The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 17.

The Terrors of the Night

The storm had risen; the low whispering of the wind, the distant rumbles of the thunder, gathering unheeded, burst suddenly into a tempest.

Its very fury spoke it brief, yet many cowered and shrank before it, as if its termination must be the termination of the world. And to no one did it strike more fear than to the solitary prisoner in the castle of Brescia — Gian Visconti. In obedience to Carrara’s orders, he had been placed in a separate chamber, as far from the other prisoners as space allowed. His chamber was a circular, vault-like space, once serving as antechamber to a gloomy suite of rooms beyond, in which Barnabas Visconti had chosen to beguile the summer heat. The doors of this suite were locked; Gian Visconti himself had locked them, when he and his father last came there together. This vault-like room was high and and, in the blackness of the storm, pitch dark. Visconti sat underneath one of the windows, whither he had dragged the wooden stool, the sole furniture the place contained; his face was buried in his hands, and he writhed in horror.

The wind howled and tore at the locked doors, making them creak and groan; the thunder shook the building; and at every fresh convulsion Visconti shrieked aloud in unison.

The lightning, flashing blue through the crevices, seemed to play about that inner door, and he cowered from the sight, and bit at his fingers in a fierce endeavour to resist the madness seizing him.

It was not so very long ago that he had turned the great key behind him in that ponderous door, and ridden from the deed he had done, shouting through the midnight. He thought then never to return, and here he was, thrust in alone, and his madness on him. Visconti staggered from his seat, groping blindly.

The blackness seemed to whirl with faces and clutching, tearing fingers; he knew not where he was — he could see nothing — blackness and space — seemingly unbounded.

Another flash revealed to him that he had drawn near that inner door — in the instant it was visible; it seemed to open and shut — quickly.

Visconti fell back against the wall, and wrestled with his terrors as if they were some living thing, and again with savage teeth he bit into his flesh.

But the floor was opening beneath him, opening into gulfs deep and still deeper, bottomless.

‘I am mad!’ said Visconti, and shrieked and howled with the storm. It did not help him; he heard hurrying feet through all the alarm of the tempest, hurrying to him behind that locked door. Let him not look, for what he feared to see the dark could not conceal — and now they were at the door, and now they were fitting a key.

‘Keep away!’ he yelled.

Then he stood, hushed, with bated breath, eyes staring into the blackness, listening. And through the dark he heard the creaking and twisting of the key, the slow opening of a heavy door, the groaning of the hinges as it opened, slowly.

The wind howled in a wild gust, and suddenly through the narrow window there showed the black sky torn in two by the lightning flash. As it circled the chamber, Visconti raised his head — the door was open. And through the opening two faces peered — they were not human faces — Visconti knew them whence they were.

Utter blackness followed upon the vivid flash, and the thunder crashed and rolled, and at last the rain came with a mighty roar.

‘I am in hell!’ yelled Visconti. ‘I am dead, and in hell!’ And maniac shrieks rose. He dragged himself to the narrow slit that made the window, and some of the heavy rain-drops were dashed in upon his face.

‘I am alive!’ he cried, ‘alive! It does not rain in hell!’ He dropped, and lay prone along the ground. After a while he rose, and began groping for the outer door.

The walls seemed to rock and twist, but on his face and hand was the cold splash of the rain, and Visconti kept a hold upon his self-control, saying between his teeth: ‘A light; if I can get a light.’

He found the door, and struck upon it with the fury of madness.

There was no response: again he struck and shouted. The worst had gone by, but only to leave his thoughts centred on one idea: to see a human face and in the light.

Suddenly, in the midst of his blows, the door opened showing a glimmering light, and in the entrance the figure of a soldier, who looked fearfully around the chamber.

‘I thought it was the fiend himself who called!’ he said, and crossed himself.

Visconti clutched his arm. ‘It was the fiend,’ he said. ‘Legions of them — the place is haunted! Give me a light!’

The soldier shrank back in horror at his words, at his hardly human eyes.

‘Santa Maria!’ he muttered. ‘I have heard evil tales of this castle, the storm too is fearful —’

‘Give me a light,’ said Visconti; ‘give me a light!’

‘None of the prisoners have lights — it is forbidden —’ began the man, but Gian Maria cut him short.

