The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 13.

Valentine Visconti’s Toast

The Visconti palace was brilliant with lights and gay with the hum of voices.

Splendidly attired, in all that wealth or taste could desire, the French guests seemed to diffuse some of their own light-hearted gaiety over the sombre abode of the Visconti.

The entrance stairs of fine white marble were spread with a purple silk carpet, the golden balustrades intertwined with roses emitting their fragrance, and the long gallery opening from the stairway and lit by wide windows, deep set in the stone, showed the long, low balcony smothered in myrtles, lemons, citrons, oranges, and gorgeous flowers, scented and abundant, filling the corridors with the sense of summer and mingling their slender trails with the stiff folds of the rare and costly tapestries that covered the walls and were laid upon the floor.

At intervals stood statues, masterpieces of ancient art, faintly lit by the golden glimmer of the swinging lamps.

And all the stairs and corridors and gallery were alive and brilliant with the magnificent guests of the Visconti — lords and ladies, the finest the dismantled court of France could boast. Yet, used to splendours as they were, coming from the most refined court of Europe, the costly display made by an Italian usurper impressed them with wonder, almost with awe.

Tisio Visconti, most richly dressed and adorned with all his favourite jewels, mingled in the throng, gay and happy, forgetful of everything save the lights and the colours, the kindly respectful tones in which he was addressed, unheeding the silent page that followed him.

The wide, usually so sombre, entrance of the palace stood open upon the street, and the red flare of torches, the gleam of richly-caparisoned horses, the bustle of pages and men-at-arms, were visible to the courtiers within, and blended city and palace in one splendour.

‘I would the French were always here,’ cried Tisio, excitedly. ‘I love the palace to be light and gay.’

The gay flutter of silk and satin, the elegant grace of the strangers, pleased him, and he smiled like a contented child. But suddenly all the light was struck out of his face.

‘Gian,’ he said dully.

‘The Duke!’ the courtiers behind him took up the word, and the tattle of voices ceased.

Gian Visconti was approaching down the gallery, followed by several pages in the Viper’s silver and green livery.

He passed between the rows of bowing courtiers carelessly; there were many there of the proud nobility of France who found it hard to stand silent and respectful before this man, whose crimes alone were his passport to sovereignty.

To them this marriage was a humiliation, a disgrace to the French crown, but to Visconti it was a triumph, the successful crowning of ambition. He was in a genial mood, and as he passed Tisio stopped and smiled, telling him for tonight he might go where he pleased.

It was not too much to spare to the brother whose possessions he enjoyed.

And as Visconti passed on, more than one Frenchman raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders expressively as the sweep of his scarlet train disappeared.

Among the throng the ever-ready secretary waited for Visconti’s eye to fall on him, and the Duke, dismissing the pages, beckoned him forward.

‘No news from Verona, or Mantua?’ he asked.

‘None, my lord.’

‘None? The messengers are late. But after all why should they haste?’ said Visconti. ‘Della Scala will hardly be in the field yet,’ he added with a smile.

‘If ever, my lord,’ replied the secretary smoothly.

The two had withdrawn in the embrasure of one of the great open windows, and Visconti, glancing through it, turned his gaze there where, clear in the blue summer night, rose the outline of an abutting building, grim and dark and silent: Isotta’s prison.

‘See the guards be doubled there,’ he said. The secretary bowed.

‘As to the Lady Valentine, my lord,’ he said insinuatingly, ‘she is safe and well, and at her prayers with her women. I have kept guard upon her slightest motion.’

Visconti drew a ring from his finger. He was in a generous mood tonight, a rare one enough, as Giannotto thought with bitterness.

‘Take this for thy pains,’ he said. ‘And now I will relieve thee ‘of thy watch; she can hardly escape under my very eyes and with her bridegroom waiting. Let the guests know I bring the bride, Giannotto.’

Visconti withdrew the length of one of the corridors, and paused there at a door before which stood two soldiers, the guard of his sister’s apartments. At his soft approach they stood back, and, opening the folding doors, Visconti passed through, and quickly threaded the deserted anterooms until he reached the chapel that the lady used.

The place was dim, lit by red lamps that cast more shadow than light, and with high, stained windows, now scarcely showing colour. And seated on the floor under one of them, her head against a carved wall, her hands listless in her lap, was Valentine.

She wore a dress of flame-coloured satin, and her hair was elaborately dressed with rubies and pearls. She made no movement at her brother’s entrance.

The air was heavy with incense and the perfume of some white roses that faded across the altar steps.

‘We wait for thee, Valentine,’ said Visconti.

A couple of her women moved forward from the shadows, and whispered to the Duke they could do nothing with her. He motioned to them to withdraw.

‘Valentine, come! Think of the splendid life that opens before thee from today’ Visconti’s tone had the gentleness of one who has gained his point. ‘Thou mayst be Queen of France.’ But Valentine Visconti had too much of her brother’s spirit, too much of the ungovernable pride of will, not to hate this yielding to the force of power. She hated her brother’s tyranny. She hated this marriage. What would life be for her, with an indifferent husband, in an idle, impoverished court, among foreigners, strangers, far from her own land? She would not be forced to it. She rose to her feet, desperate.

