The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 11.

Mastino Della Scala

In the council chamber of the Estes’ summer palace at Ferrara were gathered the heads of the reigning families of Lombardy. At a long table, set across one end of the apartment, two men were seated talking to one another in low voices. They were Ippolito d’Este and Giacomo Carrara, Duke of Padua. D’Este, a stern, grey-haired man of fifty or so, with keen eyes and a hard mouth, was talking rapidly, tapping the while his fingers nervously upon the table.

Carrara, florrid, pleasant-mannered, with brilliant black eyes, black hair, and a ready smile, leaned forward and listened, observing him keenly. Opposite them, but the length of the table away, a lady with tired eyes and a patient mouth leaned back in her chair, motionless, watching the trees seen through the window.

She was Julia Gonzaga, the representative in this gathering in the name of her infant nephew, of the city of Mantua and its domains, the head of the fourth and last great family of Lombardy who dared to raise a hand against the encroachments and the power of Visconti.

But if at this end of the chamber the only sound was low converse, all subdued and quiet, at the farther end gay voices and bursts of laughter broke the stillness.

For seated in the broad window-seat, toying with a sprig of myrtle, was Count Conrad, brilliant and light-hearted, clad in the last extreme of fashion, resplendent in primrose velvet and mauve silk, with long scalloped sleeves that swept the ground.

Around his waist was a gold belt suspending, by a jewelled chain, an orange stuck with cloves and enclosed in a case of silver filigree.

Count Conrad also wore ear-rings, pearl drops that shimmered through his blond curls, and on each wrist a bracelet; yet even this effeminacy could not altogether destroy a certain manliness that was the Count’s, in spite of an almost seeming wish to disallow it.

Beside him, half-leaning through the window, was a youth of twenty, of that brilliant beauty too bright to last.

He too was dressed more like an idle courtier of the Valois court than a fighting noble of the free cities, and the rare charm of his face was marred by the spoiled affectation of his manner.

‘Another war!’ laughed Conrad. ‘I have done naught but fight since I left Germany. I am on the sick list.’

‘Not when the war is of thine own seeking,’ said Vincenzo. ‘Because thou needs must fall in love with the Visconti’s sister — as if there were not others as fair and far safer to woo!’

Conrad crossed his legs and glanced critically at the taper points of his gold shoes.

”Tis not my wooing of Visconti’s sister has caused war,’ he replied. ‘Thy brother-inlaw —’

‘I beseech thee,’ cried Vincenzo petulantly, ‘leave me some little rest from mention of his name and wrongs! Ever since you rode into Ferrara some six days ago, there has been naught else talked of but Mastino, Mastino’s wrongs, what we must do for Mastino — till I fair weary at the name!’

‘You would not risk your all to glut his vengeance?’ remarked the Count. ‘None the less his wife is your sister, and a d’Este.’

‘No need for the heroics he makes over her, even so. Visconti will not hurt her, yet we must be hurried into war for it, forsooth!’

‘I owe della Scala my life,’ returned Conrad airily. ‘I should be the last to speak; still, my wrongs are as many and as deep. I love the Lady Valentine. I have lost my land and my jewels, my house and servants, yet I am quite ready to settle in some other part of Italy — and forget Visconti. I do not go about trying to entice other people into my quarrels.’

He sniffed at his orange as he spoke, and breaking off the end of the myrtle, stuck it in his belt.

Vincenzo’s beautiful eyes flashed. ‘Art thou a poltroon then?’ he cried scornfully. ‘Loved I a lady and she were kept from me, I would not rest while a stone of the palace that held her remained one on the other.’

Conrad raised his eyebrows, startled at the sudden change of front.

‘Then you should understand Mastino,’ he said.

‘I hate Mastino. He is wearisome,’ cried Vincenzo, pettishly. ‘Still, I do not love a laggard’

Conrad’s reply was checked. Ippolito d’Este had arisen and was calling them to join him. Reluctantly they rose, Vincenzo with a yawn of distaste, and approached the table.

Ippolito frowned at Vincenzo’s face.

‘You would spend all your time in idleness, it seems,’ he said. ‘Have you no interest then in our decision as to the aid della Scala asks?’

Vincenzo dropped into his seat, seemingly rebuked. ‘Aid, my father?’ he said. ‘I knew not it was aid della Scala asked, me-thought ’twas all!’