‘A light, I say!’ and he put his blood-marked hand upon the other’s shoulder.

‘Thou heardst the fiend scream — and it was the fiend. Wilt thou give me a light?’

The frightened soldier shrank from him anew.

‘Thou art distraught,’ he cried with a paling face.

Visconti laughed wildly. ‘Do I not say so? Give me the lantern!’ and he held out his finger, on which there blazed a splendid ring.

Would any ordinary prisoner wear a ring like this? I tell thee it is a coal from hell, and I will give it thee — for thy lantern. See how it shines; try if it will burn thee to the bone,’ and he stripped it from his finger, dropping it on the pavement at the soldier’s feet.

‘Truly,’ gasped the soldier, looking at him, ‘thou art no ordinary man, and as for they gems — whether they be coals or no, thou shalt have the lantern.’

He stepped across the threshold as he spoke, a little fearfully, and placed the lantern in the niche cut to receive it in the wall.

‘Thou wilt be getting it down and firing thyself with it,’ he remarked. Tor thou art clean distraught, methinks.’

Visconti made no reply; he had noticed that both the inner doors were shut.

‘And as I must answer for thee,’ continued the soldier, ‘I will secure thee with this,’ and stepping back into the passage, he returned with a rope and advanced toward the prisoner.

The Duke rose with flashing eyes.

‘Remember thou art the devil, messer,’ said the soldier soothingly, ‘and naught can really hold thee’

Visconti felt for the dagger that no longer hung by his side, then showed the soldier his fingers, red and still bleeding.

‘The teeth that met there can meet in thine,’ he snarled, and his eyes were like a wolf’s.

The soldier stepped back, then with a sudden thought pointed to the light.

‘Stay unbound then, and I will take that away again,’ he said, and again advanced.

Visconti suffered his arms to be bound together at the elbows, nor did he seem to heed when the soldier left him, and the great door fell to once more in silence.

The storm had sobbed itself away, leaving only the steady patter of the rain. The chamber had light, and the sight of a human face had restored Visconti.

Once more he felt his hold on life and on reality, and he turned from that closed door with its superstitious horror to face real terror and a staggering mischance.

Milan! He had left Milan in an hour of need — and with no one to check Valentine. Only within the last few weeks had he known what she was capable of. What might she not attempt once she realized his absence? Giannotto too, and the Duke of Orleans! What of their sincerity? He had left not one man within the city whom he could trust implicitly.

Then he considered his own plight. Clearly they did not know him; none the less they had him. He ground his teeth at the thought of della Scala’s triumph.

His act of bribery occurred to him, and he remembered with a savage vexation how he had flung a jewel to his jailer for a light. A jewel that might have purchased freedom. Still, it was in his madness; he might be thankful he had not shouted his name — and his crimes. Suddenly, with a start of recollection, it occurred to him anew that he had been placed apart. Then Carrara had recognized him. The cords around Visconti’s arms began now to torture him: he was weak from lack of food and mad excitement. Thoughts of Carrara vanished. He saw the face of the girl on whose account he had risked his dukedom.

‘Graziosa!’ he cried, but the face looked at him unseeingly. ‘You know me!’ as if in appeal. ‘Graziosa, you know me!’ The face suddenly distorted, as if with horror. Visconti shrank from it — and she was gone.

‘What frightened her? Those other faces,’ Visconti whispered to himself, then roused himself with a harsh laugh. Will Carrara come?’ He fixed his eyes on the lamp, then on the door. And presently he heard the subdued bustle of arrival, the great door clang; the ringing answers of the soldiers; then outside his own door hushed and respectful voices — the door opened, shut, and Visconti saw his visitor.

A man, black-eyed, florid, richly dressed in velvet, well armed, unattended, and carrying the castle keys — Giacomo Carrara. He stood in amazement, and shrank back half-afraid, though the guard had warned him.

‘Visconti!’ he cried. ‘What has happened?’

The sickly light of the lantern showed him a white, haggard face, with wild, bloodshot eyes, the hair hanging lank and damp about its forehead, the plain doublet gashed and torn, hands and face smeared with blood.

But, at sight of the man he hoped to buy, Visconti’s face took on a more human look.

