scarce a child among them, stirred from his place till the banner of the Viper was a silver speck in the distance.

Then with shaking hands the youth was dragged into the ditch amid a babble of blame and fear. Vittore, rising from his stricken comrade, gazed into the distance with horror-stricken eyes.

‘Who was it?’ he whispered at last to the woman near him. ‘Who was it?’

She turned a dull face from the scattered vegetables she was gathering together.

‘Who art thou that thou knowest not?’ she asked.

‘I come from Florence,’ said the lad quickly, ‘travelling to Verona.’

‘To Verona! Thou art not on thy way to Verona here.’

‘I know it, but the company we travelled with was bound for Milan. Three days ago we missed them, and thought to find them in the city where we looked to spend the night, but now —’

He glanced at his companion and could scarce refrain from weeping.

‘To Verona!’ said an old peasant, turning sharply at the name. ‘To Verona!’

The child dropped again to his knees beside Tomaso.

‘Yes,’ he said, over his shoulder. ‘My cousin — he is done to death, I fear me — and I were travelling by way of Milan to della Scala’s court —’

He broke off, and wrung his hands. ‘Oh, help me, someone; Tomaso is dying!’

With a certain dull humanity, kindness it could scarcely be called that was so inert and full of apathy, one or two of them gave what help they could.

‘Thou art from Florence!’ said the old man again. ‘Aye, indeed, I know thou art from Florence, for thy mate here to have had such daring. Why camest thou from Florence to anywhere by way of Milan?’

For even to the dull mind of the peasantry, Florence, who alone of the cities of Italy had preserved her liberty, seemed a country of the free, a republic of equality.

‘Tomaso’s father sent for him to come to him in della Scala’s court, and as last year my father was slain in the wars with Venice, since then I have resided with my cousin — and so accompany him — having naught else to do!’

The boy looked up bewildered; he was half-dazed with this sudden misfortune.

‘We go to Verona!’ he repeated. ‘We have food and a little money — if only this had not happened!’

He turned to his prostrate cousin and burst into tears.

The woman looked at him with pity: the old peasant shrugged his shoulders.

‘Thy cousin was over-bold! As well face the evil one —’ he mumbled and crossed himself, ‘as step into the path of the —’ he stopped abruptly and cast uneasy glances around him. ‘And that?’ cried the boy, his tears arrested, ‘that man on horseback?’

‘That was the Visconti! Aye! Gian Galeazzo Maria, Duke of Milan!’

The lad gazed down the road with interest and new terror. ‘The Duke of Milan! He who lately warred with Florence!’ he cried breathlessly.

‘Aye, and beat her!’ There was a touch of pride in the answer, for the peasant was of Milan. But the boy did not notice the remark, he was too absorbed in terrified conjecture.

‘And they in the carriage?’ he whispered.

A silence fell. The crowd shuffled away from him, and turned their faces to the city. Used to scenes of horror as they were, the cavalcade that had just passed them seemed, even to their half hearts, to have chilled the sunlight with its terror.

A young woman suddenly snatched her child up from the ground and strained it to her, in a passion of distress.

‘Oh, Luigi, Luigi, my little child, it was his father and mother, his father and mother!’

She grasped the old man’s arm. ‘Marked you how she looked at me?’ she cried.

The peasant checked her outbreak, but looked down the road with gloomy eyes.

‘They will never return from Brescia,’ he said; ‘they must be near seventy — old for such an end. However, hush thee, woman, ’tis no affair of ours!’ Several anxious voices echoed him.

‘Why should we care!’ said one, ”tis a Visconti the less to crush us.’

And Vittore saw the whole band turning off, pushing, driving, and urging their beasts along. He dragged at his still senseless companion in a sudden panic.

‘Help me!’ he said. ‘We would go on; I dare not stay alone.’ The old man laughed harshly.

‘Where will you go to? Are we to drag you into Milan to be whipped to death for harbouring you; and Verona is in the hands of the Visconti — his last and greatest victory!’

‘But my uncle — della Scala’s court!’ cried the boy distractedly. The old man drew himself up in his rags and spoke with a mixture of pride and awe.

‘Mastino della Scala perished in the flames of his burning palace; his wife is a prisoner, yonder in Milan, in the Visconti’s hands. Thou hast not much to look for from della Scala’s court,’ he said.

‘Hold thy peace! Hold thy peace!’ cried angry voices. ‘What hast thou to do with such as he?’ and the old man, whose better intelligence made him a source of danger to the others, was dragged away.

‘But thou wilt not leave me here?’ said Vittore, in distress. ‘Where shall I go? What shall I do?’ But the peasant folk were not much moved by his misfortunes, too much used to scenes like this.

‘We risk our necks by staying by thee,’ growled one dark-browed man. ‘As for thy companion, it is his own mad doing. He is dead, and we may be dead by this time tomorrow, and kicked into the ditch like hint’

Even the woman listened blankly to his entreaties, and the throng sullenly departed on its way.

‘Any moment a soldier of the Visconti may come by, or the Visconti himself may return, then anyone found tending one of his victims will be in sorry plight.’ This, mumbled out with curses at the delay, was their only answer.

The peasants of Lombardy lived in the shadow of an awful name. Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti knew fear of neither God nor man, neither pity nor remorse.

The young Florentine sank down upon the grass, and looked after the retreating train in mute distress. To seek for help would mean to leave his cousin, and he could not move him. Tomaso lay in a deep swoon, for the blow had driven him back upon a stone. Terribly wounded about the face, Tomaso added to his young cousin’s distress by his ghastly appearance, his head bound in rough bandages, torn from Vittore’s clothing, and now darkly stained with blood. The boy wrung his hands and looked up and down the road — no one in sight.

It was just after the victory in the long-standing wars between the cities; Verona had fallen into the Visconti’s hands; interchange of traffic was for the time laid low; the road was likely to be deserted, and for hours none passed.

The boy dragged Tomaso’s head and shoulders as far into the shade as he could manage, remoistened the bandages about his head, and tried to force down his throat some of the food and drink they carried. But the youth muttered between clenched teeth, and lay with wide-staring eyes, inert and unresponsive. His consciousness had returned, but he was delirious with fever. As the day wore on, new and sickening terror seized on Vittore. The Visconti would return to Milan! Hiding his face in his hands, he sobbed aloud. Since the bright dawn of the morning, what a change in prospects! Della Scala’s court a ruin, and Tomaso’s father — his uncle, the only parent he had left now — what of him! And Tomaso too! He must sit there and see him die beside him. As the noontide waned, he had fallen again into stupor, and the boy looked at his changed face distractedly.

‘He is dead!’ he cried, ‘I know he is dead!’ But he dared not leave him; besides, Milan held a terror, and he would scarcely dare to enter it. Perhaps when the peasants returned they might have pity on them; if not — again his sobs filled up the lonely outlook. The long hours dragged by; a horseman passed, a mercenary laden with some plunder from Verona; he did not even turn in his saddle. A few peasants slowly came back from Milan, seeking their huts around the neighbouring villas. But they were as deaf to his cries as before; he could come with them if he liked; but the other — he was dead and killed by the Visconti; let him lie there. And now Vittore was in despair; the sun was beginning to drop behind the trees, the delicate stems of the poplars stretched in long blue shadows, the faint golden light lay across the primroses, making them fairylike. Suddenly a step aroused him. Someone along the road. He started to his feet, and there, still in the distance, but rapidly approaching, was the figure of a traveller, his shadow thrown before him, his face set toward Milan.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51