‘My proposal is an army,’ said Giacomo smoothly. ‘A small army. Let us see what success della Scala has with a small army. Our all is much to ask.’

What say you to that?’ asked Ippolito of his son.

‘With all my heart,’ returned Vincenzo. ‘An army small or large, so long as it rids us of his gloomy face about court.’

‘Thou art an insolent boy,’ interrupted his father sternly. ‘At thy sister’s wedding thou wert proud that Mastino della Scala stooped to pat thee on the head. The Duke of Verona was once as much greater than we, Vincenzo, as we are higher than a footman. It goes not with nobility nor with honour to slight the fallen.’

Vincenzo blushed under his father’s rebuke and sat silent. But Giacomo, always ready to smooth things over, turned to the Duchess of Mantua.

‘And you,’ he said. ‘You, lady, what think you of trusting della Scala with an army?’

Julia Gonzaga smiled a little wearily.

Where is he, to speak for himself?’ she asked.

‘We are waiting for him,’ Ippolito replied. ‘He said he would be with us. He is late,’ he added testily.

‘Doubtless the hour has escaped him,’ put in Giacomo pleasantly. ‘The Duke of Verona will not fail us.’

‘He will disappoint us — if he turns up,’ said Vincenzo under his breath. But Conrad caught the whisper and choked with a suppressed laugh — not that the remark was funny, but that Count von Schulembourg was foolish. Ippolito’s stern, eyes were turned on him.

‘Is this a council of war?’ he asked, ‘or a gathering of —’

‘A council of war,’ interposed Conrad hastily, with his most winning smile.

But d’Este looked on him with mistrust; he had no love for the light-hearted German.

Still Mastino came not, and Giacomo moved with a great show of patience and forbearance.

”Tis scarcely the way to treat with us,’ he said.

”Tis treatment good enough for those who bear it,’ breathed Vincenzo, and Conrad sniffed his orange. Ippolito’s brow grew dark; he struck a gong beside him, and a page appeared.

‘Tell my lord of Verona we wait for him.’ He turned to the others. ”Tis agreed,’ he said quickly, ‘that we furnish della Scala with a small army — to be contributed between us’

Carrara moved in silent assent; on Julia Gonzaga’s face a faint scorn showed.

A silence fell, broken only by the tapping of d’Este’s fingers on the polished table.

Then at the farther end of the chamber two pages drew apart the scarlet curtains and Mastino della Scala entered. Conrad, glancing up, wondered how even for a moment he could have mistaken him for aught but what he was, so noble and stately was his bearing.

Conrad and the d’Estes moved at his entrance, but slightly, and kept their eyes upon him as he walked to the head of the table and there took his place.

Though by far the plainest in attire, his simple leather doublet in marked contrast with Conrad’s display and Vincenzo’s fashion, he took the head of the council, naturally and unquestioned. So much of the glory of his former greatness still remained to him.

‘And are your councils ended?’ he asked. ‘I would hasten you, my lords. Still further delay, and Visconti will be first in the field.’

He paused, and took his seat in the large black chair, looking keenly at their faces.

For a moment no one answered, then Giacomo leaned forward with a deprecating smile.

‘My lord of Verona,’ he said smoothly, ‘you ask us to venture everything — and give us five days in which to decide — surely you are not surprised our answer is not quite ready?’

Mastino della Scala bit his lip to keep back an angry reply. ‘Five hours were enough in such a case as this, my lord,’ he said quietly.

Now d’Este spoke hastily. ‘We have come to a resolution, Mastino — one in which we all agree,’ and he looked questioningly around upon the others. No one answered, and, taking silence for consent, Ippolito continued:

We will aid thee, Mastino, I and Carrara, and the Duchess of Mantua —’

He paused a little nervously, and Giacomo kept his bright black eyes on Mastino’s face.

‘My lord of Ferrara says rightly,’ he put in smoothly. ‘I will second him.’

The note of condescension in the Duke of Padua’s voice stung della Scala sharply; it was only with an effort he controlled himself.

‘With what will you aid me?’ he asked calmly.

Still d’Este hesitated, for his proposal was mean even in his own eyes, but Giacomo answered for him in even tones: ‘We will aid you with an army of ten thousand men, Lord della Scala, to be recruited from Padua, Mantua, and Ferrara; well armed and —’

But della Scala had risen.

‘Spare thyself a catalogue of their virtue, my lord of Padua,’ he said. ‘For I refuse thy offer — one well worthy of a Carrara!’ Giacomo paled with anger; his merchant descent was a sore point, and Mastino’s words struck home.