‘You have seen my messenger?’

‘Hush!’ and Giacomo looked around cautiously. ‘Yes, I have seen him, and dispatched my answer.’

‘My offer suits you?’ said Visconti grimly.

‘It suited me, Visconti, till just now,’ returned the other. ‘It suited me to such purpose that my men even now await my orders to desert to Milan.’

‘Ah!’ Visconti said. ‘And what of it now?’ he added, looking around again, the old subduing spirit in his glance.

‘What of it? It shall still be done, only,’ Carrara smiled, ‘there is an unforeseen addition to the bargain. Not only do you need my men, Visconti; I think, as well, you need your liberty.’

‘And so the price is higher. Is that what you would say? Unloose my arm. It shall not be forgotten in the bribe,’ he sneered.

Carrara advanced and undid the rope in silence. He knew Visconti was unarmed.

Visconti gasped with relief as the torture was removed.

‘And now,’ he said, taking at once the mastery, ‘how do matters stand between us? Be wary; be brief.’

Rapidly Giacomo told him how, with the desertion, half Mastino’s army would be gone; how Padua was to be given into the hands of Visconti’s generals, and how Count Conrad played at chess.

Visconti hated the smooth traitor who was waiting to drive a hard bargain with his necessity — and his freed hand went to his doublet: the turquoise gloves had not been lost.

‘And now, your terms?’ he said.

The Duke of Padua hesitated a moment — even with Visconti in his power he hesitated.

‘Those you refused two years ago,’ he said. ‘When we warred with Pavia.’

Visconti remembered. Two years ago, when he had been by half not so great as he stood now, he had refused them in scorn — they meant half his dominions — they would place Carrara on a level with himself.

‘Well?’ he said, ‘and if I refuse?’

‘A prisoner does not refuse — his liberty,’ smiled Giacomo. He could afford to smile.

Visconti controlled himself.

‘And if I accept — you take my word, all I have to give — a prisoner’s word?’

‘A Visconti’s word,’ corrected Carrara. Nay, lord, I think I shall need more than that.’

‘What more can I give?’ he asked. ‘You waste the time, Carrara.’

Giacomo was playing with the keys in his hand.

‘Yourself, Visconti,’ he returned calmly. The army only waits for me to march on Milan, leaving della Scala stripped of half his force. You will go with it, Visconti, as my prisoner. My army will conduct you into Milan — where I shall not leave you till the terms I offer are fulfilled. Then, Visconti, but not till then, we will together ruin della Scala.’

Visconti was silent.

‘Come,’ continued Carrara, ‘shall it be so — or will you wait and meet della Scala and Count Conrad?’

‘I accept your terms,’ said Gian, and rose to his feet. ‘I accept, Carrara.’

Giacomo’s eyes shone. With trembling fingers he unbuttoned his long black velvet cloak and flung it on Visconti’s shoulders.

‘We must hasten; even now the tipsy German may think to visit the castle.’ And he selected a key from the bunch in his hand, and advanced toward the inner door. Visconti started forward, with staring eyes.

Not that way!’ he cried.

Carrara turned in surprise, the key in the lock.

”Tis the only way, Visconti. Are you thinking we could pass unnoticed, you and I together?’

Gian, deathly white, sank back obstinately against the wall.

‘I will not go that way,’ he said. ‘I will not go that way.’

‘He is in his mad fit again,’ thought Giacomo; aloud he said soothingly: ‘Come, lord, this is the only way; will you rather wait to see Verona’s face when he discovers you? What is wrong with this way?’ he added in vexation as Visconti made no movement. ‘Quick! the moments fly!’

Gian stepped forward with an effort.

”Tis my fancy,’ he said. ‘Idle, truly, at such a moment. Open the door, Carrara.’

The key ground in the lock — as Visconti had heard it once before that night, turned on the other side.

Carrara paused, however, and having taken the lamp from the niche, put it down with a smile, and drew a parchment from his belt.

‘I had forgotten,’ he said. ‘I will leave this, else Verona will miss the point of the jest; we will tell him what a brave catch his lieutenant hath allowed to escape the snare.’ And with the end of his dagger he drove the paper into the crevice of the stone. ‘I never loved Verona,’ he added with an evil smile.