Visconti watched her keenly, standing waiting.

‘Come,’ he repeated, ‘the Duke of Orleans. waits. The feast is ready.’

For one moment a mad hate of him overmastered her, a wild desire to refuse to stir, to cling to the altar, dash herself against the floor, anything rather than obey. She knew his parricide; he was not the elder. She would not obey.

Words of defiance were on her lips, but glancing at his face, the words died away, and a sense of the useless folly of resistance, the useless humiliation of refusal, surged over her. She was in his power. When she spoke, it was humbly, in a faltering voice, with tears.

‘Gian,’ she whispered. ‘Gian — I have never asked anything mof thee before. Gian — this marriage is hateful to me —’ she paused, then stepped forward with appealing eyes. ‘Gian — have consideration — have mercy!’

‘The Duke of Orleans waits,’ smiled Visconti. ‘Will you not let me lead you to him?’

Valentine drew back and steadied herself against the wall.

She thought of Conrad with bitterness and shame, of his vows of devotion, how he had sworn she should never wed the French prince — and — he was free — had been so for many days, and never a word or a sign.

Visconti flung wide the chapel door, and in the adjoining room he summoned to her side his sister’s page. Valentine’s eyes fell on him, and she noted how the blood rushed to his face as he sprang to obey. He was a fair-haired boy with eager eyes, who worshipped her with a romantic devotion at which she had often smiled; but now —

He lifted her train, and Visconti held out his hand. Outside her doors soldiers kept their motionless guard, and beyond the gay crowd swept to and fro. Silently Valentine moved forward, but her heart was burning with rebellious hate.

‘I will still try once more for freedom,’ was the thought she held to; and as they traversed the great corridor and her eyes fell, as had her brother’s, on the grim outline of Isotta’s prison, ‘I will free her too,’ she added, with a swelling heart.

And Visconti thought her conquered, cowed into complete submission, and watched her pass ahead of him down the banqueting chamber with a satisfied smile to see her the fairest and the proudest there.

The brilliant courtiers streamed in, a mass of colour and jewels, and Visconti, seated at the head of the table, glanced at the effeminate faces and frivolous bearing of the guests with some contempt.

‘No news?’ he whispered to Giannotto behind his chair. ‘No news from Ferrara yet?’

‘None as yet, my lord. The messengers are expected at any moment.’

The apartment was a blaze of wax candles that threw a thousand dancing reflections on the elaborate silver and glass that covered the table.

The bright light fell too on the rubies on Valentine Visconti’s throat. She sat at her brother’s side, with a pale face And sparkling eyes. On Visconti’s right was her bridegroom, the Duke of Orleans, an elegant young man with weak eyes and a receding chin. His scanty, fair locks were carefully arranged with grease and curling irons into stiff curls, the ends of his moustache were elaborately twisted, and his face was rouged plentifully on the cheeks.

Valentine looked at him once, then ignoring him utterly, she looked down the long, glittering table to the great entrance facing her, with a crowd and press of liveries and hurrying attendants, waiting pages. As for the French duke, he conversed with Visconti, ignoring the hardly hidden contempt that he was either too dull to see or too politic to resent.

The banqueting hall filled: and the guests in their seats, the secretary, standing back among the servitors, crept out into the antechamber. After the glare and splendour of the banquet, the room seemed dull and sombre, and Giannotto stumbled over a crouching figure.

It was Valentine’s page, weeping bitterly.

‘Poor fool!’ muttered the secretary. Wouldst thou lose thy place as well as thy heart?’ And he passed on with a laugh. But after a pace or two he paused. Through the palace windows floated a sound as of distant murmuring and commotion, yet so faint he could scarce be sure of it.

The page had risen, shamefaced at having been discovered. He was very young, and his grief very real to him. He choked a little, stifling his sobs.

‘Silence!’ said Giannotto angrily. ‘Listen!’ The sound grew nearer and more distinct, and the secretary went to the window nearest and leaned forward eagerly.

Several horsemen and soldiers came riding swiftly, holding flaming torches; windows were flung open, people hurried to and fro.

‘Some evil news has got abroad,’ said Giannotto, straining eyes and ears.

And now the noise of angry shouts and frightened cries became too plain, and the secretary could see by the flare of some horsemen’s torches, a throng of country folk, laden with their possessions, and some men driving herds of cattle, and soldiers torn and dusty.

‘Evil news, indeed, I fear,’ he muttered, and waited anxiously.

A ray of brilliant light from the banqueting hall beyond fell between the curtains and streamed across the room, there was laughter and clink of glasses, and a voice singing in French to a lute. The page clenched his fists and turned to go.

‘Stay,’ said Giannotto, ‘stay. If thou wouldst end thy days, here comes a chance, methinks, for someone will have to carry ill news to Visconti.’ And even as he spoke a white-faced servant entered.

‘My lord,’ he cried, as Giannotto stepped before him, ‘there has been some sore disaster — the country folk are trooping through the gates — there is a panic in the city.’