‘Refuse!’ exclaimed Ippolito. ‘Ten thousand men!’ Della Scala glanced at him with scorn.

‘Ten thousand men!’ he echoed. ‘Yes, I refuse ten thousand men. I thought thou once lovedst me, d’Este, and wert too much of a soldier to dishonour me by such a proposal.’

‘We can make it more —’ began Ippolito.

‘Dost thou not think I can see through this?’ interrupted Mastino bitterly. ‘This offer is but given to get rid of me — a safer way of dismissing me from the court that once cringed to entertain me than a plain refusal. Ten thousand men! I thought better of thee, d’Este.’

‘Then fifty thousand,’ replied Ippolito, stung by the reproach. ‘A royal number,’ put in Conrad, but della Scala turned on them in fury.

‘No!’ he cried. ‘Not fifty nor a hundred thousand men, to make sport for Visconti’s leisure hours — Visconti who holds nine towns of mine alone, Visconti who is leagued with France and has the Empire at his heels, Visconti who has gained Bergamo, Lodi, and Bologna and has half the mercenaries of Italy in his pay! No, d’Este, I have been too great for that. Since you so forget what I have been, and who my wife is — I will leave thee, nor trouble thy peace for men thou canst not give ungrudgingly. And thou, Carrara, I will leave thee — in thy blind folly, to wait for Visconti’s eye to fall on thee; all thy prudence will not save thee then. Meanwhile, I will try in the towns of Tuscany if there be men left in Italy to face a tyrant!’

They sat silent beneath his wrath, and he turned to go, but paused and looked back to them with a glance they could not meet.

‘Only hear this before I go,’ he said passionately; ‘there is one thing thy faint-heartedness shall not touch, one thing I will achieve without thy aid, though thy meanness leaves me, and that is, at any cost, the freedom’— his voice trembled —‘of Isotta, my wife. I will free her,’ he continued sternly. ‘Before you all I mean it; she shall be saved, even if mine honour goes to do it.’

And he turned away, but Count Conrad rose, roused out of himself by the excitement Mastino had inspired.

‘I will follow thee,’ he cried.

‘What wouldst thou have, Mastino?’ cried Ippolito after him, half-distraught. ‘What wouldst thou have?’

Della Scala turned in the middle of the chamber, magnificent in his wrath and pain. ‘All,’ he said proudly. ‘All thou canst give, and above all, thy trust. I am no boy to be put off with a few soldiers. I need Modena, Ferrara, Padua, every town of Lombardy that is in thy hands; all thy money, all thy troops, everything thou canst give — and then I will crush Visconti. When I fell it was through most foul treachery. I will league with no half-hearted friends again.’

And again he turned to leave, this time Conrad at his heels, when a soft voice arrested him, Julia Gonzaga’s.

‘I have this to say before thou leavest us, della Scala,’ she said. ‘All I have, Mantua and its lands, is at thy disposal, and I am proud so great a captain as my lord of Verona should command my men’

Mastino turned, his eyes sparkling with joy.

‘My greatest thanks for thy gift, lady,’ he said, ‘and still more for the gracious manner of thy giving.’ And before he could say more Vincenzo rose impulsively.

‘Shall we be outdone by a woman!’ he cried, his beautiful face flushed. ‘It goes not with our honour, Father, we should leave Mantua to fight Visconti!’

Ippolito no less was roused.

He stepped toward Mastino and held out his hand.

‘I ask thy pardon for too much wariness,’ he said with a faint smile. ‘I am as proud now as ever of my relationship to thee, and everything within my hands is thine to use as thou wilt against Visconti.’ Mastino grasped his hand convulsively.

‘Thou shalt not repent it,’ he said, his generous soul melting at once. ‘While I live thou shalt not repent.’

Meanwhile Giacomo Carrara’s prudent brain had rapidly concluded it would be most to his advantage, at least for the moment, to side openly with della Scala, even in this wholesale fashion.

‘I too am of the same mind,’ he said pleasantly and frankly. ‘All I have is thine, della Scala.’

‘Then in a few days I will march on Verona!’ cried Mastino, ‘and with thy generous aid I shall recover it! My heart is too full. I cannot speak my thanks,’ he continued, ‘but by my honour and my sword I swear, thou, d’Este, thou, Carrara, and thou, lady, you shall never regret your trust in me’

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