But Visconti had not heard, nor was he heeding him; his eyes were riveted upon the door.

Again Padua raised the lantern above his head.

The glimmering light fell faintly on a dark chamber, and dimly lit a large black couch from which the tapestry coverlet was half dragged off. Visconti peered an instant over his rescuer’s shoulder eagerly, then fell back.

‘I cannot,’ he said sullenly. ‘I will stay and face della Scala — I cannot pass that way.’

Carrara turned and looked at him keenly.

‘What do you know of these chambers, that you are afraid to pass them, Visconti?’ he asked.

”Tis no matter what I know — I will not pass them,’ cried Visconti, fiercely, and clutched at the rough wall as if to keep himself from being made to enter them even by force. Giacomo looked into the chamber curiously; the lantern showed only parts of it, and that dimly — an empty audience chamber, stiff chairs against the wall, the couch, dust on the floor and shadows in the arras — nothing more; and Carrara turned impatiently.

‘I risk my life for this,’ he said. What do you think it will mean, Visconti, if I am found helping you to escape?’ He stepped across the threshold, and flashed the lantern around.

‘Nothing!’ he laughed over his shoulder. ‘Nothing,’ but as he advanced he paused a moment, and lifted up a corner of the dragged coverlet, ‘save that this coverlet is riddled as if with dagger-thrusts,’ he added, ‘and the floor seems stained’— he sank his voice —‘with blood.’

He looked back at Visconti, standing in the doorway, and with a sudden fear of him his hand sought his sword.

Whom did you murder here, Visconti?’ he asked, awestruck. Whoever it was,’ he added presently, ‘I would not lose my life for fear of them, seeing they are dead.’

In a second Visconti was by his side, gripping his arm, and Carrara, startled, shrank, and kept his hand upon his dagger.

‘I do not fear them,’ whispered Visconti, in his ear. ‘Nor you.’ And he hurried across the chamber, Carrara at his heels. Room after room they traversed, deserted, gloomy, and unopened since that night.

‘Hurry!’ breathed Visconti. ‘Shall we never see the blessed sky again?’

And snatching the keys, he pushed on, taking every door and turning with a certainty that showed he knew them well. ‘At last!’ he cried, as they stepped out into the air.

They were at the back of the castle, on a ledge overhung with ivy, and overlooking a narrow flight of steps, the masonry half-ruined and overgrown with flowers.

The storm was over, a few great clouds tore across the sky, but the moon was clear and serene, the night calm and peaceful.

The cool air blew around Visconti’s damp hair, and stirred the dark ivy leaves, glistening with the rain. Beneath them lay the tents, a large body of men, half the army, silently and swiftly preparing for flight.

‘Some have gone already,’ said Giacomo. ‘These wait for me and you, Visconti: come,’ and stepping past him he led the way. There was no one to observe them save Giacomo’s men, that he had been careful to station there; but when they had gained the bottom, and Carrara would have passed on, Visconti caught at his sleeve and drew him behind a clump of elder.

‘The German!’ he whispered, and they waited, breathless.

A soft voice was gaily singing, and the words of the song came clearly through the night.

‘Heinrich was my bosom friend, White feather and purple cloak: Now that folly’s at an end, His the flame and mine the smoke!’

‘He comes this way,’ said Carrara. ‘If he takes to questioning where I am-’

‘If he takes to coming nearer,’ smiled Visconti, ‘I shall be obliged to — kill him.’

‘We parted for a silken knot, White feather and purple cloak: Whose fault it was I have forgot, His the flame and mine the smoke!’

The last words were lost in a burst of laughter, as Conrad and Vincenzo, each mounted on a white horse, and attended by an escort with torches, rode past, back to their tents.

So close they came, that Visconti, with gleaming eyes, leaned forward, longing to strangle the singer with one of those long curls that hung around his laughing, careless face.

But Carrara was relieved.

‘As long as he does not inquire for me,’ he said. ‘But even then my officers understand’

Visconti smiled grimly; he was to pay for that.

‘Now!’ he said, and as Conrad’s German song and Vincenzo’s wild laughter passed, Visconti and Giacomo stepped out from behind the bushes and looked after them, the freedom of one secured, the treachery of the other well-nigh accomplished.

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