‘The messengers!’ cried Giannotto, ‘the messengers!’

‘The messengers have not returned — but there are plenty bringing news who were not sent for it, my lord.’ And as the man spoke, a disordered group, soldiers and servants, pressed into the room behind him.

‘Gently, my friends,’ said Giannotto, checking their agitated outcry and pointing to the curtains that hid the banqueting hall. ‘The Duke —’

A man, dusty and white-faced, forced himself out of the crowd, small, but swelling every moment.

‘I bear the news the Duke must hear,’ he said, ‘and quickly.’ Where hast thou come from?’ asked the secretary. ‘What is thy news?’

‘Since daybreak I have been flying for my life — I am a servant in the garrison at Brescia — it is destroyed,’ gasped the man.

‘Brescia!’ The echo of horror. ‘Has Brescia fallen?’

‘Aye, fallen — into della Scala’s hands.’

Giannotto looked around bewildered, incredulous.

‘Della Scala at Brescia?’ he said. ‘You dream!’

But the room was filled now with a white-faced crowd that would not be kept back, and from every side echoed the evil tidings.

‘Brescia — at dawn today della Scala whirled down on us, flushed with victory — and in two hours the town fell.’

‘And Visconti thinks him idle at the d’Este’s court!’ broke from Giannotto.

The crowd filled the chamber with the whisper of dismay and horror, but from the banqueting room still came the song and the laughter — Visconti was in blissful ignorance of evil. Who could tell him? Who would dare?

Well Giannotto knew the fall of Brescia could be only the last of a series of incredible disasters; so swift as to seem miraculous. Victory after victory must have fallen to della Scala before he could have marched on and taken a place so near Milan; victories following too fast on one another to have reached Visconti before their culmination. The news indeed was terrible!

Who would enter the banqueting hall?

All shrank.

”Tis almost certain death,’ they muttered, and Giannotto smiled.

‘The Duke carries deadly weapons’

As he spoke the curtains were pulled aside for a moment as one of the serving men stepped out, and Giannotto, bending eagerly forward, caught a glimpse of two faces at the far end of the brilliant table.

Visconti’s, laughing, triumphant, insolently handsome, and Valentine’s, set and white, with dangerous eyes.

The curtains fell to again, but Giannotto had a thought. ‘Leave it to me, good friends,’ he said, and passed into the hall. ‘The Lady Valentine shall give the news!’ That was the secretary’s inspiration. ‘The Duke dare not touch her, and it will be a pleasure to her that she may reward’ And the crowd, gathering in the anteroom, waited, bewildered and terrified, to hear the blow had fallen.

‘They will stop their song and jest,’ said the man from Brescia, ‘let the Duke once know —’ The entry of another, panting and torn, interrupted him.

‘Heaven save Milan!’ he gasped. ‘Verona has fallen.’

The shouts and clatter from the courtyard had penetrated faintly to the banqueting hall, and Visconti paused a moment, listening.

Valentine listened too, and thought of Conrad.

But the noises died away, and Visconti turned to the Duke of Orleans with a laugh.

‘My soldiers revel in your honour,’ he said, ‘and we will drink my sister’s health, my lord.’

Valentine’s breast heaved. Who was he, to dare to sacrifice her to his pride and greed? She would not suffer it. Was she not also a Visconti?

As in a dream she heard her health drunk; as in a dream she saw the Duke of Orleans’ foolish look turned toward her in vacant admiration; then suddenly, with a start, she noticed Giannotto’s crafty face. Valentine’s eyes blazed with sudden purpose. She looked down toward the entrance, and saw, between the curtains, white faces peering and figures half-thrust forward.

‘The Duke of Orleans!’ cried Visconti, and the guests again rose. Valentine rose also, with inspired eyes and crimsoned cheeks.

The Duke of Orleans!’ she cried, lifting her glass, and at the first words she had spoken they stood silent in an uneasy expectation. ‘Will the Duke of Orleans wait, Visconti, while I give a still nobler toast?’ Her voice rose triumphant. At her words, at the mad defiance of her bearing, Visconti stood amazed.

‘Here is to the one who has taken Brescia and Verona, even from thee, Visconti; here is to the brave soldier who now marches on Milan — Mastino della Scala!’

And she raised her glass high, and then turned and flung it at Visconti’s feet.

‘The news is true,’ she said, ‘and now kill me for it.’

And with a stifled cry Visconti’s hand was on his dagger, but Orleans flung himself upon him, and caught him by the wrists. Visconti glanced at him, and at the startled company, not grasping what had happened, and then the cry, begun no one knew where, went in a growing volume around the hall.

‘Verona has fallen!’

It circled around the table, it passed from lip to lip, from the white-faced, surging crowd to the brilliant guests, and the company broke into confusion, and looked into one another’s eyes with terror.

‘Verona has fallen!’

‘A lie!’ thundered Visconti. ‘A lie! My sister has gone mad. Who says the word again shall die!’

‘My lord,’ said Giannotto, ‘listen.’ And into the sudden hush within it came the wild hubbub of the panic-stricken city. ‘Verona is fallen! Della Scala marches fast on Milan!’

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