The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 22.

The Secret Passage

Standing on the steps of the old castle, della Scala looked down on his diminished army; at least they were purged of traitors, he thought grimly; what remained were Veronese, and true.

At the news of Carrara’s treachery, d’Este had marched aside to Mantua, whither Vincenzo had been sent.

The sun was dazzling down, a glory of gold, sparkling on the still wet leaves, and the brilliant colours of the pennons and banners that floated above the tents.

Della Scala greeted Ligozzi and his son.

Tomaso would have spoken eagerly, but his father hushed him. ‘The news is most important, my lord,’ he said, ‘best tell it you in private.’ Then, unable to restrain himself, he added in a whisper: ‘Oh, the saints and angels be praised, I think we have Milan!’

Mastino della Scala, as he led the way back to the castle, trembled, almost with awe. It was a sign from heaven.

As they gained the chamber, and Ligozzi closed the door, Tomaso burst out into his tale, half-crazy with delight. ‘It seems you have success,’ said Mastino quietly.

But he seated himself at the extemporized table, and with his hand shaded his face; it was almost more than he could bear. ‘The passage leads into Milan,’ said Ligozzi breathlessly. ‘It is large enough to admit an army, and opens into the house of one who is our friend. That, my lord, is why we have been so long. The good fortune is miraculous, for we were brought out into the house of a man mad against Visconti, and thinking of nothing but revenge. He alone knows of this passage, and through it will admit your men.’

‘Ah!’ Mastino drew a deep breath and raised his eyes. ‘God hath heard me, Ligozzi.’

‘It was true,’ cried Ligozzi. ‘Oh, lord, he was indeed here. Only this morning he reentered Milan, Carrara’s army behind him; returned in time to stay his sister, who loathes her enforced marriage, and — and —’ he suddenly faltered in his recital as Tomaso laid his hand upon his shoulder.

Mastino looked at them keenly.

‘And what?’ he asked,

‘I was going to say, lord, that in his absence, Valentine Visconti, trying to escape, was recaptured by the Duke himself in this Agnolo’s house.’

‘Is it for that he hates Visconti?’ asked della Scala.

‘Nay, my lord, he hath other wrongs,’ and Ligozzi proceeded to relate the tale the little painter had poured into his ears that morning.

‘“Not for naught did I conceal that passage!” he cried to me. My lord, truly it was not for naught, seeing we shall thereby slay Visconti!

‘This man, Agnolo, he is to be trusted?’ said Mastino.

‘If ever a man was! He would see Milan in ashes, and Visconti were among them.’

‘And the girl?’

‘I did not see the girl, but methinks she has the same cause to hate Visconti.’

‘And that no one should know of this passage; it is strange,’ mused della Scala. ‘Thou art sure there is no trap, Ligozzi? Much disappointment makes me wary.’

‘I will stake my life there is no trap, my lord, and that this man, Agnolo Vistarnini, is dealing with the truth.’

‘Vistarnini,’ repeated Mastino. ‘Methinks I know the name — a painter, didst thou say?’

‘A painter, my lord; the house is near the western gate.’

‘The western gate! I remember. It was the day I found von Schulembourg. Truly I think we may trust the man that I remember,’ and Mastino faintly smiled. ‘There is no guile in him — nor in his daughter, poor lady. She was happy then!’

‘Visconti has left a guard of soldiers to protect the house; but not so many that they will not be easily disposed of. Vistarnini speaks them fair, they have no suspicion.’

Mastino rose and held out his hand. ‘So thou hast done it, my friend, thou and thy son. I owe thee much, Ligozzi. A poor man’s thanks are but a halting gift; some day, however, the Duke of Verona shall tell thee what his gratitude is worth, my friend. I thank God, Ligozzi, for one friend!’

In a thick wood near Milan, a man on a white horse was slowly picking his way through the dense undergrowth. The trees were close, and in their dark shadow the place was nigh as black as night.

Great tufts of flowers grew in the cool shadows. There were no signs of life, save the birds whirring through the leaves, the plants nodding in the breeze.

The rider dismounted, and tied his horse to the low bough of a large beech, flinging himself on the space of cleared ground beneath with a sigh. He wore a dress of peacock-coloured velvet, tumbled and torn, and, save for a richly jewelled dagger, more for ornament than use, was unarmed; but in the fight from which Count Conrad had just emerged, though a fight with two, weapons had not been needed; persuasion had done the work, and he had come out victorious.

In a bundle on his saddle hung his spoils, and as he discontentedly sucked the scratches on his wrist, he looked at them with interest and triumph.

Presently he fell to fingering his hair, then, sitting suddenly upright, drew his dagger with fine resolution. He seized the first of his long curls and severed it.

Grimly, not giving himself time to pause, he proceeded to the next, and one by one hacked them from his head, his beautiful blond, perfumed curls.

Conrad sighed as he saw them lying on the grass, and felt his shorn head. He longed for a mirror in which to see the extent of his disfigurement, but there was not even a pool near.

Disconsolately he arose, and detaching the bundle from the saddle, he laid it upon the ground and opened it.

It contained a monk’s robe, a rosary, a book, a wallet, and a girdle.

Conrad opened the wallet, and found food therein, and he was growing hungry; but when he came to consider it, he sickened at its coarseness.

Scraps of fat, sour, hard cakes, mostly cooked in stale wine — the refuse of farmhouses.

‘Have I parleyed with and robbed a begging friar?’ cried the Count in high disgust, and flung the wallet far into the bushes. ‘Food for hogs!’

Then with many sighs he removed the peacock-coloured doublet and hose, and donned the monk’s garb, drawing the hood over his shorn head, tying the girdle around his waist.

The robe was rather short, and Conrad noticed with dismay that his laced white shoes showed beneath.

‘Saint Dominick, curse him, but I forgot to take his sandals!’ he cried in a passion.

But passion did not avail him; he must go barefoot.

‘Bleeding feet will complete the disguise,’ he thought bitterly, and flung off his shoes and stockings.

The robe was rather dirty; Count Conrad’s fastidious nostrils fancied it smelled of the roadside, ‘where the old wretch has often slept, I warrant’, he said, then crossed himself in contrition at the sacrilege.

Next he hung the rosary and crucifix about his neck — it was hatefully heavy — and the wallet about his shoulder. The strap galled him, and the wretched Count moaned at his fate.

He was bound to admit he had brought it on himself; he would carry it through; and with a truly heroic air he, strapped the velvet doublet on the horse, and taking the bridle, made his way back toward the road.

On reaching it he flung the reins over the steed’s back, and turned him adrift toward Brescia; then, with resolution in his heart and tears in his eyes, Count Conrad von Schulembourg, with feet bare on the stony road, made painful progress toward Milan.

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